"I am the voice inside your head," Trent Reznor crooned after a violent sample from the movie THX 1138, "and I control you." Indelible words imprinted on a 12-year-old brain, and that was only the first 30 seconds of the album that changed my perception of the world forever.
The Downward Spiral — or "Halo 8," as it’s known to NIN serialogists — is an unapologetically conceptual album. Listening to it from beginning to end squeezed my hormonal brain right through the spiral, which was presumably a projection of Reznor’s vice-ridden lifestyle, distilled and packaged for general consumption under bleak abstractions by the artist Russell Mills. It alluded to an uncomfortable world none of my friends or family understood. Tracks unfold into a cinematic tour of that rusted-out landscape with a brilliantly psychopathic narrator who’s constantly at war with the forces inside his soul. After the ultra-violent "Mr. Self Destruct" comes the introspective sleaze of "Piggy," where we’re introduced to the motives of these internal / external porcine demons. "God is dead," our tour guide screams between the industrial march-beats of jackboots on the ground, "and no one cares! If there is a hell, I’ll see you there" — before you have time to wonder if you should snap his neck and run back to safety, "March of the Pigs" assaults the senses and forcibly crowns itself emperor of both ends of the emotional spectrum.
Now doesn’t it make you feel better?
The pigs have won tonight.
Now they can all sleep soundly,
and everything is all
1994 was already a formative year for me: Aerosmith, Bjork, and the Beastie Boys were busy creating the golden age of music videos, but as a tween MTV enthusiast nothing shocked me quite so drastically as "March of the Pigs."
Four leather-clad freaks thrashing around a white room, a single handheld camera capturing the rage in one filthy shot. It was a far cry from the big-ticket productions of the moment: minimal, super-angry, and electronically weird. It wears the archetypal crown of shit of NIN’s LOUD / quiet / LOUD oeuvre: It’s a sonic-emotional cadence precisely engineered to irritate and confuse. My parents hated it, but more importantly it sounded amazing. After The Downward Spiral, and excluding Reznor’s awkward output around his transition to sobriety, every single one of his productions has stood the unforgiving test of time. His most important skill has always been to push technology as far as possible — sometimes past the breaking point — while always keeping the presence of mind to rein it in before it feels robotic. This sixth sense elevates most NIN output to a rarified artistic atmosphere that renders it timeless: think Orwell and Kubrick, not Vonnegut and Kraftwerk.
Every single one of Reznor's productions has stood the unforgiving test of time
It was a sonic leap forward for the band, but also one that rippled across all other genres, pushing production levels way up across the major-label board. Previous Halos had seen NIN through an awkward childhood stardom where technology hadn’t quite caught up with Reznor’s lofty sonic ideals. Pretty Hate Machine sounds like an angry white kid broke into Run DMC’s studio for a few hours; Broken was a conceptual glimpse of a Throbbing Gristle-flushed present. The Downward Spiral played on the most poignant aspects of the record industry, nascent digital production, and a rapidly evolving notion of pop music like a prepared-piano symphony. No story exposes the synthesizing genius of that symphony’s conductor better than the biggest artistic triumph of Reznor's career, "Closer."
Even without the perverse bestiality of the chorus, the fifth track on The Downward Spiral is one of those earworms that you can’t un-hear once you’ve heard it. Naked drum machines and slimy synthesizers weave with the desperate abstractions of a psychosexual explorer incapable of masking his emotions, but exquisitely capable of rendering them perfectly into a composition that cuts to a place that exists in all of us. At 90 beats per minute it’s something far more insidious than a dancefloor lubricant; it’s an expositional virus that cuts neatly to the core of raw emotions so many have felt but so few have had the capacity to accurately render without actually committing a real felony. What else would explain its huge popular appeal than a deep emotional connection to the listener? The video is hardly the stuff of prime-time, and definitively not the stuff of the Tim Allen- and Jerry Seinfeld-dominated prime time of the mid-’90s.
A dark network of emotional connection is built up in the rest of the descent through Spiral: poignant portraits of regret, anger, aggression, and escape that all lead up to "Hurt." The delicate devotional that ends the journey wrenches torturously from minor to major keys and ends in an explosion of self-loathing that asks more questions than it answers, so that when the tour is over the listener has but two choices: sit and think about the thing you’ve just done, or start the whole trip over again.
As engrossing as it was, the contents of the disc was only a fraction of the story that unfolded around The Downward Spiral. Reznor used its commercial fallout to launch a much deeper assault on American senses: His Nothing Records imprint, a subsidiary of Interscope, developed into a platform to introduce far stranger worlds to the mainstream. Further Down the Spiral, a full-length album of remixes, contained an ambient original production called "At the Heart Of It All," which seemed 100 percent out of place on the disc. "Created by Aphex Twin," read the liner notes, an ambiguous WTF of a statement that seemed engineered to pique teenage interest in this artist. It led me to I Care Because You Do, an album that forever changed my notion of what music should be. Nothing served as the American distribution wing of Warp Records; although this wasn’t his most popular manipulation of mass media, the introduction of Warp’s incredible sonic-emotional palette changed American music in a way I don’t think most people appreciate.
'The Downward Spiral' ripped my developing 12-year-old brain out of childhood
Thom Yorke was an early popular evangelist of Aphex Twin and the Warp catalogue; his words would have fallen on deaf American ears if Reznor hadn’t brought those discs across the pond years before Radiohead became the force it did. European techno-pop was rearing its head in America via one-hit wonders like Aqua and Ace Of Base, but Nothing’s channels let the experimental (or "intelligent") side of electronica seep into our soil from below. That underground current was the primary catalyst for the rift in dance music that has enabled the success of producers like Deadmau5 and Skrillex whose aural universes spring from a different source than the ecstasy-fueled raves of post-industrial England.
Although his methods have matured over the years, Trent Reznor has always been in the business of shocking people. The Downward Spiral forcibly ripped my developing 12-year-old brain out of childhood and into the dark teenage territory of extreme emotions and electronic music. Five years after I saw the "Wave Goodbye" tour in the fittingly industrial NYC venue Terminal Five, NIN has returned (to Soundcloud, at least) with "Came Back Haunted," a pleasant appetizer to the next chapter of a long and always innovative existence. Russell Mills is also back from the void to illustrate the forthcoming album Hesitation Marks, displacing longtime visualist Rob Sheridan. I like to think I’ve grown a lot spiritually since 1994. But the digital deployment of this new and darkly burning Halo instantly plunged me almost 20 years into the past, to an unknown present and a future as confusing as it is exciting.
From one Trent to another I just gotta say: Thank you for always lighting the path to my darkness.