The Downward Spiral

Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails, Live at the Sleep Country Amphitheater

There are few things that would convince our crew to venture into the depths of southern Washington, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that a concert co-headlined by two of the greatest bands of the 90’s would qualify in that select list.  Yes, after months of talking about this unlikely partnership (check out everything we’ve written mentioning the tour by clicking on either of the band’s tags above), we here at Rust Is Just Right were finally able to witness the collaboration in person.  Both groups had wowed us with memorable shows in 2013, but the question remained whether either band could impress us once again in 2014.

This is the best photograph I have to commemorate the show.

This is the best photograph I have to commemorate the show.

Based purely on the logistics of the different stage setups, it made sense for Soundgarden to come on first.  However, once the introductory rumblings of Badmotorfinger‘s “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”  began to snake its way throughout the amphitheater, it was clear that the band had no interest in treating their slot as if they were merely an opening act, and thankfully, the audience reciprocated by standing up and raucously cheering.  This isn’t always the case–years ago, when Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails toured together, I remember that the audience at the Rose Garden collectively decided to keep sitting through the entirety of QOTSA’s set, even though the band had clearly established itself post-Songs of the Deaf as one of the top bands in rock.  It can be a frustrating experience trying to rock out while staying firmly planted in your seat.

Soundgarden was impeccably tight and in fine form, as the reunion has shown that they still have the capability to line up their incredibly complex musical parts with astonishing ease, while extensively touring once again has improved their ear for balancing the sound mix in an arena setting.   To the crowd’s delight, the band focused on mainly their classic early material, with several cuts from both Superunknown and Badmotorfinger representing the majority of the set.  Hearing deeper cuts like the one-two punch of “My Wave” and “Let Me Drown” made my night, but the crowd’s biggest response was actually for Down on the Upside‘s “Burden In My Hand” (a fine choice if you ask me).  It’s a pleasure to see guitar-god Kim Thayil playing once again, and he effortlessly pulled off astonishingly sophisticated leads without breaking a sweat, and it was a blast to watch Ben Shepherd attack his bass in his own bizarre and unique way.  Matt Chamberlain proved to be a fully capable replacement for the legendary Matt Cameron behind the kit, creating another interesting link between the history of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.  It takes real talent to line up the intricate drum part of “Rusty Cage” with the weaving guitar and basslines, but Chamberlain was able to pull it off. The biggest wild card at a Soundgarden show is usually Chris Cornell’s voice, and for the majority of the show it was on point.  It takes some adjustment on the part of the audience to realize that it’s impossible to pull of the multi-tracking vocals of the albums, but once that’s accepted, you can just marvel at the ability of Cornell to maintain that ridiculous range at his age.  Personally, I would think that it’d be easier if he settled on a lower register as he ages, but he’s still able to hit all those big screams and high notes.

Soundgarden begins rumbling...

Soundgarden begins rumbling…

Amazingly enough, we had yet another headliner to see.  With last year’s Tension tour, Nine Inch Nails provided some of the most amazing visuals ever developed for a rock show, setting the bar extremely high for this show.  The theme this time seemed to emphasize the minimalist element of Hesitation Marks and bring it to the live show.  The show began with Trent singing “Copy of A”  on a bare stage, with different musicians gradually joining with small keyboards and electronic percussion.   Eventually both the light show and the musical setup became more complex, building layers on layers throughout the set. For this tour, Trent stuck with a roster of only three other musicians to play the multitude of parts that make up a Nine Inch Nails song, switching out instruments with each track in a remarkable display of versatility.

Since the impetus of this tour was mainly nostalgia-based, commemorating the twentieth anniversary of The Downward Spiral, and that album along with Pretty Hate Machine made up most of the set.  Trent still mixed in a fair amount of material from the latest album, but unfortunately for us, not a single track from The Fragile despite our specific plea from last week; at least we did get “Gave Up” as a consolation.  But the goal wasn’t to just provide a rehash of the hits–time and time again, the band reworked old favorites with inspired new arrangements (though I wish that at some point Trent would leave the outro to “Closer” alone, because I believe that it’s fairly close to sheer instrumental perfection).

You can see why I went with a photo of the ticket as the lead

You can see why I went with a photo of the ticket as the lead

With the extensive production that Trent and company brings for each tour, it’s difficult to recap all the specific details of the elaborate visual components of the show. One particularly memorable song was “Reptile”, whose lights used a solely green motif, and when mixed with the mechanical sound effects of the songs recalled the kind of scene you would expect if you found yourself about to enter an arena to face off against the Mortal Kombat character. Another highlight was “The Great Destroyer”, which synced up to distorted, fuzzed-out images of violence, war, and various politicians to great effect (while also subtly integrating various configurations of red, white, and blue lights). It also set itself apart in that the song was one of the few times where the light show ventured beyond the abstract images and lights and into actual graphic images.

As impressive as the visuals were (and it’s hard to overstate just how groundbreaking each Nine Inch Nails tour is in this regard), they never overshadowed the musical performance.  I can say this even though I was disappointed to miss out on more than a few personal favorites (though considering the band’s extensive catalog, that’s to be expected). Trent was a constant display of barely pent-up rage and viciously attacked the microphone with each song, as if he was grappling with an unseen enemy when delivering his vocals.  The other musicians  effortlessly switched between samplers and instruments, showing their full capability of handling both the analog and the digital as well as matching the intensity of their ringleader.

As expected, exiting the amphitheater was a nightmare on all levels, and we enjoyed another early-90’s classic, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in nearly its entirety before even reaching the interstate.  At least I-5 south was a breeze after that–here’s to small miracles.

A Quick Letter to Trent Reznor

Tomorrow night, we here at Rust Is Just Right are heading up to the wastelands of southern Washington, which means our readers will soon see an end to the mentions of a tour we’ve been talking about since the beginning of this site.  That’s right, the mega-tour of 90’s powerhouse co-headliners Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails is making its way to the Portland area (without the initially-invited Death Grips, however).  Though we saw both of these acts on their own respective tours last year, we were suitably impressed with their comeback performances that it was a no-brainer to shell out the big bucks to see these guys once again, if only for the possibility of a few changes to the setlist.  To that end, we would like to formally request for Trent Reznor to dig deep and play some cuts from The Fragile at tomorrow’s show.

Nine Inch Nails became superstars with the critical and commercial success of 1994’s The Downward Spiral (the album whose twentieth anniversary is nominally the impetus for this tour), but it wasn’t until they released its follow-up The Fragile in 1999 that I climbed aboard the bandwagon.  I was too young to appreciate TDS when it came out–it was simply too dark and scary for a kid who was still in elementary school, and I remember just seeing glimpses of the “Closer” video gave me nightmares (it didn’t occur to me that there was an actual song behind the video that could be played on the radio until years later).  I had none of these issues when The Fragile came out, and even though it’s a behemoth of a double album, I enjoyed devouring and analyzing the music for hours on end.

The reputation of The Fragile has suffered a bit over the years due to comparisons to the ridiculous sales numbers of The Downward Spiral, and this analysis has cast a shadow onto the album’s artistic merits as a result, with many now concluding that it doesn’t measure up as a worthy successor.  I would argue that as great as TDS is, it is with The Fragile that Trent Reznor truly proved his genius and bona fides as a composer.  The album plays as an industrial rock symphony, with melodic ideas and figures that pop up in different variations throughout, giving a musical coherence to the work.  Individual instruments are recorded with precision, providing ample space when required but also allowed to bleed together to create new gorgeous tones like a shoegaze record.  Reznor also balances between natural and artificial tones with expert mixing both live and processed instrumentation.  It is obvious to the listener that every second was planned and recorded with care, and the result is an album that even at its most brutal and devastating sounds absolutely gorgeous.

It looks that the band is playing a few of the usual suspects from this album on this tour, but I hope that Trent flips the script a bit and pulls off a couple of surprises.  The crowd, which is full of diehards like me that grew up with The Fragile and listen to it on a regular basis, would go nuts if the band whipped out the epic instrumental “Just Like You Imagined” and lose their shit if they got to hear “Into the Void” once again.  But I’ll be honest, the one song that I desperately want to hear is the one embedded above, the song that convinced me of the brilliance of Nine Inch Nails, “We’re In This Together”.  I love the relentless drumbeat that drives the song, utilizing a trickier pattern than appears at first listen, I love the ever-evolving vocal melodies that emphasize and build on the emotions of the lyrics, but most of all, I love the fucking guitar in this song, especially one of the greatest noise-freakout solos I’ve ever heard.  I realize the difficulty of putting all the elements of this song together live (which is why it’s only been done a handful of times), but I’m telling you, the fans would go crazy if it actually happened, and we will forgive any and all mistakes just for the gesture.

But don’t substitute “Gave Up”.  That one is great.

And if the guys in Soundgarden are taking requests, please play “Tighter & Tighter”.  It’s not necessary that you have Mike McCready come help you out, but we definitely would love it if he decided to help out on this one.