The Peterson Events Center is familiar to me; hundreds of lunches and gym sessions have been had there since I arrived at the University of Pittsburgh, though tonight it feels very different. I get in line with the black-attired masses there to see Nine Inch Nails tonight. There are girls in black skirts, black leggings, black jeans, and boys in black leather jackets, black trench coats, black vests, blue jeans all around. Green military caps, pink mohawks, raver goggles, lip piercings, finger-less leather gloves. I’m wearing a Pretty Hate Machine T-shirt I purchased in High School from a Hot Topic, and a pair of white cargo shorts. I’ve never looked the part of a Nine Inch Nails fan I suppose, but I don’t feel like I have to. Nobody here can judge another; if you’re here to see Nine Inch Nails, you ‘get it’ even if you don’t look like it.
I get settled on the floor, centered with the stage and as close as I can get without squirming my way closer. The opening band comes on stage with incredible punctuality, about 7:30 sharp just like the ticket says. “It’s kind of hard to explain who we are… we’re Explosions in the Sky, we’re a band from Texas.” They start off well enough, loud and pretty. I put in my ear plugs to deafen some of the noise, choosing to preserve the quality of my hearing for the main attraction. Explosions in the Sky is an instrumental band, consisting of three guitarists, a bassists, and a drummer. Their music was beautiful, songs were gapless, band members seemed deeply concentrated, and audience members were less then enthused. I understood that Explosions wasn’t a bad band by any means, but I felt the boredom and frustration that some Nine Inch Nails fans voiced. “Sing some words!” One shouted.
Explosions in the Sky disappear, and a big black curtain is raised in front of the stage. The music played during the intermission between bands is creepy, most notably John Carpenter’s Halloween Theme. I wondered for a moment if bands had control over what songs were played during their intermission, as I wouldn’t put it past Trent Reznor to choose unsettling music in order to reinforce the tour’s “Tension 2013” name.
The big black curtain falls, revealing deceivingly simple series of 3×3 grids. They dangle not far overhead of the band members as they make their way onstage, and shine a bright white light down upon them. The opening song, “Copy of a” pulses moodily at first, building momentum and energy. The 3×3 light grids show off their capabilities, tilting the light focused on the band into the audience. The individual squares of the grids can rotate independently, and the illusion of a dome is created when the series coordinate elevation, tilt, and rotation. This is already a far more complex light show than I’ve previously seen Nine Inch Nails use on their NIN/JA and Wave Goodbye Tours, and the best has yet to come.
After I belt out the final words to “Terrible Lie,” the third song of the set, I can feel my voice already going. I was expecting a bit more kinetic energy in the crowd though, three songs in and I have yet to be pushed, shoved or… oh wait… those drums… “March of the Pigs” was coming, and I braced myself. Pushed body to body, we held on to one another, in the space between mosh pits, and in the direction of the crowd rush. I used to hate this type of energy, but now I wouldn’t want to experience some concerts without it.
“Piggy” gave me some time to catch my breath, and was followed by “All Time Low,” one of my favorites from Nine Inch Nails’ new album, Hesitation Marks (2013). During “All Time Low,” they pulled out the big guns, visually. Curtains made of thousands of LEDs descended from above, shrouding the band in images of Aurora Borealis as Trent Reznor was joined by two chorus signers in a beautifully delivered chorus. “Stretch across the sky…” took on a new meaning as the rainbow colors of northern lights literally stretched across the stage. While the LED curtains displayed pretty imagery during “All Time Low” they showed their true ability during another song from Hesitation Marks, “Disappointments.” The club-like drum machine of the track was complimented by green bars that pulsed across the screens (screens, plural). One LED curtain hanged in front of the band, one behind it, and another in between the two. The resulting effect was an incredible 3D light show, thematically in tune with the track. “Disappointed, disappear” Trent sings, as all LED curtains go bright at once, hiding the band from sight. The green pulsating bars return after each “disappear” noisier and distorted, eventually forming the shape of a rectangular prism that rotated around the band. It’s hard to describe, but this LED curtain was visually compelling stuff.
At some point during “Satellite,” another track from Hesitation Marks that I absolutely love, two men breakdance in a pit that looks cleared for moshing. The song has a deep pumping bass, with very a very moving drum track, so this break dancing isn’t entirely without rhythmic merit – though at odds with the privacy paranoia themes of the song. One girl appropriately exclaims “I can’t believe I just saw that happen at a Nine Inch Nails concert!”
After the very soothing “A Warm Place,” Nine Inch Nails went full throttle with the last four tracks in the setlist proper. “Somewhat Damaged,” one of the few songs I’m familiar with from the band’s 1999 release, The Fragile, started this last burst of energy on the right foot. “Broken, bruised, forgotten, sore, Too fucked up to care anymore!” I went red screaming to this chorus. It was the first song I heard on their Wave Goodbye tour, and I had loved the song since. “Wish” renewed the type of moshing, crowd rushing energy last seen during “March of the Pigs,” and you better believe everybody shouted “Fist fuck!” right on time.
“The Hand That Feeds” and “Head Like a Hole” went back to back, the pair of god-damning songs reminded me exactly why I belonged there. “God Money let’s go dancing on the backs of the bruised.” Nine Inch Nails is the ultimate venue to vent all of these pent up feelings about faith, a therapeutic “fuck you, God” that we can all use once in a while.
The band disappears, and the LED curtains display a giant “NIN” logo. A few people start to leave, and I wonder if they’ve ever been to a concert before… “There’s going to be an encore!” I want to say. Sure enough, the band comes back and plays a song that, I personally don’t know, but drives some people absolutely insane. This song turned out to be “The Day the World Went Away,” a song not been played on this tour yet, and apparently a fairly rare song to hear live. I was more excited for “While I’m Still Here” and “Black Noise,” the final songs of Hesitation Marks. I’m sure there were some old-school fans upset to hear so much new material, but I was incredibly into it. “While I’m Still Here” is my favorite song on the album; slow, groovy, and diverse. The floating slides of a telecaster, the noise of broken electronics, pulsing beats, rumbling basses, and my favorite of all, a tenor sax; all the elements from the album track translated perfectly to the stage.
“Hurt” closes the show with haunting imagery, and acoustic instruments (a rarity in my experience with Nine Inch Nails concerts). When “Hurt” came to an end, and the house lights came on, I was incredibly, utterly fulfilled, overflowing with happiness, in awe. I wandered home, probably grinning like an idiot, and my legs were sore. Each of them cramped that night around 2-3AM.
Nine Inch Nails is a great band. I can listen to most of their albums without having to get in the mindset for it, they’ve got something that’s appropriate for however I’m feeling, and if I’m not feeling anything, they’ll give me something to feel. When this diverse, spanning emotional range is condensed into the better part of a two-hour concert, it’s very cathartic. And that’s what makes Nine Inch Nails an even better live band.