Two decades ago, Trent Reznor sang of being a 26-year-old on his way to hell, and he sounded as if he was taking the commuter lane, the express route, self-immolating with an anger as fiery hot as the flames of his stated destination.
Now, at 48, the Nine Inch Nails frontman continues to give voice to the sentiment, in the song “Wish,” a guitar fusillade that the band detonated at The Joint at the Hard Rock on Friday, where it assailed ear canals like the crack of small arms fire in a phone booth.
“Wish” still sounded the same, like a power surge exploding all the keyboards and amplifiers on stage, but Reznor’s words represented something different: endurance in place of fatalism, resolve co-opting rage.
Reznor did, in fact, make it to hell, albeit one of his own creation, catalyzed by addiction, self-doubt and creative stasis.
But he survived, got married, had kids, did a crapload of push-ups — judging by his action-hero physique — and now he’s back on tour with Nine Inch Nails for the first time in four years, drawing fresh blood from old scabs.
On Nine Inch Nails’ latest record, “Hesitation Marks,” whose songs comprised a third of the band’s 25-song performance, there’s still enough frustration and uncertainty to power a group therapy session for days at a time.
During a show-opening “Copy of A,” Reznor questioned how much of his identity was truly his as keyboards went from a purr to a roar, a thick fog of dry ice obscuring his features as if to visually represent the lack of self-definition that he was singing of.
On “Disappointed,” he jeered at some foolhardy type “with the whole world to change” as a murky beat accelerated from an amble to a sprint, while paranoia turned to fear during the serrated funk of “All Time Low,” where a pair of backing singers, Sharlotte Gibson and Lisa Fischer, joined the band to help smooth out the song’s rough edges.
But there was another, over-riding sentiment palpable in the band’s newer material, one of acceptance, of disavowing the need to control things beyond one’s control.
“I’ve gotta let go,” Reznor sang during “Various Methods of Escape,” a notion also voiced on “While I’m Still Here.”
“A little more / Every day / Falls apart and / Slips away,” Reznor sang in a near-whisper. “I don’t mind / I’m okay / Nothing ever / Stays the same.”
Well, almost nothing.
What has made Nine Inch Nails such a combustible live act for nearly 25 years now remains intact: Reznor’s ability to surround himself with powerhouse players who perform his songs as if they were committing acts of violence. This time around the cast included guitarists Justin Eustis and long-time Reznor foil Robin Finck, bassist Pino Palladino, whose credits range from The Who to the John Mayer Trio, keyboardist Alessandro Cortini and drummer Ilan Rubin, a curly-haired cannonball.
Together, they savaged some of Nine Inch Nails’ most savage tunes, engulfed in a light show so dazzling, it left audience members seeing spots, as if they had been staring at the sun for too long.
They concussed “Head Like a Hole” and “The Hand That Feeds,” turned “The Wretched” from piano dirge to mushroom cloud by song’s end and even had Gibson and Fischer, the latter 54 years old, headbanging during “Survivalism.”
On a number of these songs, Reznor sang of feeling detached, dislocated, unmoored from himself.
But performing them, his physical bearing indicated the opposite: clapping his arms over his head, biceps flexed, pistoning his hips at the crowd, he was fully present in the moment, committed to it.
Earlier in his career, Reznor used to smash keyboards and destroy gear at seemingly every show. It was as if he worked himself into such a fever pitch, that the only way he could relieve himself of all that animalistic fury was by breaking something.
But, like punching a wall, it accomplished little more than sore knuckles.
And so Reznor’s learned to direct all that energy at his songs themselves, a much more worthy target, for they’re far more durably constructed than any synthesizer.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at email@example.com or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.