The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails

album cover

An Audio Song Cycle from the Dark Side

So this is what it's like inside a blast furnace. Or, perhaps, the cauldron of one's deepest fears. It's impossible to turn away from the terror. A voice from the dark side of hell taunts you, preying on every insecurity, mocking your needs.

Trent Reznor, the auteur behind Nine Inch Nails, has created this "environment" because he wants you to know how such a predicament, possibly his predicament, feels. During the harrowing opening moments of "March of the Pigs," he throws you in headfirst. The overdriven, serrated-edge guitars and equally distorted vocal shouts bring you to a place where the order of things means nothing, where "God is dead and no one cares," where your most cherished ideals melt in the heat. You can't escape the whomp of these highly tactile sounds, and when, at the end of each verse, things get blissfully quiet so that Reznor can ask the musical question, "Doesn't it make you feel better?," the momentary tenderness brings no relief. Because off in the distance there's the ominous sense that the big machines are cranking up again. More punishment awaits.

The Downward Spiral is an amazing bit of rock and roll psychodrama, a series of tense and often troubling scenes pumped up to Pink Floyd–esque grandeur. The songs connect the cudgel-like bluntness of industrial rock (such as Ministry, see p. 505) to more ornate—and sometimes surprisingly beautiful—orchestrations. Its narratives follow disturbed characters as they attempt to extract themselves from the grip of various psychosis; when, on "I Do Not Want This," a sociopath expresses the desire to "do something that matters," he could be referring to anything from rape to a random act of heroism.

The distinguishing characteristic of many of these songs is dissonance. But it's never exclusively noise: Reznor is fluent in King Crimson, knows death metal and the more philosophical metal of the late '80s, can do a wicked power-ballad guitar solo when necessary (see "Ruiner"), and, surprisingly, has a healthy admiration for the droning synths of '80s mope-rock. When swirled together, these elements become a towering sound that pushes to extremes in the belief that pain serves a cathartic purpose. As he sings on the disarming "Hurt" (which was covered with astonishing clarity by Johnny Cash years later), "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel."

Genre: Rock
Released: 1994, Nothing/Interscope
Key Tracks: "March of the Pigs," "Ruiner," "Hurt," "Closer."
Catalog Choice: Pretty Hate Machine.
Next Stop: Ministry: The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste
After That: Johnny Cash: American IV
Book Page: 552

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