Even after a string of disappointing records, Nine Inch Nails are still one of the most impressive and engrossing live bands around. Since they weren’t playing in Austin, aside from an "Austin City Limits" taping, I had to trek out to San Antonio to see them. As a big fan of Trent Reznor’s bleak songs from when I was an angsty middle school kid, this was a dream come true.
The night began with a set by the always-great Austin natives Explosions In The Sky, whose cinematic instrumental pieces were perfect for setting the tone. This week marked the 10th anniversary of the band's seminal album The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, and it was a treat to get to hear those songs sounding as resonant as they did back then.
From there, the crowd filled in as we waited about 40 minutes for Nine Inch Nails to appear. While there were an unusually high number of people wearing Tool band shirts, there thankfully were not a lot of actual tools in the crowd, which surprised me given the sometimes hyper-masculine attitude often associated with Nine Inch Nails fans.
The band took the stage around 9 p.m. and immediately showed off its prowess with a true spectacle. Two see-through screens in front of and behind the band were used for a light show that rivaled Radiohead’s in terms of innovation and wonder. The band sounded excellent as it opened with its single “Copy of A” from its latest album Hesitation Marks. To appease older fans, Nine Inch Nails went straight into “Sanctified,” “Terrible Lie” and “March of the Pigs." It was incredible.
Nine Inch Nails played a lot of new material, often with the assistance of intricate designs that would cause seizures for anyone who might be epileptic — there was actually a warning about seizures playing over the loudspeaker as everyone entered the arena. The band also managed to mix in plenty of great songs from its earlier work, including favorites like “Piggy” and “Slipping Away.” Just when the members were losing momentum after an hour and 10 minutes of performing, they picked it back up with the ultra-heavy “Survivalism” before leading into a four-song run of hits that culminated with crowd favorites “The Hand That Feeds” and “Head Like a Hole.” On the latter, the whole crowd was shouting along as Reznor gave everybody exactly what they wanted.
For an encore, the band played a mix of older and newer songs that were a bit on the softer side, including 2005’s “All The Love In The World,” the closest thing you’ll find to a hopeful song from the goth group. After signing off and thanking everyone, Reznor led the band for an emotional take on its legendary hit “Hurt,” the classic that was famously covered by the late Johnny Cash. As the band played with a projection of people and animals dying on the screen behind them, it led the crowd in a somber sing-along of one of the most emotionally damaging songs of the ’90s, in an awe-inspiring moment.
There’s a reason why Nine Inch Nails still pack arenas and headline festivals. They are great performers. The older material still sounded as aggressive as ever, and proved that it was a good thing that Reznor decided to resurrect Nine Inch Nails and go back out on tour.