Recently, Trent Reznor declared his dislike for playing what he calls “the Chili Peppers slot” at festivals – aka headlining the Sunday night. “I know what I’m doing at that point in a festival,” he told the Village Voice. “I’m thinking, ‘If I leave now I can miss traffic.'”
Tonight (July 31), Nine Inch Nails have been placed in Reznor’s dreaded spot, closing out Panorama for the weekend. Some people do head for the gates as soon as A Tribe Called Quest, the last act before them on the main stage, finish their energetic performance, but, mostly, the crowd stays put. And as soon as Reznor and his band are in front of you, it’s difficult to drag yourself away.
They open with ‘Branches/Bones’, a one-minute-45 burst of intense, buzzsaw walls of sound. Reznor, dressed all in black and complete with shades, and leather gloves, looks menacing as he adopts his typical lunging stance at the microphone and yells into it: “Feels like I’ve been here before.” It’s immediately gripping and blasts any thoughts of an early exit right out of existence.
It’s been three years since Nine Inch Nails last performed live (save for headlining LA’s FYF Fest and an intimate warm-up show last week), and they’ve a small glut of new material to add into their set since last time they played New York. Tracks from last year’s ‘Not The Actual Events’ EP (including tonight’s opener) and the fresh follow-up ‘Add Violence‘ weave into the setlist with ease, already barely indistinguishable from the run of classics around them.
‘Less Than”s needling synth line becomes an aggressive push to dance blaring out of the main stage’s huge PA, while, a lot later, ‘The Lovers’ showcases the band’s talent for eerie atmospherics. ‘Burning Bright (Field On Fire)’, meanwhile, is discordant and clattering – an uneasy concoction of noise and fury.
More familiar tracks are as brutal as you’d hope. ‘March Of The Pigs’ is a total onslaught, its fieriness matched by orange lights flickering along the front of the stage like flames dancing to Reznor’s command. ‘Closer’, and its infamous “I want to fuck you like an animal” line, is a searing destroyer, and ‘Head Like A Hole’ feels like a freight train crashing full-throttle into your soul.
It’s the moments between all the ferocious power that give Nine Inch Nails’ set tonight that special edge, though. One of the only times Reznor stops to speak to the crowd, he admits that “every minute since” booking the show has been “filled with anxiety”. Straight after, the band play a reworked version of David Bowie‘s ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’. It’s stark and haunting, the icon’s spectre flickering in Reznor and Atticus Ross’ brooding arrangements.
In the end, though, they only need one song to completely decimate the crowd on Randall’s Island – ‘Hurt’. Everything quietens and stills as the opening strains come in. It’s a rare moment where you can practically hear the breeze whistling through the grass, such is the hushed reverence the song commands. Reznor whispers the opening verse into the microphone and the audience whispers the words right back, until everything builds and swells and erupts into a huge release. There’s people wiping tears from their cheeks all around, victims of a display of stunning fragility. A final burst of industrial guitars thunders from the stage, jolting everyone back into life and into thinking, slightly dazed, how to miss traffic.