My first taste of the 2017 Nine Inch Nails was their show at NYC’s Webster Hall in July. At that show, the massively popular band proved they were still naturals in a small club environment, but it couldn’t have prepared you for how much more powerful they’d be headlining a festival. Trent Reznor & co capped off day one of Chicago’s Riot Fest on Friday (9/15), and from the first few notes of opener “Branches/Bones” it was clear that this was a different beast than the one that played Webster Hall a month and a half ago. At least the first 500 feet of the crowd became one massive mosh pit — more people than the NYC club show even held — which must have added to how fired up the band was. The guys looked and sounded massive up there. They were intimidating, larger-than-life rock stars without an ounce of bombast.
Among the next few songs were classics “Wish” and “March of the Pigs,” which saw the crowd getting even more nuts, but it’s worth noting that the mosh-inducing opener “Branches/Bones” is a new song (off Not The Actual Events from their ongoing EP trilogy). As far as massive rock festival headliners go in 2017, Nine Inch Nails’ closest competitors are probably Tool and Radiohead. Unlike Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails’ new music isn’t expected to rival their classic material, and unlike Tool, NIN actually have new music. So it’s kind of impressive that this band, who could get away with relying solely on nostalgia, are still getting thousands upon thousands of people going wild with new material.
The new songs hit so hard because they embrace the unique thrill of The Downward Spiral and also fit perfectly within the context of 2017 music. The ’90s are back in a huge way — one of the biggest albums of the year is Kendrick Lamar’s 1995-sounding DAMN. and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — and industrial in particular has been interacting with trendy modern music. Former Crystal Castles singer Alice Glass is touring with past Trent Reznor collaborator Marilyn Manson. Ministry, who played before NIN at Riot Fest and who Trent shouted out as an influence, are about to hit the road with Death Grips. Grimes, who lists “March of the Pigs” and “Closer” among her favorite songs of all time, got pretty damn industrial on recent single “SCREAM.” The list goes on. And NIN’s new songs don’t just work because they sound like the ’90s; Trent Reznor has figured out how to modernize his sound just like the artists he influenced have. The “I wanna fuck you like an animal” refrain of “Closer” can sound a little goofy in 2017 (though that song did sound awesome at Riot Fest), but nothing about recent single “Less Than” is goofy. That one didn’t induce moshing at Riot Fest the way “Branches/Bones” did, but there were plenty of people yelling along to its addictive hook.
The success of Nine Inch Nails’ set on Friday was also probably aided by Riot Fest’s perfectly-curated Riot and Roots Stages. They’re right next to each other, so you hardly have to move from one to watch a band on the other, and it allows for just a few minutes of turnover time between bands. Right in between Ministry and Nine Inch Nails was New Order, and I would be willing to bet that plenty of people got a spot for Ministry and just never moved until NIN were done. Ministry’s metallic industrial and New Order’s synthpop can both clearly be heard in NIN’s sound, and, in what was a rare moment of speaking to the crowd, Trent expressed how honored he was to play with them. He then used that moment to transition into talking about another artist who influenced him, his late friend, collaborator and tourmate David Bowie, and went into his cover of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” off Bowie’s final album. Of all the Bowie tributes that I’ve seen since his death, this one was especially moving.
After that, the band treated the crowd to the live debut of Add Violence‘s dark, intense closer “The Background World,” followed by some cuts from their 2000s era, another new one (“Burning Bright [Field on Fire]”), and then finally the pre-encore set closed with fan favorite “Head Like A Hole.” For all the talk of how vital Nine Inch Nails’ new music is, it’s also an impressive feat that “Head Like A Hole” still has a massive impact nearly 30 years later.
They could’ve ended the show right there (like they did at Webster Hall), but no complaints that they came back for an encore of two The Fragile songs and “Hurt.” Sometimes at these big festivals you wanna leave a little early to beat the crowd, but NIN’s encore made fighting through a sea of people to the exit worth it.
Pictures of NIN at Riot Fest are in the gallery above. Check out their setlist, a video of the live debut of “The Background World,” and a few more videos, below. More Riot Fest Friday pics and recaps HERE and HERE. Riot Fest continued Saturday (9/16) with At the Drive In, Queens of the Stone Age, and more; pics and recaps HERE. The fest continues Sunday (9/17).
Nine Inch Nails at Riot Fest 2017 Setlist (via)
March of the Pigs
Something I Can Never Have
(with “The Only Time” interpolation)
Copy of A
I Can’t Give Everything Away (David Bowie cover)
The Background World (live debut)
The Great Destroyer
Burning Bright (Field on Fire)
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole
The Day the World Went Away