On one hand, the ’90s alt-rock icons both released two of the most influential albums of the era – Superunknown and The Downward Spiral, respectively – on the very same day in March of 1994, which propelled each of them into the mainstream music spotlight.
On the other hand, anyone who recalls the Twitter scuffle between Trent Reznor and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell in 2009 regarding Scream, Cornell’s joint record venture with Timbaland, may have been shocked to see the two unite for a tour. Yet Reznor is prone to Twitter rants and Cornell is from Seattle, so perhaps this charming kind of passive-aggressive exchange is just one of the many things we desperately miss about the ’90s music scene.
Though Soundgarden took the stage at the geriatric-friendly hour of 7:45pm, the energy and enthusiasm of their performance harkened back to their early years on Sub Pop. Behind three large screens from which fuzzed-out bass and guitar reverberated, the band members emerged onstage one by one. As the screens were raised, the melodic dissonance segued into the intro of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed.” There appeared Cornell, still sporting long, curly locks; guitarist Kim Thayil, brandishing his signature long beard; and ever-gloomy (but big teddy bear) Ben Shepherd on bass. Filling in for drummer Matt Cameron — who’s sitting out the tour — was Matt Chamberlain, a veteran drummer who has worked with artists such as Tori Amos, Elton John, and Peter Gabriel. Cornell gave Chamberlain much deserved props, announcing that he had “balls of steel” to fill the large shoes Cameron left behind.
Most of the evening was a journey through the band’s older repertoire, much to the delight of the thirty-somethings in the audience. Between the predominance of tracks played from 1991’s Badmotorfinger and the wistfulness with which Cornell noted the 20th anniversary of Superunknown, it was evident that Soundgarden hadn’t only reunited for the money.
Songs played off of Superunknown included the album’s title track, “My Wave,” “Fell On Black Days,” “The Day I Tried To Live,” and the once-ubiquitous “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun.” In addition to “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” the band thrashed out “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Rusty Cage,” and “Outshined,” off of Badmotorfinger, as well “Beyond The Wheel” and the nostalgic “Flower” from UltraMegaOK. Only one song off of their 2012 release King Animal was played: “A Thousand Days Before.”
Unlike Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails chose to open with the new (“Copy of A”) and close with the old (“Hurt”). As the thrumming intro of “Copy of A” rolled across the audience, Reznor stood on an empty stage with only a keyboard and microphone. Dressed in all black, Reznor pulsed with as much vibrancy as a man half his age. One by one, Alessandro Cortini, Ilan Rubin, and Robin Finck joined him until the stage came alive with the sound and fury that is quintessential NIN. Next up was “Sanctified,” “Came Back Haunted,” and “1,000,000.” The remainder of the setlist followed Reznor’s typical diverse mix of old and new: classics like “Wish, “Closer,” and “Terrible Lie” were interwoven with later tracks such as “Disappointed,” “The Hand That Feeds,” and “Find My Way.”
But what’s never predictable about NIN’s live shows are the accompanying visuals, and this performance was no exception. Reznor long ago traded in the milieu of leather, cages, and smashed equipment of the 1990s for the minimalist, yet ominous, technological wondershow engineered by Moment Factory and perfected by Reznor himself. One of the most notable examples of this was the eyegasm that was paired with the overtly political “The Great Destroyer,” off of 2007’s Year Zero. The last half of the track is a cacophony of disjointed electronic noise, screeching, and bass. To emphasize the chaos were rapidly flashing images of the melting faces of Bush, Cheney, and Obama; broken binary code; and random screenshots and TV stills, all interspersed between repeated images of guns and crosses. In front of all this was Reznor, pounding away on his keyboard with shocking precision.
For those wondering what the future holds for Nine Inch Nails, a band that only four years ago proclaimed they were going on “an indefinite hiatus,” have no fear. Reznor stated, “We’re going to continue to make music together, and also separately.” As far as future touring is concerned he appears to be undecided: “it’s possible…who knows?”
Let’s hope for an affirmative.
Sarah Beauchemin is publisher of thehumanitease.com.