The Franchise: Nine Inch Nails
Welcome again to The Franchise, where I examine and analyze entire bodies of work – discographies, filmographies, works in a series, etc. While the last installment was focused on all the video games in a particular franchise, this time around I am going to talk about the full discography of the musical brainchild of Trent Reznor and one of my long-time favorite bands, Nine Inch Nails.
I first got into NIN in the very early 1990s. I had heard a few songs from their first album, but finding music wasn’t as readily accessible as it is today. My older sister had a brief phase where she bought every tape recommended to her by friends, even stuff she wasn’t into, so I got to borrow some early industrial like NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine and Skinny Puppy’s Too Dark Park, and then when she wasn’t interested anymore I got to keep them. So I mostly got in on the ground floor, which is interesting for a band that’s been releasing music for almost 30 years.
If you’re not aware, from the start NIN has always been solely Trent Reznor and whatever music he wants to make, but he gets a ton of studio musicians and guest stars to play on his albums. NIN’s live band is also a rotating cast, the most recurring of which is guitarist Robin Finck. He’s about as “official” as one can be, aside from the recent addition of Atticus Ross. Other prominent former members include drummer Chris Vrenna, guitarist Richard Patrick (singer of Filter), and Charlie Clouser (film score composer, including Saw’s iconic ‘Hello Zepp’ theme). Reznor has worked with David Bowie, Gary Numan, Marilyn Manson, and a host of others.
Most NIN releases are catalogued by “Halo” numbers, a labeling system he came up with after hearing about Depeche Mode doing something similar. There are a few non-Halo and unofficial releases, some of which I’ll touch upon and some I’ll barely mention. But I’ll go through each one, because there are several you probably won’t need or haven’t heard unless you’re a completist music hoarder geek like me. Even most long-time fans of the band haven’t heard all of them.
Pretty Hate Machine Era [1988-1993]
Purest Feeling (1988, demo)
While not a Halo number, this is kind of adorable looking back. Trent Reznor, formerly a keyboardist of new wave band Exotic Birds, was working as a janitor at a Cleveland studio. He’d record demo tracks after hours, many of which were reworked and included on Pretty Hate Machine. It’s rather poppy and new wave/synth-funk at some points, which is to be expected for the late ‘80s, but you can detect that proto-industrial feel he would steer towards later. And is that a hint of positivity and optimism in some of the lyrics? Oh Trent, say it ain’t so!
Verdict: All things considered it’s a pretty solid demo for late 80s synthpop, but unless you can’t stand a gap in your collection, it’s mostly a novelty listen these days.
Halo 1 – Down In It (1989, single)
A track from Pretty Hate Machine, with its stream of consciousness spoken word-style vocals, and the source of NIN’s first bout with controversy – its video depicted Reznor portraying a corpse, which the people who found the original footage thought was real. Hard Copy did a hilariously cheesy dramatized piece on it (the “art student” is particularly goofy). The first track is the album version, while the 2 remixes are a bit different but not transformative.
Verdict: You can skip this one. It becomes entirely redundant later.
Halo 2 – Pretty Hate Machine (1989, album)
First full-length album, pretty much essential. You’re not going to get away with being much of a NIN aficionado if Head Like a Hole isn’t one of your standards. Another staple of live shows, Terrible Lie follows – one of many of the band’s critiques of religion. Something I Can Never Have marks the first venture into the sort of introspective lyrics he’s expounded upon since, and Sin is another major live crowd favorite as well as the final single from the album. The latter half gets into some cheesy lyrics and late 80s synth, but that’s mostly attributable to the bulk of it being reworked material from Purest Feeling. There’s still a lot of great stuff on here, though some tracks have aged better than others.
Verdict: It’s got a bit of rust on it, but a strong start.
Halo 3 – Head Like A Hole (1990, maxi-single)
That iconic first track on PHM is a watershed moment for industrial rock. It’s angry. It’s catchy. It’s also topical – lyrics contain references to Reagan’s unwillingness to pursue a cure for AIDS. Rather than a straight up single, this is an album-length single (the first of many for NIN) that essentially serves as a PHM remix album. It has 5 mixes of HLAH with varying degrees of transformation, as well as 2 mixes of Terrible Lie, and the remixes of Down In It from Halo 1 (as mentioned, making it redundant).
Verdict: Not a lot that stands out here, but its format set a precedent for many releases to come.
Halo 4 – Sin (1990, single)
I won’t say much about this one because the bulk is 3 mixes of Sin from PHM. However, the standout track – and I have no idea why it was included here of all places – is a surprisingly great cover of Queen’s Get Down, Make Love.
Verdict: Worth checking out for the Queen cover alone. The remixes aren’t all that memorable.
Live Notes: Around this era, in particular for the 1991 Lollapalooza tour, a live-only track called Now I’m Nothing surfaced. It served as an intro to open shows, segueing directly into Terrible Lie. A version appears much later during a live release, but has never been recorded in a studio.
Halo 5 – Broken (1992, EP)
Never has an EP been so essential to a band’s feel, look, and sound for years to come. The cover was simple but iconic. The music video for Wish topped MTV’s charts with its violent, dark, BDSM-style imagery. It’s more raw and angry than PHM, uses a lot of huge guitar riffs and crushing drums, Reznor’s previously often subdued vocals are replaced with yells, and the lead single Wish won a Grammy (Reznor muses that it’s the only Grammy-winning song with the phrase “fist fuck” in it). Originally intended to be put on a separate CD mini-single, the two final tracks Physical and Suck (Adam Ant and Pigface covers, respectively) were placed on the CD as tracks 98 and 99, as Reznor felt they had a separate feel from Broken.
Verdict: Absolutely essential. In a time when grunge was just emerging and popular metal was mainly thrash or big hair, this EP blew my 13 year old mind.
Other Material: I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the Broken Movie, a 20 minute short film featuring music videos for several tracks, strung together by a loose narrative shot to look like an extremely graphic snuff film. At the time, shock cinema was on the rise (or at least seeing a resurgence after 70s exploitation), and gothic and metal subcultures delved deeply into the disturbing and grotesque (which explains large portions of today’s internet), but perhaps this was the next logical step after the Down In It controversy. I don’t recommend it unless you’re fearless about torture porn movies.
Halo 6 – Fixed (1992, remix EP)
The remix release for Broken has new mixes of Gave Up, Wish, and Happiness in Slavery by industrial icons such as J.G. Thirlwell, Coil, and former NIN live drummer Chris Vrenna, while Throw This Away is a hybrid of Last and Suck. Each mix is almost a complete transformation, and has some really interesting textures on it.
Verdict: Don’t expect anything catchy, but if you’re familiar with the originals, the deconstructions are fun.
The Downward Spiral Era [1994-1998]
Halo 7 – March of the Pigs (1994, single)
Premiering shortly before arguably the biggest album in NIN history, this featured a bit of a preview. There are some interesting notes here. The included title track remix, for example, changes March of the Pigs from a 7/8 time signature to a standard 8/8, adding an extra beat. A Violet Fluid is a minute long instrumental, and there are 2 pretty interesting remixes of Reptile.
Verdict: Worth a listen. This is really the first hint that what’s coming is a sound of its own.
Halo 8 – The Downward Spiral (1994, album)
More or less, this album defined a genre and a generation. While there was a lot of content in the industrial genre at the time, nobody was doing anything quite like this, and it really displays Trent Reznor as a musical pioneer. It’s incredibly influential, having been copied for decades by thousands of bands trying to ape his style. It’s also a loose concept album, usually interpreted to be about the events leading up to a suicide. Mr. Self Destruct sets up a drug-addled protagonist bound by trappings of society, and from there it’s (you guessed it) a downward spiral to his end via sex, drugs, and religion. Various interpretations differ on whether the protagonist survives the ordeal or not, but Trent being Trent, it’s probably pretty self-referential. This album created several singles and current live staples (everyone knows Closer), as well as non-singles that received radio play such as Piggy. But as a whole, it’s a really seminal album that shaped the industrial rock/metal genre for years.
Verdict: Another absolute essential. It might feel somewhat cliché nowadays, but that’s because it was the progenitor of the clichés it spawned.
Other Material: Also of note during this time, NIN started contributing to movie soundtracks. In particular, Dead Souls (a Joy Division cover) featured on The Crow soundtrack, while Burn showed up in Natural Born Killers. Both are worth tracking down. As a Joy Division fan as well, Dead Souls in particular is one of my favorite non-album NIN tracks ever.
Halo 9 – Closer to God (1994, maxi-single)
This is an interesting one. Note that the title is not ‘Closer’ as in the TDS track, but rather the title of the lead remix itself, because the lead track is a completely different take on the song with an alternate vocal track. All told there are 5 versions/remixes of Closer, all of which are very different and interesting. Closer (Precursor) may be recognizable by some, having played over the opening credits of David Fincher movie Se7en. The single also contains a remix of Heresy, a new instrumental track, and a cover of Soft Cell’s Memorabilia.
Verdict: Don’t miss this one, especially if you thought TDS was all there was to offer on Closer. I actually prefer some of the remixes here to the album version, especially the title track.
Live Notes: Around this time, their infamous performance at Woodstock ’94 happened. If you’ve never seen their set, it’s entirely worth watching. It was extremely rainy so the whole festival was covered in mud, so right before their performance Trent covered himself in mud and performed the entire set filthy from head to toe. Unfortunately, despite living less than an hour’s drive north of Woodstock at the time, I couldn’t go because I was only 15. However, I did get to watch the whole thing live on PPV, and it was awesome.
Halo 10 – Further Down the Spiral (1995, remix album)
The first full remix album in the catalog, this offers remixes of most TDS tracks that weren’t already addressed on previous singles (so no MOTP, Closer, or Reptile). It does have a few mixes each of Mr. Self Destruct and Eraser though, and an interesting 7+ minute ambient remix of the title track. What really makes this stand out is that two tracks are the first (and unfortunately only) collaboration of Trent Reznor and Aphex Twin on the instrumental tracks At the Heart of it All and The Beauty of Being Numb. Incidentally, ‘Halo 10’ was also on the labels of Hurt and Piggy promotional singles sent out to radio stations at the time.
Verdict: It’s not a must-have, but there’s interesting material. The Aphex Twin tracks are worth a listen.
Live Notes: Shortly after this was released, I saw NIN live for the first time. Marilyn Manson opened, and carnival sideshow act Jim Rose Circus Sideshow (best known for the X-Files episode ‘Humbug’) took to the stage in between. Great show all around, though NIN didn’t play an encore because someone hit Chris Vrenna in the head with a shoe.
Also around this time, David Bowie’s album Outside was released, during his experimentation with industrial rock. He toured with NIN, alternating opening and headlining, but much to my continued bitterness I couldn’t see it as the tour didn’t come to my city. However, this tour did produce a several fantastic duets, which I’ll link here because they’re absolute must-sees. It’s mainly Bowie songs, but the duets of NIN’s Reptile and Hurt are both excellent. In fact – unpopular opinion time! – I like the Reznor/Bowie duet of Hurt even better than the Johnny Cash cover. Yeah, I said it. Come at me.
Halo 11 – The Perfect Drug (1997, single)
The only Halo ever released for a non-album track. I would put this into the next era if not for the release that comes after it, because the depression Trent Reznor had fallen into around this time led to him writing the next album. At the time, everyone thought it was for a new album, but it was created for the soundtrack of David Lynch movie Lost Highway, along with two instrumental tracks for the movie’s original score. The single consists of 5 remixes by various industrial and electronic artists. However, the original US release didn’t include the original track.
Verdict: I don’t care much for the remixes, but the original is fantastic. The video is one of my all-time favorite music videos for the gorgeous cinematography alone, featuring Reznor as a Victorian-era artist losing himself in absinthe while mourning the loss of a child. It was also the most expensive music video ever made at the time.
Other Material: Around this time, Reznor remixed the song I’m Afraid of Americans from David Bowie’s album ‘Earthling’, and starred in the music video playing a man stalking Bowie through the streets of New York. The same year, NIN released the non-album song Deep for the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider soundtrack.
Halo 12 – Closure (1998, live VHS)
The original VHS copies of this are out of print and extremely hard to find. Spanning two tapes, the first was a documentary and live footage of the ’94-‘96 Self-Destruct Tour, while the second tape consists of music videos. Due to troubles with Interscope Records, it only saw limited release. An official DVD never came to fruition, however in 2006 Reznor himself leaked the completed DVD on The Pirate Bay as a “guilt-free download”, with several extras that weren’t on the VHS copy. Notable on this release are live footage of Now I’m Nothing, high quality footage of the Bowie duet of Hurt, a live clip of NIN covering Soft Cell’s Sex Dwarf, and some Woodstock ’94 footage.
Verdict: If you’re into live DVDs, music videos, or backstage footage, this is the most comprehensive release you can get up to this point in their catalog. Plus, it’s free!
The Fragile Era [1999-2004]
Halo 13 – The Day the World Went Away (1999, single)
This contains a preview of The Fragile, with two tracks from the forthcoming album (TDTWWA and Starfuckers Inc.), and a great ‘Quiet’ remix of the title track. There isn’t much to say about this one though, because all of the tracks on it can be found on later releases.
Verdict: Much like Halo 1, this one is made redundant by subsequent releases.
Halo 14 – The Fragile (1999, album)
After not releasing much material for so long, everyone was pretty surprised that NIN came out with a double album out of nowhere. There are some definite gems on this album, and really Reznor’s first foray into dedicating a bulk of tracks to instrumental experimentation. Previously he’d drop an instrumental track in the middle of an album, but The Fragile contains several on each disc – many of which were later famously used for several movie trailers (Just Like You Imagined for 300, The Day The World Went Away for Terminator: Salvation, and We’re In This Together for The Avengers). Despite being two full albums, it was actually cut down from its original intention. A song called 10 Miles High was supposed to be on the 2nd disc, Please was supposed to be longer, and an instrumental track was supposed to come at the end of the 1st disc. Lately, Reznor has been revisiting this album, creating new editions. More on that later. It’s probably the most diverse of NIN albums, and that’s one reason why it’s another essential.
Verdict: My personal favorite full-length NIN album for a number of reasons, and it’s interesting to see how it’s coming back now in the later 2010s.
Halo 15 – We’re In This Together (1999, triple single)
This one breaks format a bit. It’s fairly rare since it was only released in Europe, but Halo 15 is actually 3 different CDs – Green, Orange, and Yellow versions. WITT Green contains WITT and two songs cut from The Fragile, 10 Miles High and The New Flesh. WITT Orange contains a 5 minute radio edit of the title track and two remixes of The Day the World Went Away (one of which is the ‘Quiet’ remix from TDTWWA’s single, which is a really nice version that’s worth tracking down). WITT Yellow contains WITT as well as Complications of the Flesh (hybrid mix of Complication from The Fragile and The New Flesh), and the first full studio release of The Perfect Drug with an extended ending.
Verdict: Worth a listen for the new tracks, though you’ll probably only find it online because physical copies are scarce.
Halo 16 – Things Falling Apart (2000, remix album)
Here’s your requisite The Fragile remix album, but it has some additional material too. Slipping Away and The Great Collapse are original tracks, but share some lyrics with The Fragile’s Into the Void and The Wretched, respectively. There’s a really interesting string quartet(!) version of The Frail that I like a lot, and then several remixes of Starfuckers, Inc., The Wretched, and Where is Everybody? But the highlight is a cover of Metal from Gary Numan’s 1979 album ‘The Pleasure Principle’, a major influence on NIN’s early sound. As a side note, Numan himself credits NIN with steering his sound in the 90s toward industrial rock/darkwave, as he had previously strayed from his original eerie late 70s synthpop to commercialized jazz/funk fusion in the 80s at the behest of his record label. Thank the gods for that, because he’s made some pretty great music since.
Verdict: I’m not huge on the remixes, but the alternate versions and new tracks are well worth your time.
Halo 17 – And All That Could Have Been (2002, live DVD) &
Halo 17 – Still (2002, EP)
Technically separate releases under the same Halo number, but it was all packaged together. And All That Could Have Been is a professionally recorded live performance from the tour following the release of The Fragile, and features 19 songs from various releases. It’s most notable for being the first tour where NIN started using large LED screens in their stage performance, displaying various visuals behind the band. This has since become a staple of their tours and has become far more elaborate since. A 16-track live CD is also included.
Still is the bonus EP included with this release, which could’ve been an entirely different release. It’s a combination of stripped-down (ambient/acoustic/piano) versions of previously released songs, and 4 new instrumental tracks recorded during The Fragile sessions; Adrift and At Peace is an epilogue of sorts to La Mer. Versions include Something I Can Never Have, The Fragile, The Becoming, and my absolute favorite version of The Day The World Went Away. I assume the reason for this being included with the DVD is due to the title of new original song And All That Could Have Been, another favorite of mine. The whole release has a more chill and intimate feel to it.
Verdict: I’m not much for rewatching live show DVDs, but Still is great and among my favorite NIN EPs.
With Teeth Era [2005-2007]
Halo 18 – The Hand That Feeds (2005, single)
There’s not much to say about this one. It’s a preview of the forthcoming album, but only consists of THTF and a barely different but longer remix of it. Some versions had an instrumental ‘Dub’ mix too.
Verdict: Skip it. It’s another one that becomes redundant later.
Halo 19 – With_Teeth (2005, album)
After not making new music for a while, Reznor had some rust to shake off. It shows a bit here, because With_Teeth is a fairly uneven album. To his credit, this does sound like he’s trying new things with the NIN sound, but also reaches back to the early days a bit. Only is perhaps a sequel of sorts to Down In It, using the same vocal style and containing a lyrical reference to it (“the tiniest little dot caught my eye”). Some songs like All the Love in the World and Sunspots contain uncharacteristic falsetto vocals. There’s more emphasis on real instruments than electronics, and some songs early on sound quite a bit more aggressive. It ends on a mellower note with its final two tracks though, leaving a decidedly mood swinging album as a whole. Some versions also include the bonus track Home, which is probably my favorite track from this era.
Verdict: Personally I find it to be one of NIN’s weaker albums, but a lot of it did grow on me after a while, and there are several songs I really like.
Halo 20 – Only (2005, single)
This seems to follow the trend of the THTF single, in that it’s the album version of Only, and the b-side is a remix of The Hand That Feeds. Other versions also include a version of Love Is Not Enough recorded from live rehearsals.
Verdict: Skip it. It’s another one made redundant by the next release.
Halo 21 – Every Day is Exactly the Same (2006, single)
I’d almost call this a maxi-single, but there isn’t really enough new content on it to categorize it with the others. There are some interesting bits though. You get all the remix content from the previous two singles, a pretty cool remix of the title track, and 2 more mixes of Only.
Verdict: If you listen to one track from this single, check out the remix of Only by hip-hop producer and Run the Jewels member El-P. It might be my favorite NIN remix ever.
Halo 22 – Beside You In Time (2007, live DVD)
So apparently the reason for the 3 years off after the last era was because Trent Reznor was getting JACKED. Looking at him on the previous tour DVD and then seeing him live here is night and day. This is the first live concert video in HD. Instead of large LED screens behind the band, they used a combination of segmented LED towers at various parts of the stage to create several light effects, combined with a transparent curtain projecting visuals. HD cameras make this look great, and it even has an alternate angle option. The set is 19 songs long on the first DVD. The Extras disc has a few additional videos, but also has footage of 5 songs from the Summer Amphitheater Tour 2006, including new song Non-Entity.
Verdict: Worth checking out for the visuals. Pretty standard setlist though, other than a couple surprises.
Live Notes: The Amphitheater tour is when I saw NIN for the 2nd time. A reunited Bauhaus opened, which was pretty awesome because I never thought I’d get to see them. It was one of the hottest days of the year though, so everyone was sweating like crazy (poor Peter Murphy was wearing a full suit). Another new non-album track Not So Pretty Now was also played on the tour, but doesn’t appear in a studio version until later.
Year Zero Era [2007-2009]
Halo 23 – Survivalism (2007, single)
As is standard by now, a new album leads off with a preview single, again made redundant by later releases.
Verdict: Great song, but you can skip this release.
Halo 24 – Year Zero (2007, album)
Year Zero is a sci-fi concept album based on a near-future dystopian police state society. It also hints at some kind of alien/Hand of God thing called “The Presence”, which is addressed in The Warning. The concept goes further than any concept releases before, as each song is sung from the perspective of a variety of characters and seems to follow a clearer narrative. The music’s a lot glitchier and noisier (check out the end section of The Great Destroyer) and there’s a lot more genuine anger in the lyrics due to his hatred of the Bush administration – most evident in the track Capital G. Makes me wonder what he’s got to say about the current administration. Perhaps a sequel? Year Zero also launched an online ARG, which you can check out here. I never participated in it live, but I followed along for a while. It’s worth a quick read.
Verdict: Really solid album with a cool central narrative. Kind of a dark horse favorite of mine. The one drawback is that I feel he could’ve cut about 2 songs, as the bulky middle causes it to drag a bit at the end.
Halo 25 – Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D (2007, remix album)
AKA “Year Zero Remixed”. Uncharacteristic of most NIN remix albums, this has no repeats. It covers every track from YZ except The Good Soldier and The Greater Good. It begins with a very different sound for NIN: Guns By Computer, which is Hyperpower! rapped over by Saul Williams, whose album Reznor produced. The Great Destroyer remix by Modwheelmood (live NIN member Alessandro Cortini’s band) uses a completely different vocal track. Ladytron’s remix of The Beginning of the End features singer Helen Marnie’s own vocal contributions. The Faint’s remix of Meet Your Master changes the song into an electro dance-punk track. Olof Dreijer’s trancy remix of Me, I’m Not is a barely recognizable 14 minute trancy version. And in a really odd move, Kronos Quartet of all people produces an orchestral arrangement of Another Version of the Truth.
Verdict: Lots of cool, diverse stuff on here. Not all of it works, but the sheer musical scope makes it noteworthy.
Halo 26 – Ghosts I-IV (2008, album)
Something a lot of fans had wanted for a long time was a full instrumental album. One day in 2008 with no advance notice, Trent Reznor released a FOUR volume instrumental album. Each track is numbered depending on track number and volume (10 Ghosts II, 24 Ghosts III, etc.) Ghosts I feels more ambient aside from a handful of more aggressive sounding tracks, but big beats are nearly absent. Ghosts II has more driving beats and glitchy textures. Ghosts III is more experimental, using a lot of sounds atypical of NIN; 21 Ghosts III for example features a marimba rhythm, and wailing guitar distortion from prog guitar god Adrian Belew of King Crimson. Ghosts IV tends to sound more NIN-like, using fuzzy guitars and more standard instruments. The limited edition also came with 2 extra tracks, Ghosts 37 and Ghosts 38, the latter of which was the basis of Demon Seed on the following album. During his hiatus a few years later, he mentioned there may be more Ghosts volumes to come. I hope he sticks to that.
Verdict: Frankly, I love this. I listen to mostly ambient and instrumental music when I work, and this album was an almost daily listen for me when it was released. While not every track is a winner individually, it all works together to create a really atmospheric, moody soundscape.
Halo 27 – The Slip (2008, album)
Similar to Ghosts, this one was unannounced. One day Reznor posted this entire new 10-track album online for free and said “This one’s on me.” While it didn’t produce any singles, EPs, or remix albums, a radio single for Discipline emerged, and the tour that focused primarily on Year Zero/Ghosts/The Slip content was named for the song Lights in the Sky. The limited edition’s DVD contained rehearsals of 5 of the tracks performed at live rehearsals. One thing consistent about each video is that all start out with a drum beat. At the time, extremely prolific Devo drummer Josh Freese was a live member, and he’s an absolute machine. Essentially the rest of the band watches him for cues the whole time. This album and Ghosts also included extensive art booklets (or picture files if you ordered online), with The Slip specifically including art for each individual song.
Verdict: I really like this one, and Echoplex would probably be in my top 5 all-time NIN tracks if I was forced to choose (please don’t make me choose).
Live Notes: At the end of 2008, I saw them for the 3rd time in Vegas on the final stop of the tour. They did a lot of cool new stuff with LED screens, and performed a block of tracks from Ghosts as well as a live-only new version of Piggy (often referred to as Ghosts Piggy). The visuals were some of the coolest stuff I’ve ever seen live. Reznor announced at this show that there was going to be one more tour next year, then “that’s it for now”.
There were actually two more tours: The NIN/JA Tour with Jane’s Addiction (my 4th time seeing them live), with NIN’s setlist featuring a lot of B-sides and deep tracks. The 2nd tour was a series of small venue shows in only 4 cities, which sold out FAST. I almost got a ticket for LA, but the site crashed, which especially sucks because Gary Numan joined them on stage for several of the dates. Still bitter about that.
Another Version of the Truth (2009, semi-official bootleg)
An official Lights in the Sky Tour DVD was fully filmed for release, but the label backed out last-minute so plans for it were scrapped. Instead, Reznor released the raw HD footage for free and let fans put together the DVD. He also instructed security at the Las Vegas show to relax on confiscation so the fans could film it. The result is this 2-DVD semi-official bootleg created by This One Is On Us, an online fan organization that arose to release unofficial-but-Reznor-endorsed bootleg DVDs. The footage from the canceled DVD became “The Gift”, while the other disc was a 100% self-shot fan footage concert of the Las Vegas show I attended. This is a pretty amazing feat for a fan community. My name is actually in the DVD credits because the most prominent HD cameraman in the TOIOU community (Chaonatic on Youtube) needed a good vantage point to film, so I sold him my extra lower level ticket. A good portion of the HD footage in the Vegas DVD is filmed by him standing right next to me. I believe you can still find both videos on Youtube. Track it down for the live visuals alone, because the LED stuff is really cool.
The Downward Spiral: Live (2009, semi-official bootleg)
At one of the New York City club show dates of the ‘final’ tour, NIN played The Downward Spiral in its entirety from end to end. Members of TOIOU recorded and released the video from it. It’s particularly cool because it wasn’t immediately identifiable as a complete playthrough: Mr. Self Destruct was a frequent opener for years. Around Heresy you start hearing fans wonder aloud “Is he playing the whole album?” but it’s still uncertain because Piggy, March of the Pigs, and Closer were all major hits and frequently played live. So it’s not until the 6th song Ruiner kicks in that people really know, and people go NUTS when they realize it. This is also available online.
NINJA 2009 Summer Tour (2009, EP)
Other Material: An official but non-Halo EP called NINJA 2009 Summer Tour EP was released, containing 2 previously unreleased songs each from NIN, Jane’s Addiction, and opening band Street Sweeper. The two NIN songs were mentioned above during the With Teeth era, Non-Entity and Not So Pretty Now, but this was the first time studio versions were released. I wouldn’t say the songs are amazing, but they’re worth adding to the collection as rarities.
So that’s NIN’s first block of musical adventures. During this period, Trent Reznor did some film scores with Atticus Ross, like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. He also produced and contributed to his wife Mariqueen Maandig’s band How To Destroy Angels, which have released a few EPs and full album Welcome Oblivion (these have ‘Sigil’ numbers instead of Halo numbers, so HDTA could be considered an extension of NIN). They’re pretty good and worth checking out. The music is honestly very similar to much of NIN’s stuff, so it’s as much a Trent Reznor side project as it is his wife’s band. He was definitely keeping himself busy in this time.
Hesitation Marks Era [2013-2014]
Halo 28 – Hesitation Marks (2013, album)
Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time with this album because frankly I’m not a big fan of it. At first listen I wasn’t thrilled with it, and kind of had the same feeling as With Teeth where I felt he was shaking off some rust after a couple years hiatus. After repeated listens I find that I enjoy the music, being more of a retro electronic feel than previous releases, but the album contains some of his laziest lyrics and rhymes ever. Perhaps that’s the point with the retro-style music, but a large amount of it just doesn’t work for me. It’s obvious this was an experiment, because it doesn’t sound like anything else Reznor has ever done. That said, there’s some really interesting Devo/Kraftwerk-inspired musical texture on the album.
Verdict: While I’ve had some mixed emotions about previous releases, this is the first studio album that just never caught me. Perhaps it’ll grow on me later.
Other Material: There were two non-Halo EPs that were available only on Beats Music before it was absorbed by Apple. To my knowledge they never got physical releases, and are no longer available. These are the Live 2013 EP featuring 4 tracks from Hesitation Marks recorded at two live concerts, and the Remix 2014 EP which were 4 tracks from Hesitation Marks remixed by various artists. I’ve never heard them due to their scarcity, and it seems they only served as promotional material for the new label.
There is also a live concert, Tension 2013 from the Tension Tour, which has no physical release but is available here on the NIN VEVO Youtube channel. This is actually something I recommend because as I’ve mentioned previously, their live visuals keep getting better and better. It’s especially worth watching about 25:00 in for what looks like a laser cube made of LEDs rotating around the stage during the song Disappointed.
Rework Era [2014-present]
Note: I’m referring to this as the Rework Era because for the past few years, Trent Reznor has started going back and reworking several old releases. I didn’t fold it into the previous era because no other major releases came from Halo 28. However, many releases from this era are non-Halos.
Recoiled (2014, remix EP)
A non-Halo, this is a collaboration of NIN and industrial group Coil, and features outtakes from the sessions of Fixed, Closer to God, and Further Down the Spiral. Previously, there was a bootleg of other versions of these remixes called ‘Uncoiled’, but mainly consisted of incomplete works. This is a better produced selection of those, though some are still recognizable as early versions of previously released tracks.
Verdict: Nothing that’s a true standout, but it’s interesting in a “lost remix album” sort of way.
The Fragile Instrumentals (2015, reworked album)
This is especially interesting if you were a big fan of The Fragile, as I was. It cuts out nearly all vocals (aside from backing tracks on a few songs) and lets the music stand on its own. There are also several alternate cuts included here, so you get more of a sense of how the original album was supposed to flow. For example, The Frail no longer flows directly into The Wretched, La Mer is glitchier, The New Flesh and an alternate version of 10 Miles High (titled Hello, Everything Is Not OK) are added back in where they were intended, and previously unreleased tracks The March, +appendage, and Can I Stay Here? are added. All of this together clocks in at over 2 hours.
Verdict: I find this really interesting from a fan perspective delving deeper into older material, and I also appreciate it for its inclusion of outtake material that hasn’t seen the light of day before.
With_Teeth Instrumentals (2015, reworked album)
Contrary to The Fragile Instrumentals, there are no added tracks or alternate takes here. It’s just With Teeth without the vocals. There’s not much else to say because there’s no difference other than the vocal track being taken out.
Verdict: It’s an interesting listen, but I’d have liked to see some outtakes here. I suppose you could call it “Without Teeth”.
Halo 29 – Not the Actual Events (2016, EP)
Trent Reznor had teased pretty much all year in 2016 that there would be “new NIN this year”. By December, people figured it wasn’t going to happen. Lo and behold, two weeks before the end of the year, a new EP dropped. This was a definite departure from Hesitation Marks. It’s noisier, it’s more experimental, and it’s diverse. Commentary from Reznor says he intended to make an “unfriendly, fairly impenetrable record”. He experiments with different vocal styles here, from electronically-assisted to whispered. There seems to be a loose story within it, but I assume that interpretation will come with time.
Verdict: I like this. It’s a refreshing change and opens sort of an unknown for what the future of NIN is going to sound like.
Halo 30 – The Fragile Deviations 1 (2016, reworked album)
This is different from The Fragile Instrumentals in several ways, but still contains mostly instrumental tracks. It’s essentially Reznor and Atticus Ross playing around with old unused tracks from The Fragile sessions and creating an epic 2.5 hour, 37 track version of it. I’m assuming this is a Halo and the previous rework isn’t because this is the ‘complete’ version. In addition to including The Fragile Instrumentals’ 5 new tracks, there are another whopping TEN new tracks added here. Reznor says that in cases where songs are labeled “Instrumental”, that means a vocal track originally appeared but was taken out. So if there’s a “Deviations 2”, we may yet get vocal versions of The March, Not What It Seems Like, Was It Worth It? and Can I Stay Here?, while it seems the others were always intended as instrumentals (a vocal version of +appendage did appear once on a cassette release). Still, this many new tracks of material added to an already lengthy double album is pretty impressive.
Verdict: Much like with the previous iteration, it’s interesting to see NIN deconstruct old material and add session outtakes, but I can see how it might frustrate fans expecting more new stuff.
The Future: Plans for 2017 include releasing “Definitive Editions” of all major releases on vinyl and digitally. Pre-orders for Broken, The Downward Spiral, and The Fragile are already available with a Spring shipping date. Given the content on the recent Fragile release, I’d expect carefully remastered versions, cut session segments, and perhaps even some new tracks dug up out of the archives. Supposedly there are even more major album reworks on the way, rumors of more Ghosts volumes, and promises of new stuff in 2017 as well. Trent’s a busy dude this year.
Conclusion: Despite some missteps, Trent Reznor has had a solid and consistent career with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. It’s been really interesting to follow for several decades now through various styles and iterations, and if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that he’ll never do the same thing twice. Even though I have an ebb and flow of interest in his work, or enjoy many bands more at a given time, I’ll always check out new NIN and NIN-related releases. Like him or not, he’s an extremely hard working musician and has expanded his talents immensely over the years, which is especially impressive for a mostly one-man project.