Geoffrey William Rickly. Talkhouse Contributing Writer and former singer of Thursday and Ink & Dagger. Current singer of UN and No Devotion, making occasional music of various shapes and sizes. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Before I get started, I should probably mention that reviewing a Nine Inch Nails/Godspeed You! Black Emperor show is a personal and slightly complicated thing for me. Partly because Nine Inch Nails was my favorite band when I was a kid. (I saw them 30 or so times on the Downward Spiral/Self Destructtour.) Partly because Godspeed You! Black Emperor was my favorite band in college and then, subsequently went on to publicly bash me and my band Thursday.1 That said, both bands are pioneers in their genre and stand at the forefront of dark and beautiful music in general. OK, now the show.
I got to the Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia, early and struck up a conversation with the only two people who had arrived in my section at that point. They were excited to revisit their “angsty teenage years” with Nine Inch Nails. We traded stories from 20 years ago. They recalled the thrill of going to a concert that was being picketed by Christian protesters. I remembered buying a fake ID to get into the Downward Spiral record release show at Webster Hall, having my hair ripped out by young fans trying to get the gum that Trent Reznor had accidentally spat into my hair. We noted how many people in attendance were actually wearing old Pretty Hate Machine t-shirts. It seemed that seeing NIN was a nostalgic act for a lot of people that evening. I asked them if they knew Godspeed You! Black Emperor. They said, “Not really… They seem pretty dark too, huh?” Right then, as if on cue, a low bass note started to shake the cement floors of the arena.
After the low, rumbling tone that opened Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s live show became a deafening roar, but before the drums began the terrifying, thrilling march that would carry them through much of their set, the band stood in near total darkness, backlit by a screen that flickered a single handwritten word: HOPE. And that word, that HOPE, haunted me for the rest of the night.
Inside Philips Arena, that flickering, faltering “HOPE” appeared in the wake of the illuminated ghosts of corporate sponsors, flashing and scrolling and burning themselves into our eyes so effectively that the afterimage of the brand names plastered throughout the arena walls2 lit up the darkened imaginations more than any of the 16 mm films that GY!BE projected.
The band played straight through a long drone and one monolithic unreleased song, aptly called “Behemoth,” which completely silenced the room. People started filing in towards the end of the set, some looking baffled, others Googling the band on their phones. The men in front of me scrolled through pictures of GY!BE playing some long-past show, while ignoring the living, breathing musicians in front of them. It was too loud to talk during their set and there were no breaks for applause. The band even left the stage as feedback droned out past the end of the performance and continued as house lights turned up and the advertisements came back up on the video screens. The effect was that all the air had been pushed out of the room and people looked around with what-just-happened expressions on their faces.
This tour, supporting Nine Inch Nails in corporate arenas, finds GY!BE in a tricky position. Their pervasively dark, orchestral fury has always been anchored by a small seed of hope that bursts forth at key moments, gloriously beating back the despair of modern life with explosions of beauty. I’ve been lucky enough to have this beauty guide me through some hard times in my life: staring out an airplane window on the way home from a ruined honeymoon and coughing up blood in a parking lot behind the Coachella Festival stage, to name just two dark moments. This glimmer of hope in the bleakest of times has been essential to my humanity. To jeopardize this delicate balance (let’s call it “hope in despair”), is to jeopardize what makes GY!BE so special.3
For all the crushing grandeur that they were able to fit into this cavernous room, there was very little beauty in GY!BE’s set. All dystopia and no salvation, the band churned through changes like a perfect machine, never attempting human contact with the audience or each other. Instead of offering hope to the capitalist masses inside the Live Nation Megadrome, they offered an oppressive reminder of the grinding system that we so often find ourselves caught in.
When NIN slinked on stage to the swelling pulse of “Copy of A,” the opening track from their new album Hesitation Marks, it was with a marked decrease in volume — employing a restraint that most stadium acts lack. Using small areas of intensely lit stage and adjacent areas of complete shadow, the band literally stepped in and out of the spotlight.
This opening crescendo lasted through the first four songs as the band built layer upon layer of industrial noise over a sinewy rhythmic swing until unleashing the cyberpunk smash of “March of the Pigs” — finally, Nine Inch Nails released. The arena sparked in the strobe lights, the band tore viciously through the verses and the entire crowd sang the unlikely refrain, “Now doesn’t it make you feel better?”
Despite staggering a fair number of these crowd-pleasing moments throughout their set, Nine Inch Nails relied very little on nostalgia. Almost half the set was taken from the bands’ latest album and only seven songs came from the holy trinity of Pretty Hate Machine (1989), Broken (1992) and The Downward Spiral (1994).
So how did Trent Reznor lead this incarnation (maybe his finest) of Nine Inch Nails through such a challenging set?
First: he made sure that his band was white-hot. The center of this heat came, surprisingly, from the youngest member: drummer Ilan Ruben, who I’m not going to say very much about because I toured with him back in the day.4 With Alessandro Cortini and Josh Eustis, Reznor picked up two dyed-in-the-wool gear nerds and top-tier engineers to help him realize his sweeping soundscapes — remember that Reznor is a Grammy-winning composer now, too.5 Longtime NIN guitarist (and off-and-on Guns N’ Roses member) Robin Finck returns to the fold, lending a legitimately sinister presence and guitar style to the songs. Reznor shared center stage with two backup singers, Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson, surprising most fans, as NIN has always felt like “Trent Reznor (and backing band).” Their vocal additions were a strong accompaniment and proof that Reznor is ready to share the spotlight in order to further his art. Which leads me to the second point.
He made it art. Make no mistake. Despite the obvious rock concert trappings, this show is an art installation writ large for the masses and underwritten by corporations. On his tour for The Fragile, Reznor collaborated with Bill Viola, one of the world’s most interesting video artists, and he has retained much of what he learned from Viola. Teaming up with new media studio Moment Factory, he turned the stage into a multidimensional, interactive light show that turns the band into a group of maniacs blowing up James Turrell’s recent Guggenheim exhibit.
Third point: he owns it. Reznor has always done whatever he wanted to. First, he raged against an indie label that made him a “slave” and went headlong into the world of major labels. When he decided that the majors had lost the ability to market his music, he went completely independent. When that proved problematic, he signed with a major again. Never with an apology, these moves all followed NIN’s internal logic and ethics: Trent had better get what he wants. The same goes with the show: He presents the band as he sees fit. If he wants to turn a rock concert into a traveling art installation, he will — and he’ll show you why you need to enjoy it more. In this way, Reznor stays true to himself while pushing his audience to find the redeeming and humanizing sides of his music: the contemplative over the seething, the slow process of monotony that swallows you whole rather than the obvious industrial smash that burns you up all at once, the gravity that comes from really waiting for catharsis, even when it never arrives. This change and tone, this maturation was all played out widescreen for the audience in Philips Arena. To subvert the expectations of a rabid fan base while staying true to the artistic mission of a given project is no small feat. It’s the kind of magic trick that requires a grace that I never suspected Nine Inch Nails possessed. It’s a lesson that Godspeed You! Black Emperor would do well to learn.
My disappointment with GY!BE was located in the same place as my excitement about NIN: the ability — or lack thereof — to adhere to internal logic and still gracefully navigate artistic growth. Godspeed You! Black Emperor seem to have lost that redemptive thread of hope when it disregarded its own previous ethical standards6 to play in the corporate sphere. I AM NOT CALLING THEM SELL-OUTS. I just think they’ve failed to stay engaged with their ethics in a transparent manner that honors the very personal nature of their music. It’s not that the band needs to be penned in by rules they set for themselves 15 years ago. It’s that they need to find a lucid way of presenting their evolving stances.
Instead, having ratcheted up the theatrics of not accepting a Polaris Music Prize7 before embarking on a high-profile arena tour, they commit the cardinal sin of seeming silly — of being a gimmick rather than a collective of true believers. If it sounds like I’m being harsh or overly critical, consider that it’s only because I think that a band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, at their truest, is critically important. Bands that hold themselves to a moral/ethical standard and invest their art with an equally moral weight are already too few and far between. We can’t stand to lose such a visionary and powerful one.
So while Godspeed You! Black Emperor gives up the ghost a little more each night, Nine Inch Nails grow into something more powerful and genuine. The unfettered ego fueling the fire of NIN is growing up8, getting serious and playing with and for an audience. Meanwhile, the instrumental band that’s always been a voice for the powerless is crumpling under the weight of its own ego. Both groups have plenty of chances to rise and fall from here. They could become forces for the human soul or weak aesthetes. They will both, undoubtedly, do a million interesting things that I could never see coming. And maybe that’s why HOPE has haunted me all night. Because when two diametrically opposed groups can find themselves at an intersection, moving in opposite directions, then music is still surprising, alive and worth sticking around for.
1In the interest of full disclosure, they were bashing me because they thought I stole some lyrics from their side project A Silver Mt. Zion (now known as Thee Silver Mt. Zion). There’s an ASMZ song called “Take These Hands and Throw Them in the River,” and a year later the line appeared in the Thursday song “For the Workforce, Drowning.” I wrote them a letter talking about the source I got the phrase from (I was big into South American poetry translations at the time) and wondering if maybe they had used the same source. I never got a response. I now have no way of knowing whether I “borrowed” it from them or not — the notebooks in which I annotated all my lyrics were burned by my ex-wife. But the dispute rarely affects my enjoyment of ASMZ or GY!BE. (I will admit that occasionally I feel judged when I listen to their records, and have to turn them off, but that’s pretty rare, thankfully. I even bought the latest album on vinyl at the show.) This whole thing seems a bit past the point of really mattering anymore, which is why I included it only as a footnote and, that being said, only in the interest of fairness/full disclosure/etc. which has always seemed a little dubious anyway w/r/t subjective music critique. Like any of us have a chance at explaining away our various biases, conscious and unconscious. I have always liked that band, alright? (Click here to return to the piece.)
2No joke. There were more than a dozen flashing at any given time. Without trying too hard, I saw Jack Daniels, Coca-Cola, SunTrust Bank. (Click here to return to the piece.)
3And it really is something special. One of the most provocative and intriguing elements of Godspeed You! Black Emperor is the strong narrative element that the band is able to maintain despite the lack of a singer. Instead of lyrics, the band uses the album liner notes as a collection of documents, love letters, historic references and, most effectively, song diagrams that invest each movement with special meaning. Following these notes, the music seems to work like this: war, corruption, corporate interests, hypocrisy, oppression and other institutional violence is represented by the bleak, heavy passages in their music. On the other hand, humanity, at its most noble: the seeking of light and resisting of systemic injustice, is represented in the most tender of melodic threads. The anxiety between the two forces comes across as dissonance: tonal and cognitive. We need that HOPE to be real because the despair certainly is. (Click here to return to the piece.)
4I already knew he was a great drummer. But he’s quite a bit younger than I am and I couldn’t ever have predicted that he would one day improve my childhood obsession. By whipping gracefully between mechanical precision and human abandon, he is able to achieve something seemingly impossible; he’s made Nine Inch Nails sound more like Nine Inch Nails, dramatizing the man/machine struggle underpinning the NIN aesthetic. Watching him, my feelings of but I liked them first are quickly overcome by the feeling of Damn, this is good. Fucking kids. (Click here to return to the piece.)
5Can we be real for a minute, though? If Clint Mansell, composer of Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and Black Swan, can lose over a technicality, then the award isn’t worth quite as much as it seems. The Social Network score is fine. Not quite as ambitious as the Ghosts I-IV box sets, but hey… (Click here to return to the piece.)
6A cursory scanning of liner notes will show you their anarchist leanings, with diagrams that illustrate the six degrees of separation between certain major record labels and arms manufacturers. It’s a daring thing to put in a record sleeve, although dangerously undermined when you’re playing nice with corporations more obviously connected to the military-industrial complex than most record labels are. (Click here to return to the piece.)
7If the Polaris Prize was such a farce, there was plenty of time to withdraw from the competition. Instead, the band sends a rep to accept the award (and money), issues a self-serving statement and really pulls a have-their-cake-and-eat-it-too move. Donating the money is a half-measure — plenty of people donate winnings without denouncing the award. (Now, if we’re feeling really cynical, we should ask ourselves: Is anyone really all that surprised by this move? Right. If we’re not surprised, then what are the chances that the Polaris people are? Isn’t it more likely that GY!BE played right into their hands by causing a big “controversy” and giving the award a ton of free press? In which case the Polaris committee was not only totally unsurprised but in fact delighted by the whole routine. (Click here to return to the piece.)
8He even put aside Nine Inch Nails to concentrate on his wife’s career and started How to Destroy Angels. The surprises just keep coming from the guy that wanted to “be everywhere… do everything…” and “fuck everyone in the world.” (Click here to return to the piece.)