Metal Machine Music: Nine Inch Nails and the Industrial Uprising

Metal Machine MusicSynopsis: Providing inspiration for the title of this DVD. Lou Reed’s 5th solo album split opinion dramatically upon its release in 1975, but while many saw it as a contractual obligation designed to shock the listener, its long term influence has been nothing short of startling.

The likes of Genesis P-Orridge and Throbbing Gristle in London, Cabaret Voltaire in Sheffield however, were concurrently performing a UK brand of what would soon be termed “industrial,” and these seeds collectively not only assisted and influenced the rapid rise of that period’s Punk assault, they also moved electronic music into a new era. A new era that would run its own course and influence greatly an American drift in the mid-1980s towards a home-grown, danceable variety of electro-industrial rock, with the remarkable Nine Inch Nails at its heart and soul.

This film traces the fascinating history of industrial rock, via its 1970s origins, through its enormous rise to prominence in America in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, with NIN as the focal point, to culminate with the current activities of Trent Reznor as he uses marketing and promotional initiatives in a manner just as creative as the music he continues to compose.

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Metal Machine Music: Nine Inch Nails and the Industrial Uprising 8.0

eyelights: its lengthy overview of NIN’s career. the wealth of archival material.
eyesores: the speculative analyses.

‘Metal Machine Music’ is a 2009 documentary on industrial music, with its focal point being the rise and success of Nine Inch Nails and its founder Trent Reznor. Although NIN is Reznor’s brainchild, this film is not actually a biography of his life more so than a career overview of NIN, its influences and the influence it has had on music and pop culture.

With a 130 minute runtime, it’s not a breezy affair, but it’s so full of interviews (incl. Jarred Louche (Chemlab), Rick Patrick (NIN), Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle), Eric Powell (16volt), and Chris Vrenna (NIN)), commentary, video clips of various bands (some live, some music videos), pictures, magazine adverts, posters, …etc., that it’s difficult to fault it.

There are also ample segments from NIN videos and such a substantial amount of soundbytes of their music that a fan couldn’t possibly feel cheated. In fact, there are so many snippets of various artists/bands (incl. more mainstream ones such as David Bowie, Depeche Mode and Sex Pistols) that it’s a wonder that the filmmakers could afford the rights to it all.

I was quite surprised, truth be told, because this looked like one of those “unauthorized” type DVDs, the likes of which there are tons, and which invariably always depend on bootlegged live material or recreations of the original music to provide points of reference in their discussions and analyses. I still picked it up, however, because there is a dearth of material on the genre.

Very much in keeping with those unauthorized documentaries, however, was the fact that, aside for the interviews there were only five critics discussing the genre and NIN’s music. Perhaps the filmmakers blew their budget on the rights to all those music and video extracts. Nothing against these talking heads, but a greater variety usually means a broader analysis or overview.

Some of the critics were clearly passionate about their subject: one of them has written two books on Nine Inch Nails and most of them seem to have followed the band since its inception. Unfortunately, for all their passion I felt that their analyses were filled with much speculation; they clearly didn’t have an inside track on what was going on with Reznor or NIN.

Thankfully, the documentary tries to cover its bases relatively well. It goes back to Sex Pistols, explaining that industrial music grew in a parallel with punk music. Both came from a discontent with the status quo and were made by non-musicians; anyone could make this music. Those early days saw Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten and Cabaret Voltaire take hold.

A lot of time is spent on Throbbing Gristle, partly because P-Orridge is interviewed at length, but also because they are considered innovators of the genre. In fact, ‘Metal Machine Music’ suggests that the term “industrial music” is likely taken from Throbbing Gristle’s Industrial Records label. Speculation, or fact? It’s not made particularly clear (although the lone extra cements it as fact).

Apparently Mute Records played a part in the development of industrial music by signing a few key acts of the genre. Depeche Mode, their greatest success, is also mentioned, with some of the critics mentioning their mix of pop and darker themes. However, they completely ignore the fact that DM for a time made music in the same way as industrial acts do, by using sounds to create music.

In fact, I’ve long described Depeche Mode’s sound during the Alan Wilder years as being industrial pop, because of the soundscapes that they created using not just keyboards and computers, but all sorts of sounds. They would go out and record anything that seemed interesting and incorporate it in their music. And yet they made chart-topping pop singles.

Two notable industrial acts, Ministry and Skinny Puppy, brought in abrasive synths to the mix, changing industrial music. Soon thereafter, Ministry brought metal to the mix, eventually becoming heavier and heavier. Reznor was influenced by them, and actually idolized Al Jourgensen. After some dabbling with electropop, he created Nine Inch Nails (calling it Purest Feeling first).

The documentary talks about how NIN stood out on the scene. The participants talk about the on-stage violence of their early live shows, how it basically overwhelmed the opening acts and drew crowds. They soon were headliners. Many thought that the violence was choreographed, but ex-band members say that it’s not the case; they fed off the crowd’s enthusiasm for the brutality.

When they released their ‘Broken’ EP, they came out with an aural attack that some of the participants said stunned everyone. How could they get heavier, they asked themselves at the time? The documentary made it sound as though ‘Broken’ helped usher in a heavier industrial sound, influencing even those who had influenced NIN, such as Ministry, Skinny Puppy and Front 242.

From that point on, NIN secured commercial success with the release of ‘The Downward Spiral’, which netted them one of the decade’s most popular songs, “Closer”. Then their blistering appearance at the 1994 edition of Woodstock sealed the deal. It was the turning point for industrial music: by being so popular, NIN shaped the genre.

The participants talked about Reznor’s ability to sell his projects, how calculating he was in finding his success. But one of them also states that, ultimately, NIN were on the scene at just the right time. The documentary continues with NIN’s career from that point onward until 2008, with the release of ‘The Slip’, then their most recent album.

‘Metal machine Music’ is an incredibly professional documentary and truly impressed me with its production quality. As for its substance, well, it’s a good primer, but it’s not especially revelatory; for some reason, I felt as though I already knew most of the NIN-related material, even though I’m not really that big of a fan. And there’s a lot of NIN stuff here.

But, as a fan of the industrial music genre to some degree and being an avid melomaniac, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this. Truth be told, I had the intention of watching it in bursts, perhaps over two days, but the moment that I started to play it, I was committed to it. ‘Metal Machine Music’ may not go deep, but it’s nonetheless an engrossing programme.

Date of viewing: October 20, 2014

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