The Downward Spiral – Nine Inch Nails ★★★★½

1994The Downward SpiralNine Inch Nails★★★★85RockIndustrialElectronic Rock

The Downward Spiral has so many things going for it, and really feels like a starting point for making some of the darkest parts of alternative rock and metal music from the 90s more mainstream. Yes, Trent Reznor as Nine Inch Nails has been making music for years before this, and alternative groups like Korn and Marilyn Manson were already bubbling up, while grunge introduced plenty or darker themes for radio rock, but The Downward Spiral has a raw emotional edge to it that didn’t feel tapped into fully in 1994. 

While this album is usually considered a rock classic, it is a lot more industrial and electronic than it is actual rock music. Most of the percussion is created either through a drum machine, samples or loops, which is typically what happens when a band would bring Flood in to produce an album back in the 90s. A lot of the guitar is highly distorted to the point where it could be synthetically produced. Most tracks also have a modulating synth engine beneath the surface that, combined with the percussion, creates a driving force that propels you through the record. 

The seven-song run to start the album up to “I Do Not Want This” is incredible and there are a lot of individual moments in each song that really standout. 

“Mr. Self Destruct” pretty perfectly sets you up sonically and lyrically for what the album will be taking you through — it’s loud and abrasive right away with electronic, industrial  production, over distorted layers of guitar and muddy vocals, and has these huge contrasts in dynamics and timing that come out of nowhere. “Heresy” starts with a kickass synth out of the 80s that turns into a revving guitar sound in the chorus. I love the modulating synth bass in the pre chorus on “March of the Pigs” leading up to the commercially soft  “Now doesn’t that make you feel better?” line, before getting loud again. I enjoy that the melody at the end of “Closer” is playing in reverse in the distance during the song’s chorus, and returns as a reprise in the title track later on the album. And the synth brass in the chorus of “Ruiner” is really fun and really makes the soft, slower guitar solo at the bridge stand out. “The Becoming” does the exact opposite, with a heavy metal distorted guitar in the bridge that contrasts the acoustic guitar through the majority of the song.

Later on, “A Warm Place” is another aptly named song, because it kind of serves as a warm, softer, slightly comforting and reflective moment right after the craziness on “Big Man With A Gun.” “Eraser” adds in instruments gradually every eight bars or so and has a slightly unorthodox time signature as the song builds for 3 and a half minutes before the few lyrics at the end. And then “Hurt,” obviously, is an iconic track with its haunting dissonant, hanging note at the end of every phrase, leading to that final, grand explosion of noise at the very end. In terms of finishing off an album there aren’t many albums that do so more appropriately.

I don’t like every moment on this album or every song, but I can find something cool in each, which makes for a rewarding listening experience every time. 

That said, The Downward Spiral absolutely is not an album for everyone, or an album for any time or mood. It’s uncomfortable at times, abrasive most of the way through and obviously tackles themes and subjects like suicide, violence, mental health and inner termoil that aren’t particularly fun to think about. 

I also feel that the album’s a little front heavy, with the softer tracks near the end serving a purpose to balance the album and the story but without being that memorable other than “Hurt. And the album, for how intense and draining it is emotionally, is probably a few tracks too long. I think most folks probably get their fill 50 minutes in, which would be a lot more palatable than the hour plus we get.

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