Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13

Categories: Last Night
Photo by Erik Hess

Nine Inch Nails: Tension Tour
With Explosions in the Sky
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Saturday, September 28, 2013

A quarter century after forming Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor is finally losing his edge. Some say it happened a long time ago, but it's definitely happening -- in spite of his beautiful family, his deft straddling of DIY/major label culture, his gym membership, his Academy Award, his Dr. Dre collabo, and all the pieces that fell into place in the less-recent past. Either that, or it's happening because of these milestones.

Fortunately for his muse, the whole mid-life, mid-career crisis thing can be just as much of a dark cloud as being a frustrated teenager -- if you squint just right. A resulting new Nine Inch Nails album is an exploration of dance music and major chords cleverly called Hesitation Marks. And St. Paul's hosting of a new tour's opening night would prove whether or not a 48-year-old Reznor could roll out this model of himself and have anyone buy into it.

See Also: Slideshow: Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13

It began aptly with "Copy of A," which encapsulated the woes of giving a dedicated audience what they passionately crave without being bored to tears creatively. After years of making his name writing as a tortured persona, eventually it wasn't believable anymore coming from the successful emperor of dirt. Just as LCD Soundsystem's markedly younger James Murphy once snootily turned losing his edge into art, this song is a triumphant admission of defeat.  Strong in voice, Reznor sang "I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/ Everything I say has come before," over a bass-heavy groove. It's privileged tension, but tension all the same.

Nearly four years since the Wave Goodbye Tour, Nine Inch Nails have forged a live experience built on precision musicianship, a mix of hits and ample new material, the most impressive Matrix-like light displays ever concocted, and more smoke than Wiz Khalifa's dressing room. Under stage lights initially hanging low enough for Reznor and co. to touch them with outstretched hands, this hockey arena felt like the biggest basement show ever. Eventually, it became like watching artificial intelligence eat a band.

Photo by Erik Hess

Even if we all know things are going well for Mr. Self Destruct, Reznor still did his part to at least appear to be in hell throughout the performance. With only three basic moves at his disposal -- the double-fist mic clasp and wail, the dramatic lean back with head bowed and eyes clenched shut, and the rallying wave of a rippled arm or two -- he sold "Terrible Lie" with more conviction than a thousand Chester Benningtons. With a two-guitar attack courtesy of NIN vet Robin Finck and multi-instrumentalist Josh Eustis, this was discordant bliss. As they transitioned into a brightly lit "March of the Pigs," the entire crowd became a singular pumping fist, and then everyone turned on a dime to vamp it up for the smarmy lounge act of "Piggy." "Let's fuckin' do this!" were the only spoken words necessary at its closure.

Photos by Erik Hess

As the performance deepened, Reznor did his best to let the music and transparent projection screen in front of the band do the talking -- until the live spectacle came to a sudden halt. At this point, his crisp ensemble was highlighted by Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson completely owning backup vocals, bassist Pino Palladino holding court, and drummer Ilan Rubin racking up an unreal Whack-A-Mole score on the kit. After "Came Back Haunted" provided razor-sharp proof that the clowns of EDM will get beaten at their own game by stadium rock you can dance to, everything went black. Reznor announced, "We have to make sure we have our shit together," and a few quiet minutes passed by.

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