<preform>Nine Inch Nails, Astoria, London</br>Happy Mondays, Brixton Academy, London</preform>

Inner strength vs outer impotence
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The Independent Culture

'It's been a long time," says Trent Reznor, running his fingers through his slick black hair, and finally deigning to speak. "Thanks for coming out." And he's not kidding. For me, it's been a whole decade since Nine Inch Nails soundtracked my life. 1994 was a fertile year for morbid, quasi-suicidal, misanthropic angst-rock masterpieces, and Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral - recorded in 10050 Cielo Drive, the Hollywood Hills house where Charles Manson's disciples murdered Sharon Tate - forms the third, most underrated part of an unofficial trilogy whose other two components were In Utero by Nirvana and The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers.

'It's been a long time," says Trent Reznor, running his fingers through his slick black hair, and finally deigning to speak. "Thanks for coming out." And he's not kidding. For me, it's been a whole decade since Nine Inch Nails soundtracked my life. 1994 was a fertile year for morbid, quasi-suicidal, misanthropic angst-rock masterpieces, and Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral - recorded in 10050 Cielo Drive, the Hollywood Hills house where Charles Manson's disciples murdered Sharon Tate - forms the third, most underrated part of an unofficial trilogy whose other two components were In Utero by Nirvana and The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers.

The material from TDS forms the backbone of tonight's comeback show, which is one of the hottest tickets in London for months. Its closing track, "Hurt" - as covered so beautifully by Johnny Cash - is the show's most haunting moment: just Trent, an electric piano, and 2,000 rapt faces.

Reznor does not have the emotional vocabulary of Cobain, nor the political vocabulary of Edwards, but he does have a powerful directness and verbal economy. Lyrics like "God is dead/ And no one cares" don't work on the page, but certainly do when Reznor is screaming them as though from the depths of a torture chamber.

This kind of nihilism may seem facile and adolescent, especially when coming from a man who is pushing 40, and was pushing 30 when he wrote it (nihilism, of course, being the easiest moral position). But as a defiant show of inner strength against outward impotence, it is eloquent in its own way.This broad style of music - gothic music, industrial music, whatever you choose to call it - is onomatopoeic and literal, in an often trite manner. (Feeling dark and angry? Well, let's express it with some dark, angry sounds.) But if you take it on face value, NIN do it better than most.

Nine Inch Nails, like most industrial rock acts, create a sonic war zone as backdrop to the singer's ego (visually, as well as aurally: as I type this, I can still see pink and green spots before my eyes). But whereas, for example, there's a vacancy at the core of Ministry (magnificent as they often are), there is a real emotional core to NIN.

The combination works, and never more effectively than on "Wish", its explosive, exhilarating guitars taking the visceral power of Motörhead and focusing it to laser intensity as Trent screams his self-hatred ("I'm the one without a soul, I'm the one with just a fucking hole!"). Providing respite from the thrashing is "Closer", a song which, despite its insistently sexy groove, you cannot risk dancing to in a club, for fear of catching the wrong person's eye during the chorus: "I want to fuck you like an animal..."

There is, of course, new material (a new album, With Teeth, is imminent), all of it unfamiliar, but judging by tonight, it takes a more traditionally rockist, out-and-out heavy metal direction, with a noticeable increase in guitar soloing. Indeed, Reznor spends most of the show with a guitar slung around his neck, restricting his mobility.

Back in the Nineties, Trent's penchant for wanton onstage aggression left a trail of departed (and injured) band members, and meant that keyboardists had to be locked inside a cage for their own protection.NIN's new bassist is former Marilyn Manson sidekick Twiggy Ramirez, now going by his given name Jeordie White. Twiggy was kicked out of Manson's band for - among other misdemeanours - going so wild with his instrument-smashing that he sent the drummer tumbling from the riser, and breaking his shoulder. Tonight, if he's a danger to anyone, it's himself. Executing headstands on the Marshall stacks, leaping off and swinging his instrument hazardously until he smashes it completely. Tellingly, during "Starfuckers Inc", he goes absolutely Radio-Rental.

Speaking of which, the Happy Mondays are back. It's Easter Saturday, and most of the Brixton Academy crowd have been partying hard since they knocked off work on Thursday: not for nothing is this comeback billed as "48 Hour Party People". There are some seriously Pete Tonged people in here: if they were drawn by a cartoonist, they would have "x"s for pupils. Some of them evidently haven't stopped since first time around, others have dusted off their beanies for the first time in years, and the only baggy thing about them now is their eyes.

This, then, should be my hell. And the Mondays should always have been my antichrist. Me: a vaguely puritan recovering Morrissey fan who didn't touch anything stronger than cider. They: indolent recidivists who used to feed pigeons on poisoned bread, and once blew a multi-thousand recording advance on flying to Barbados and taking crack.

The fact is, though, that Happy Mondays held an illicit fascination. They were sonically far more interesting than, for instance, the weak Merseybeat of The Stone Roses. Some of their material hasn't dated too well, and the backing vocals of Rowetta (still in the fold tonight) give it an unpleasantly Eurythmics-y, Eighties feel. But Ryder's lyrics, when he set his addled mind to it, were poetry: grotty lowlife and trash culture filtered through a fine (but wasted) mind.

I'm instantly reminded of this when Ryder steps out tonight and delivers one of the greatest opening verses in pop: "Son, I'm 30/ I only went with your mother 'cause she's dirty/ And I don't have a decent bone in me/ What you get is just what you see, yeah..." Dropping "Kinky Afro" first sets a standard which the rest of the Mondays' latest comeback show struggles to match, and following it with "Loose Fit" - a song about how ace baggy jeans are - emphasises the point. However, third up (and a surprise, since it wasn't technically a Mondays track) is "The Reverend Black Grape", which again reminds you that when Ryder was on form, he was untouchable. But as anyone who saw that poignant E4 documentary will know, Ryder is in a bit of a mess. So squat that he barely has a neck, he spends the show stood virtually still in his Adidas wifebeater vest, dark glasses jammed over his eyes. Bez, by contrast - the often mocked dancing goon now arguably more famous for his stint on Big Brother - is as fit as a butcher's dog, although it must be said that when he whips off his rainbow-knit grandad's tank top to reveal a "DROP ACID NOT BOMBS" message, one look into his boggling eyes makes you wonder whether laying waste to distant cities isn't, on balance, such a bad option.

This comeback is about one thing, and that's paying off debts. Which is why, like it or not, Happy Mondays have to play to the gallery. "I fookin' HATE this one," Ryder whines during the preamble to "Step On", before reluctantly informing us that we're twisting his melon, man. It's OK, Shaun. So do I.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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