Nine Inch Nails, O2 Arena, gig review: 'Steeped in nostalgic appeal and musical ferocity'

Frontman Trent Reznor could give a passionate performance in his sleep

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The Independent Culture

As the crowd waits for industrial rock’s most well-known icon to take to the stage at London’s largest music venue, the sense of excitement is palpable.

Aside from a Reading festival warm-up show at the rather more intimate Scala last year, this is the first time that Nine Inch Nails have played in London since Trent Reznor announced their hiatus in 2009.

This outing sees the act back on familiar cavernous arena turf, playing to a multiple-thousand strong army of fans dressed head to toe in uniform black. However derisive one might be about alt-rock acts playing stadium shows, there is no denying that NIN have both the fan base and the musical intensity to fill the space up wholeheartedly.

After opening with a somewhat shrug-inducing ‘Me, I’m Not’, the curtain that cuts off a sizeable chunk of the stage (including drummer) is torn down to a fists in the air performance of "1,000,000" from 2009’s The Slip. NIN have always put effort in to the visual element of their live shows and tonight’s intense lightshow does not disappoint, pummelling the crowd with an assault of strobes whenever the surrounding cacophony reaches fever pitch.

The set list is career-spanning, without a particular emphasis on new material. The tracks that are aired from last year’s release Hesitation Marks, however, are well-received. "Copy of A" and "Came Back Haunted" whip the crowd in to a frenzy with their heavy synth beats and trademark sense of escalating danger. Another deviation from the expected repertoire is a keyboard interlude that sees Reznor lay haunting melodies over fizzing static, the stage smoky and dark behind him. 

Among the more rousing of the classics played is ‘"March of the Pigs" - a rage-driven anthem that is the first in the evening to really set the pit on fire - along with the snarling "Wish" and "The Wretched".

Later on, "Head Like a Hole" delivers its timeless shout-along chorus with gusto. Less exciting is an obligatory wheeling out of "Closer", which feels a tad tired but receives a rapturous reception none the less.

Reznor himself emanates stage presence, which is not merely a result of the beefed-up stature he has developed in recent years. Hunched over the microphone, he spits out his uniquely tortured vocals in a quality almost indistinguishable from those on record.

There is undoubtedly still passion driving the performance, but you get the feeling that, after all these years, he could really do this in his sleep. He spends the set alternating between looming over the keyboard, forcefully wielding a guitar, and managing to be perhaps the only person alive to make a tambourine look threatening.

Aside from the occasional barked “Thank you!” there is little in the way of audience interaction, a disappointment for those lifelong fans who grew up with Reznor as the mouth piece for their adolescent angst. Here, he remains as unknowable as his music is familiar.

The encore is, of course, Reznor’s truly affecting rendition of "Hurt". The entire arena rises as one to chant along, an appropriate end to an evening as steeped in nostalgic appeal as it has been in musical ferocity.

Vivienne Egan made the successful bid in our Christmas Charity Auction to write a pop review of her choice