Rewind 20 years: In 1992, Reznor was, in his own words, “26 years, on my way to hell,” and his then-newest music, the Broken EP, sounded like the mouth of damnation itself. Noisy and abrasive, full of glitch sounds (not a Reznor innovation, though Broken was probably the first commercially successful album to use them), the EP took a huge step away from the frigid synth-pop found on NIN’s 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine.
Obviously, Reznor has accomplished more in the last 20 years than most musicians would manage over the course of three or four lifetimes. He took Nine Inch Nails from a band that could not perform live to an arena draw, and in so doing put on some of the most elaborate stage shows in modern rock. Offstage, Reznor embraced file sharing and remix culture in unprecedented ways — Radiohead received the acclaim for releasing a major album for free, but Reznor did it with more conviction (In Rainbows had major-label backing as a pay-what-you-want release; The Slip was independent and exclusively free). Reznor’s soundtrack for The Social Network is the first primarily electronic score to win an Oscar. His improbable metamorphosis from strung-out dance-club gadfly wrapped in VHS tape to tuxedo-clad and happily married Academy Award-winning composer could be the subject of its own Oscar-bait biopic (directed by Reznor accomplice David Fincher, naturally).
Still, massive though Reznor’s circle of influence has become, it remains oddly invisible. Bands that draw openly from NIN are rare in 2012. According to cliché, everyone prefers an artist’s older work, but industrial — the genre that birthed Reznor and NIN in the late ’80s — shows him little deference today. In 2012 the industrial trend du jour is still EBM, and I don’t hear Reznor in Combichrist or any of their disciples. Did Reznor veer too far from his roots too early on? Twenty years ago, Reznor was remixing Megadeth and KMFDM, artists whose music was as abrasive as his own. At the same time, Reznor’s collaborators on Fixed, the remix album that couples with Broken, were by and large other electronic and industrial producers.
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