FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 10: Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

First Impressions is a series of articles that I am writing for this blog, about listening to an album from the world of Rock or Metal that people generally regard as a classic must-listen album for the first time in my decade-plus musical history and then describing the experience.

The format of these articles is similar to but also distinct from an actual album review. Usually I will deliver insights into my history with similar music as well as into how my mind works and how both of these things change over time. You will have to either possess a fairly detailed understanding of Rock and Metal history and Subgenre conventions or have a second tab open at Wikipedia to fully follow every single point that I make, but don’t let that put you off…I’m not honestly expecting you to know every single riff or tone I’ll point out off by heart.

In this edition of First Impressions I will be listening to The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, which is a multiplatinum selling phenomenon that is widely considered to be one of the most important albums of the 1990s, has been hugely influential ever since its release and is also bizarrely one of the definitive records in Industrial music despite its boundary pushing transcendental nature. Like its music, the album’s sucess is a boundary-crossing phenomenon and the record apparently appeals to both art-school hipsters and the usually stubborn meat-headed types alike, the kind of meat heads who dismiss 99% of all music outside their own super-specific niche interest (be it Death, Doom, Black, Thrash, Hair, Power, Prog, Traditional or ‘True’ Metal), as well even appealing to the Metal-hating children of the Gunge and Alternative era and of course the people who fall somewhere in between.

Even those people who do not fall to its appeal at least know about it. All sorts of music magazines, books and websites have time for The Downward Spiral and it has an incredibly wide mind-share of the public consciousness, exceptionally wide in fact for such a dark Rock/Metal album.

Basically, from what I have both read and observed, if you are put in a room with fifty other people in the Western World, you can probably talk to at least six if not thirty of them about The Downward Spiral on some level or other.

Despite its legacy however, and despite my constant reading about it for decades in multiple re-readings of Marilyn Manson’s autobiography (that I really should grow out of) as well as its influence on dozens of other bands that I like and my knowledge of every other album by Nine Inch Nails; I never actually got around to listening to it until right now.

Usually in a First Impressions article I don’t really know anything about the band who made the album or the scene in which it was released, but this time I am already really familiar with the band. I like Nine Inch Nails a lot, I really like Trent Reznor’s voice and really respect him as an artist. I like a lot of his business decisions and his dealings with the fans and the media. Additionally, I’ve seen songs from this album on music television channels for a decade, I’ve heard tracks from it on three out of the four different live releases from Nine Inch Nails that I’ve seen and I’ve hear bands cover, sample or reference it’s song’s music and lyrics for the entire time that I’ve been into music as a hobby.

When reading up on the album just prior to listening to it I was surprised to discover that Adrien Belew from King Crimson guest-appeared, I knew he appeared on NIN’s The Fragile but hadn’t ever heard that he was on The Downward Spiral as well. I also read that the record was a concept album that told the story of a person’s titular downward spiral and eventual suicide. As a rule I generally seem to really enjoy concept albums and so have learned to automatically give them more of a chance and pay them closer attention than albums that are just a disparate collection of unrelated music which just happen to get recorded and released around the same time.

Having listened numerous times to The Fragile and being really familiar with the albums With Teeth, Year Zero and The Slip as well as having already having heard over half the album’s tracks in live form, there isn’t much on here that I was actively surprised by when compared to other the albums which I’ve explored in the First Impression series so far. Not that I actually wanted or in any way expected to be surprised by it however.

A few observations on the less-famous songs:

1. When listening to ‘A Warm Place’ I can see directly why someone would ask Trent to make a major motion picture soundtrack for them.

2. I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly heard ‘Ruiner’ or ‘The Becoming’ before, and I even though they remind me slightly of the underground levels in the original Super Mario at times and Radiohead at other times, most of their content fell within what I would want or expect from a Nine Inch Nails album.

3. There are moments on ‘I Do Not Want This’ when I can finally see why, beyond simple association, people would have compared Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar to this record, although not enough to make me retract my long-held opinion that this is an unhelpful and lazy comparison that doesn’t really hold up under too much scrutiny.

I like how the later Nine Inch Nails sound, one of my favourite Metal Personalities dislikes all the music that Trent Made post-millennium and I can kind of understand how you would think that if you heard the band in the 1990s, but personally having heard all of their work up to Year Zero basically all at once, I think its all good and in fact the newer stuff is perhaps even better. The newer albums are slightly cleaner and more audibly perfect than The Downward Spiral is, but then again when listening to tracks like ‘Big Man With A Gun,’ and especially the very heavy ending to ‘Eraser’ its definitely nice to hear something rawer than I am used to from NIN… which I guess is actually a little ironic considering how it was mostly made on computers too, just older computers than With Teeth used and so the raw/pro debate isn’t the same as, for example ‘Kiss’ 70s albums versus their 80s albums.’

While on the subject of decades, I would like to point out that despite never having listened to it as an album before, The Downward Spiral is hugely important to what I understand about the 1990s. When I think of the 1990s I don’t think of my own actual childhood, I think of a combination wave of information, that includes the music videos to Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer,’ Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ Pantera’s ‘I’m Broken,’ Machine Head’s ‘Davidian’ and Sepultura’s ‘Roots Bloody Roots’ as well as the film stock on the pilot episode of the sitcom Friends and the image/sound combo of the male best friend character from children’s TV show Clarissa Explains It All climbing into the window to the tune of a jangly distorted guitar strike. Its interesting how definitive The Downward Spiral is to my revisionist vision of the 90s. If they start making 90s nostalgia movies the way the do about the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s then I am sure a lot of people will have Nine Inch Nails t-shirts on their backs and posters on their wall and it will be specifically because of the cultural impact of this particular album.

One final observation about the actual album itself: I feel that it gets better as it goes along and, in contrast to 99% of albums that I own, does not feature all the best songs close to the start with the possible exception of the final track, which is also usually good. I feel that tracks like ‘Reptile’ and the Title Track are better than the likes of ‘Piggy’ and ‘Heretic’ so I guess I enjoy the further down the spiral that the character gets… I would wager that on repeat listens I’d get a feel for how the album itself becomes darker as the character’s mind-set gets closer to his suicide, a trait which separates the truly good concept albums from the albums that just tell a story through their lyrics.

Overall, I really enjoyed it, as I expected I would. There isn’t really much else to say on the matter.


  1. It’s album I’ll occasionally treat myself to, but like the film Oldboy it’s an urge that comes along maybe twice a year. It’s not as easily listenable as any of his other albums, but it is completely fantastic. I guess I just find that I need to set aside the time to listen to the whole thing and I’m rarely willing to do that.

    I reckon that out of the 30 or so people that work in the same room as me, there isn’t one of them I could talk to about this album on any level at all. If I still worked in Game, however, that would be different. Walk into Primark on a Saturday afternoon, for example, and out of the hundreds of people shopping in there your argument wouldn’t hold up, but go two doors down into HMV and the numbers would quickly rise. It’s not quite as omnipotent as you might think, but then you surround yourself with music types and that within which circles it’s very-to-partially familiar.

    It’ll only be 90s nostalgia films with actual research that yield NIN references. Otherwise, as with 80s films, it’ll only focus on the most popular aspects of the era as that’s what nostalgic audiences will relate to. You’re less likely, for example, to see a Reign in Blood shirt in an 80s movie in mainstream cinemas than you are a Duran Duran poster. This is much the same thing. As big as Downward Spiral was in so many circles, it’s not Definitely Maybe, Nevermind or Automatic For The People.

    I’m a big fan of Big Man With A Gun. That’s in my prospective cover-band tracklist for when I return home. I really like Piggy, too, but only in the context of the album or a live show. If it comes on in Shuffle, I’ll skip it.

    Also, based on this, a Pretty Hate Machine FI would please me immensely, and also (though it’s not strictly speaking a classic, cult or otherwise) Bruce Dickinson’s The Chemical Wedding is one of my favourite albums and I’ve always been interested to hear what you thought of it.


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