The Nine Inch Nails Clones Who Were Actually Kind of Sick
It was 1994 when Nine Inch Nails, covered in mud, took the stage at the 25th anniversary of Woodstock. By the time it was over, Trent Reznor was a rock star and the mainstream decided to begin its brief, uneven love affair with industrial.
The mid-'90s deluge of industrial rock never elicited the apocalyptic hyperbole and gatekeeping the way nü-metal did. One reason is, much like the grunge uprising, the gatekeepers themselves benefited so greatly from its popularity. Bands that had slaved over a hot synth for years were now selling records at Sam Goody. Wax Trax! was getting name-checked by small-town kids who sketched Brandon Lee as the Crow in their notebooks. But while industrial was likely on the precipice of success no matter who took the next step, 1994's The Downward Spiral was the first record to speak in two registers to two different kinds of people.
Calculated or not, The Downward Spiral lives as a provocative album in two separate ways. "I want to fuck you like an animal" was what made "Closer" the dance song teens could giggle about, but two tracks earlier is the unambiguous "God is dead and no one cares / If there is a Hell, I'll see you there" from “Heresy.” That makes a lot fewer people blush, but for those struggling with questions of faith, the rhetoric is bracing.
In other words, Nine Inch Nails provided a blueprint for two kinds of musicians: those who wanted to head further down the spiral, and those who would prefer to take the elevator back up. Here are five records of varying merit during that aftermath.
STABBING WESTWARD, WITHER BLISTER BURN & PEEL (1996)
Stabbing Westward is the band that best learned how to thread the needle of music that could feel transgressive while also feeling safe. After their sprawling, bleak debut, Ungod (1994), the band co-opted the PG-13 elements of The Downward Spiral to create something a little more palatable.
“I Don't Believe” opens with the lines “I'm such an asshole / God, I'm such a stain / I just keep fucking up / again and again,” but quickly reveals itself to be your average tale of a jilted lover. “What Do I Have to Do?” never answers the title's question, but the video — drenched in gaudy, oversaturated colors — shows that the only option is running someone over with a car. But you don't see the act, and the girl remains alive, keeping it all metaphorical, harmless. “Sleep” is a tale of incestual abuse, but its delivery was completely defanged in the post-Smells Like Children world, and the video for “Shame” is a meta-thriller with a girl running from a psycho killer as the band watches from a theater with 3D glasses.
By the end, it's a tale of universal melancholy that passes the blood-brain barrier of frustrated teens, but makes sure to never push any harder than that. And yet, even if this were all done to nakedly move units, Wither Blister Burn & Peel remains the best industrial rock album of the '90s.
While follow-up Darkest Days feels too much like a flat retread, and their final, self-titled album wanders so far into adult contemporary that even veteran critics of the band would be shocked (one song is eerily similar to Shawn Colvin's “Sunny Came Home”), Stabbing Westward had this one moment of streamlined radio hits and a thoughtful honing of their own sound. Songs like the atmospheric "Why" and the slow burn “Inside You” show that the band could evolve while also writing incredibly catchy, distorted pop.
Singer Christopher Hall was an easy target for his pretty boy industrial fashion, looking as meticulously constructed as Jordan Catalano, but he can also sing like a motherfucker. Industrial was never known for stunning vocal performances, and on this album, Hall laps just about everyone.
The record's momentum slows towards the end, and seeing it clearly now as a polishing of the underground may feel a little cheap, but for an album whose title references disintegration, it stands up incredibly well.
FILTER, SHORT BUS (1995)
On this brief list, Filter, which featured two former members of Nine Inch Nails, were really the only band to arguably try and further the blueprint Reznor had laid out. A utilitarian creation, debut Short Bus lived up to the promise of its surprising hit “Hey Man, Nice Shot.”
Lyrically, it still falls short. Frontman Richard Patrick is not a particularly gifted lyricist (From “Gerbil”: "He gets out of bed / He goes to the room / He turns on the set / He is as smart as a broom"). But he still says he wants to “stick my dick” in Christians' faces, and the aforementioned hit made the graphic, gun-in-mouth suicide of R. Budd Dwyer one of the grisliest topics to ever make it on the Billboard 100.
On the music side, though, the album remains exceptional. Save for a couple dirges that arguably lose their thread, the whole thing is tightly constructed and even manages to make two morose acoustic numbers feel integral.
Considering that Patrick's desire to move into more commercial territory is what led co-founder Brian Liesegang to exit the band, it's hard to know if they would have been able to replicate this. But considering that the unforgivable “Take a Picture” wound up becoming their biggest hit four years later, even a follow-up half as good would have been a pleasant alternative.
GOD LIVES UNDERWATER, EMPTY (1995)
God Lives Underwater is the only band that became better when they realized that, as an industrial band, they were terrible.
Their biggest hit, “From Your Mouth,” actually came from 1998's Life in the So-Called Space Age, a techno record focused on trip-hop beats and free of all traces of metal. That record was slammed by OG fans of the band, but unlike their debut full-length, it plays to strengths that were always present.
Empty, on the other hand, sounds like a band with no interest in industrial, but instead was convinced (possibly by producer Rick Rubin) to pursue the emerging trend. That would explain why everything on the album sounds so distracted.
The guitars sound like afterthoughts played through amps made of tinfoil; the lyrics read as if they were tweaked to be slightly more melodramatic at the last minute; the beats given an arbitrary boost of distortion in post. And the vocal delivery is so bored and tepid, it's hard to imagine these weren't demo versions that mistakenly wound up on the finished mix.
Working up the nostalgia to go back and enjoy this album may be difficult, but it's likely one of the only ways it's possible.
PRICK, PRICK (1995)
If you've never heard of Prick, it wasn't for a lack of trying by some major players, especially Trent Reznor. Kevin McMahon's solo project was on Reznor's Nothing label, and McMahon even played a few Prick songs with the band for three sold-out shows. The band's lone single, “Animal,” was given a video that, with its collage of odd and striking images, was clearly meant to echo “Closer.” And the single, with Reznor's aura all over it, wound up on the Fear soundtrack. (Yes, the movie where Mark Wahlberg fingers Reese Witherspoon on the roller coaster.)
And still, you may have never heard of Prick, or are just vaguely remembering them now. That's likely because the remainder of the record is avant, challenging and just fucking weird as shit.
From the jarring, junk-rock opener “Communique” to the noise-piano closer “Makebelieve,” Prick swerve haphazardly through genres: airy Bowie hooks, song structures that feel like they're barely-kept-together chicken wire. Industrial snippets pop up, but they don't seem tethered to the genre as much as being what happened to come up on a wheel spun by a schizophrenic savant.
The lyrics are just as inexplicable. On “Other People,” McMahon sings, "I got a red dress, yellow dress, black dress / I got a closet full of miracles / Pink panties, blue panties, yellow panties / I'm gonna wrap around your nose, oh panty-ho-hose ... If you don't want it, other people will.” It's supposed to be seductive, and yet, delivered in McMahon's nasally, frantic tone, you're not sure how to feel. That ambiguity is what most crippled Prick's chance at success, and what makes listening to the album today as fresh as it was back then — it doesn't sound like it belongs anywhere, and a love of industrial will likely have no bearing on whether you love this or absolutely despise it.
GRAVITY KILLS, GRAVITY KILLS (1996)
Gravity Kills are the only true one-hit wonder here, a band able to turn a single song into a record deal before they'd ever played a show. That song, “Guilty,” would end up on multiple soundtracks, including David Fincher's Seven (the only other industrial song between a Coil-remixed NIN opener and Reznor-produced David Bowie closer). This all happened six months before their debut album was even released.
Is “Guilty” better than forgotten songs like “Blame” or “Here” or “Inside”? Have we just been so hammered by its ubiquity that we're willing to concede the band created lightning in a bottle compared to rest of their debut and subsequent albums? That's as difficult as trying to figure out if something inherently good in “Steal My Sunshine” is what made it Len's most popular song.
It's also futile to debate the cosmic fairness of such immediate success and street cred given to a song with the lyric “One and one and one makes three / One and one why don't you see.” It's better to realize that “Guilty” really does typify what we've come to think of as an industrial song — that compressed, buzzsaw guitar; the propulsive, cartoon clock rhythms; the quiet-to-loud-to-quiet vocals; that patina of a creeping threat in some old warehouse. It represented the genre in the slickest, most saleable package.
By the end, though, post-NIN industrial-rock didn't sell. Not very well, at least. These five records, which were supposedly riding a newfound tide of excitement, couldn't manage to sell three million copies total in the United States. That's less than Papa Roach's Infest or the first Candlebox record.
Aside from Reznor and his protege Marilyn Manson (whose arc is far too long to include in this article), the industrial fad was little more than a footnote.
But while many from the scene were relieved that this is how it shook out, it's hard not to feel some sense of disappointment. After that Woodstock performance, which seemed to portend so much, one muddy set in 1994 ended up being the high-water mark of the genre's worldwide appeal.
And for all those musicians who listened to The Downward Spiral, who tried to alchemize that sound into something that would have mass appeal, the most successful ended up being Johnny Cash.