Nine Inch Nails: Pretty Hate Machine (Remastered Edition)

Nine Inch Nails
Pretty Hate Machine (Remastered Edition)
UMe/The Bicycle Company
Rating: ★★★★½

With this remastered reissue of Nine Inch Nails’ groundbreaking debut, Pretty Hate Machine, dropping Thanksgiving week, Black Friday promises to be even darker than usual this year.

To call Pretty Hate Machine a seminal record is an understatement. Originally released in 1989, it’s an album that not only introduced the world to volatile NIN frontman Trent Reznor, but to industrial music to boot. Over the course of its ten tracks — which include NIN staples such as “Head Like a Hole,” “Terrible Lie,” and “Sin” — PHM shows its musical mastermind playing match-maker to both his synth-pop and new romantic influences, and the grating, over-fuzzed, factory-emulating industrial sonic hallmarks of his contemporaries like repetitive and pummeling sheets of distorted synthesizers, assimilating the underground style into the continuum of alternative rock, making it a serious game changer for both genres — not to mention Reznor himself. As such, Pretty Hate Machine would arguably prevail as industrial rock’s Rubber Soul.

Its impact isn’t the only reason it’s a classic album though. For fans who discovered the band while staying up past their bedtime to watch MTV’s 120 Minutes on a Sunday night, appreciating PHM wasn’t an academic exercise. Like any album that stands the test of time, it’s the songs — not the style — that made the record resonate the way it did. Songs like the breakthrough single “Head Like a Hole” — which throws the band’s brazen, confrontational image and identity down on the table like a gauntlet, resulting in perhaps the strongest opening to a debut record this side of “Welcome to the Jungle” — or the club-ready, sleek “Down In It.” Each brimmed with enough hooks to make them immediate earworms of the highest order. Of course, the gripping, kick-to-the-teeth aesthetic of the record didn’t hurt.

It’s an album that sounds like a synthetic nightmare ripped right from one of Ridley Scott’s fitful slumbers. A meticulously crafted symphony of overlapping synthesizers, drum machines pulsating and pulverizing like jackhammers, and distortion-laden power-chords that punctured the eardrums like gut-stabbing shards (or nine inch nails, if you will) of distortion. Atop this pop-industrial mélange, Reznor sings, or more seethes, with a raspy, yearning timbre that cuts through the cacophony like a buzz-saw splintering off his, more-often-than-not, ham-fisted, angst-ridden rants — inspired by girls and God, of course— as debris. And doing so with such visceral catharsis that it (almost) redeems cringe-worthy pearls of wisdom like:

You give me the reason / You give me control / I gave you my purity / My purity you stole (from “Sin”).

For better or worse, as a lyricist Reznor’s greatest talent was his ability to craft bumper-sticker-catchy choruses out of garden-variety, adolescent goth poetry. “Head Like a Hole” being the perfect example. Whether that’s something that endears the 14 year-old inside you or embarrasses the 35 year-old you are today, it’s all part of the fun. And when Reznor belts out an impassioned f-word, he does it with more exclamation points than perhaps any other singer in rock, proving he’s at least the right man for his job.

But such, uh, plaintive exploitation of first-world-problem themes and primitive rhyme schemes were par-for-the-course when considering Reznor’s obvious new wave influences. The foreboding piano-meets-drum-machine ballad “Something I Can Never Have” — the precursor to the now legendary “Hurt” — could’ve passed for one of those precious Depeche Mode gems Martin Gore would’ve sang — and the song predates that band’s masterstroke, Violator, by only a mere year.

Joy Division / New Order bassist Peter Hook is paid homage to in nearly every bass line like the one that bounces through “Sanctified,” and establishes the melodic foundation for the tunes; each of which just as easily wouldn’t exist without the pioneering efforts of equally synth-obsessed, pop predecessors like Yaz (as on “Ringfinger”), and Thomas Dolby (as on “That’s What I Get”). Found footage of Reznor’s days leading Cleveland’s mid-’80s Flock of Seagulls look-a-likes The Exotic Birds — who at one point even played in support of Eurythmics and Culture Club — suggests that those influences were at least as, if not more, formative on the budding analog auteur than obvious ones like Gary Numan and Bauhaus, or contemporaries like KMFDM and Ministry (although their boiling blood pumps through PHM’s virtual veins as well.)

The distance between Reznor’s influences aren’t great, but someone needed to make the leap and make it sing. Reznor was the guy. And Pretty Hate Machine was the record. So it’s pretty plain to see why Nine Inch Nails are a favorite band to a great many — they’re the most important band in a genre. While Reznor would improve upon his ideas and elevate himself to stardom’s highest echelons with 1994’s classic The Downward Spiral, Pretty Hate Machine is his year zero. Not a bad fete for a first effort. Bands — even great ones — rarely arrive so fully realized.

Reznor spent most the 21 years following the record’s initial pressing trying extricate its masters from its original label, TVT Records. Now having landed those tapes in the hands of UMe/The Bicycle Company, Reznor has overseen this remastering treatment of his establishing work — which sounds as dated as it does ahead of its time — helmed by Downward Spiral engineer Tom Baker. Given Reznor’s notorious perfectionism, the job was, predictably, well done. Now audiophiles can revel in the record’s re-minted sheen as they fully experience the physical effect of hearing heretofore buried nuances like the stereo panned blips and bloops of atmospheric cuts like “Sanctified,” and double over themselves involuntarily upon finally feeling the bowl-rumbling pulse of “Head Like a Hole” as Reznor originally intended. Not only that, but they’ll get to hear it on vinyl.

Unfortunately for NIN completists, aside from the remaster and new album art-work — courtesy of longtime Reznor cover-designing confederate, Rob Sheridan — this reissue includes only one bonus track: the band’s cover of Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love,” originally released as the B-side to “Sin.”