THIS MONTH IN “METAL” No. 6: Nine Inch Nails’ “Pretty Hate Machine”

The Legacy

I know how metalheads are, and I’m already ahead of you.  Is Nine Inch Nails’ full-length debut a metal album?  Not exactly, but we’ve got to step back and think bigger on this one.  October 2019’s tribute kicks off the first half of a two-part industrial mini-subseries within TMIM.  Industrial synth rock record Pretty Hate Machine marks the beginning of a career that is far from black and white.  As with any crystallized genre, there will always be some sort of radical push back.  As a visual person, my go-to example would be postmodern graphic design particularly of the 1990s, taking the torn scraps of rigidity and organizing them in a new fashion.  Not only did Nine Inch Nails use said design as their unmistakable visual identity, but very much served as its musical counterpart.  The release of Pretty Hate Machine on October 20th, 1989 laid the foundation for NIN creator Trent Reznor’s career of mainstream rule breaking for 30 years to come.

Original cover design by Gary Talpas. Photo: Genius

For those unfamiliar, the industrial rock genre takes elements of rock and oftentimes metal and combines them with heavy sampling elements in order to create a mechanized sound, using the studio itself as an instrument.  To be clear, Trent Reznor did not create the industrial genre nor am I an expert on the subject.  The stepping stones of industrial dig far too deep of a rabbit hole to dive down here as we’re emphasizing strictly the rock/metal side of it.  Pretty Hate Machine gathers synth pop of the 1980s and rips it up while injecting heavy hitting rock choruses most notable in the opening track Head Like a Hole.  Reznor’s influence is pretty clear to anyone who has dipped a toe into the industrial pool, that being the incomparable industrial engine of Ministry.  NIN had an obvious head start with a pre-paved road unlike Ministry’s early new wave records.  If Pretty Hate Machine’s sound could align with Ministry’s ever-evolving career, it would be somewhere between the darkened glitchy pop of 1986’s Twitch and the full-on mechanized middle finger of 1988’s Land of Rape and Honey.  Reznor immediately manages to spawn chaos while remaining accessible to non-metal fans with this release.

Stills from the “Head Like a Hole” music video Photo: HQ Wallpapers

None of this is to say Nine Inch Nails are Ministry copycats, in fact that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Reznor puts a distinct NIN stamp on every release and exceeds even that.  Pretty Hate Machine is an early postmodern deconstruction of popular music structure for the coming decade, turning the mainstream inside out and opening the gates to all kinds of infections.  Ministry founder Al Jourgensen puts it best on the topic of Trent Reznor’s artistry with Consequence of Sound:

“Art will eat itself, because there’s only so many places to go. I’ve credited my influence as William Burroughs, a writer, and Trent has so many influences, but at the end of the day, it sounds like Nine Inch Nails. It doesn’t sound like Ministry or Bowie. There’s some similarities but he puts his own imprint on it, and I think, good for him. He’s great.”

That’s pretty metal if you ask me.

Open-Heart Salvation

30th anniversary tribute artwork

Open-Heart Salvation

This is my most difficult TMIM illustration to date due to NIN’s strictly design-oriented visual identity, leaving the imagery quite open-ended.  Of course, this only left more room for creative interpretation.  I had been itching to do a NIN piece since I saw Jacob Bannon’s Downward Spiral illustration for Revolver, so luckily Pretty Hate Machine’s 30th anniversary wasn’t too far away.  Nevertheless, I’ve got some explaining to do.  The original blue and pink duotone scheme was immovable for me, being one of the reasons I refuse to buy the re-release consisting only of local color.  The original cover otherwise only had partial influence, being a closeup image of turbine blades stretched to resemble a rib cage.  I decided to combine this little visual information with the overarching lyrical themes of heartbreak and mechanized sound.  With the industrial roots, I jumped right to setting the scene in a lightly flooded warehouse, a lonely venue where nobody bothers to look.  Just as Reznor deconstructs genre bounds, I decided to deconstruct the human body.  I wanted to depict a mechanized extraction of the heart for ambiguous sinister use, not unlike that of a possessive relationship.  The nether organs remain in tact for restrained usage, but restraint does not equal stability.  The body is in pieces and the remaining soul is extracted from a container on the brink of shatter.  Rather than chains, I chose elements of latex and leather to echo the light S&M vibes of NIN’s essence burgeoning on PHM and records to come.  I also just love Trent Reznor, so I got to draw his face.  Altogether this is a haphazard surgical extraction of the soul, juicy but artificially modified… and wet.

Keep your eyes peeled for NEXT MONTH IN METAL as the second half of the industiral mini-subseries finishes off with a real big one. See more heavy hitters in the MONTHLY METAL GALLERY




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