Nine Inch Nails @ Custom House Square, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Review by Jonathan Traynor

BELFAST’S week-long Belsonic festival has always struck me as an anomaly in the summer gigging calendar in Northern Ireland; medium scale acts performing in a cavernous open air-space surrounded by civic buildings and apartment blocks.

So when Nine Inch Nails was announced as one of the headlining acts it became clear that this was a different potentiality – a chance to see what has become an almost mythical performance.

However, I was feeling certain reservations about Snow Patrol’s Nathan Connolly’s side project Little Matador was announced as opener for the evening. ‘Snore’ Patrol are at best terrible and at worst soporific nonsense.

It was a pleasant surprise to see a three guitar alt-rock stomp – not strictly heavy rocking, but with a lot of potential should Connolly want to escape the mediocrity of Bore Patrol.

Local heroes And So I Watch You From Afar are a personal indulgence. Their heavy – mostly instrumental – groove laden rock paint musical textures in the festival air; with subtle textures that please the gradually swelling crowd and prompting certain urgency in the beer queues.

Over-priced pints aside there was – as the cliché says – there was a buzz in the air as the twilight brought movement to the stage, but it was not the usual assemblage of instruments and amps. Myself, and those around me were waiting some sort of development when a member of the road crew walked on with a sample board.

And it was Nine Inch Nails main man Trent Reznor who emerged to programme and play the samples. In a unique touch road crew members brought instruments on one by one in readiness for band members.

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With Copy of A revving the packed audience in to adulatory hysteria, I found myself near the front (in search of my moshing daughter). From there it was apparent that the main cadre of the crowd was split between devoted fans who ever note as well as lyric and those who were just there for the ‘hits’; which meant that Reznor was able to deliver a balanced set.

Early on playing Piggy and March of the Pigs back to back was a clear indication that Reznor knew the ways to please.
Whether it was as much a piece of performance art as a gig was yet to be determined. I prefer just the music and lights, but you have to hand it to Reznor that his choreography of the stage was masterful.

The aforementioned road crew were busy throughout, moving a series of screens to project images and introduce visual stimuli matching the mood of each song. From ghosted images of band members to a haunting huge projected of Reznor’s face screaming into the mic, the constantly shifting back drops were a nice touch, if a little distracting at times.

This was apparent to me as the mid-portion of the set lagged a little in energy, and at times Reznor’s guitar was lost in the mix.

Whether Reznor is a visionary or a rampant egotist has always been in dispute; when admitting a personal mistake in a song -one of the few audience interactions – his statement that he rarely made a mistake jarred with me. I hope he was being ironic.

That aside, the conclusion of the concert was perfectly timed with The Hand That Feeds and Head Like a Hole increasing the fervour and even old sceptics like myself caught up in the moment, the music and the assault on the senses.

The one song that has defined Nine Inch Nails in the public consciousness is, of course, Hurt. A cynical part of me thinks that some of those there for the ‘event’ think it was NIN covering a Johnny Cash song…but Reznor caught the audience in the web of Hurt, thousands singing along, a hypnotic moment.

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The performer isolated against a backdrop of horror images from across the globe; a perfect conclusion, leaving all leaving the arena content – and for those who think deeper reflecting on whether it was a performance or a gig.

For me NIN are a band that can challenge conceptions and stereotypes and despite the lag at times, in Belfast Reznor and his cohorts managed to encapsulate a piece of performance art with a veritable and honest exposition of a nihilistic desire to tear down the established norm.

Whether Rerznor can continue with this vision for many years more remains a moot point.

Setlist:
Copy of A
Sanctified
Come Back Haunted
1,000,000
March of the Pigs
Piggy
The Frail
The Wretched
Terrible Lie
Burn
Closer
Gave Up
Help Me I Am Hell
Me, I’m Not
Find My Way
What If We Could
The Way Out Is Through
Wish
Survivalism
Only
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like A Hole
Hurt

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