LIVE: Nine Inch Nails @ O2 Academy Brixton, London

By Adam Rosario

Brixton Academy has seen legendary artists take to its stage for many years now, serving as a rite of passage in their careers. Bands on their way up strive to get there while bands who have made it love to come back, and tonight Nine Inch Nails are the returnees. Following a worldwide live music hiatus, their own decision to record film scores (quite successfully as their Grammy and Academy Award cabinets show) and take on production duties (on the critically acclaimed Halsey record), now is the perfect time for them to make their return. Trent Reznor has always seemed to be a loner but now, with Atticus Ross by his side, Nine Inch Nails sound bigger than ever. 

‘Mr Self Destruct’ opened the night, with its thunderous drumbeat giving way to a futuristic synth backdrop and Trent Reznor whispering the lyrics before unleashing his trademark shouts. Nine Inch Nails have always been ahead of the curve, making synthesisers a focal point within their industrial rock and it’s only now that popular music is beginning to catch up. ‘Wish’ is next, morphing the Academy into a rave scene, with flashing lights ricocheting at all angles. Their stage setup is minimal, a collection of lights inside of metal crates, but these are some of the brightest, creating an almost strobe effect and creating horror-like scenes as a result of the architecture.

Nine Inch Nails have always been a band who will play what they want on any given night, changing set lists throughout their tours and thankfully, tonight was one of those nights where they decided to play all of the big hits. ‘March Of The Pigs’ turned the crowd into a sea of limbs, with various liquids being thrown in the air and pits opening all over the place. ‘Piggy’ followed, giving the crowd a moment of respite and letting them catch their collective breath after a relentless opening.

Always full of surprises, Nine Inch Nails decided tonight was the night to give a song its live debut. ‘Sunspots’ from 2005’s ‘WITH_TEETH’ record caught the crowd completely off guard before catching up and singing the chorus back in unison, this fierce reaction making you wonder why it had never made the setlist before.

Nine Inch Nails are, officially, a two-piece band, made up of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, however, the unsung hero of the night is Ilan Rubin, their drummer. The man is a powerhouse behind the kit, clattering his way through the likes of ‘Everything’ and ‘Heresy’. Through his previous work and relentless touring, Rubin has become one of the best drummers in the world and this was a star making performance from him.

‘Copy of A’ is greeted by a loud cheer from the audience, before the best run of songs of the entire set started. Fan favourite ‘Closer’ rumbled through the speakers, sparking anarchy before ‘The Perfect Drug’ is played for only the 26th time in the band’s history. The surprises keep on coming when ‘The Perfect Drug’ segues into ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ by David Bowie, a song which NIN were the architects of remixing. Playing David Bowie covers in Brixton where he is so revered is a brave move but NIN have never cared what anyone thought about their choices, so much so that they play ‘Fashion’ – another sassy Bowie song – which lets Reznor show off his already impressive vocal range. The main set closes with two of the bands biggest songs, with ‘The Hand That Feeds’ bringing the crowd to fever pitch before ‘Head Like A Hole’ sees the band wring every last drop of sweat out of them.

A three song encore of ‘Reptile’, ‘Even Deeper’ and the all time classic ‘Hurt’ close the night.  The crowd sang every word of the latter before the band calmly and casually walk away like they haven’t just dominated one of London’s most iconic venues. Nine Inch Nails have been a formidable force in the live setting for most of their careers and now, nearly 35 years into their lifecycle, they can lay claim for being the best live band in the world. Trent Reznor is all business throughout the night but he doesn’t need to engage the crowd with his stage patter when he has the songs to do the talking for him.