When Nine Inch Nails released their second full-length album, The Downward Spiral, on March 8th, 1994, it immediately sent shock waves through the alternative music scene with its bold concept (Trent Reznor's dark examination of obsession, suffering and self-destruction) and even bolder industrial-rock sound and expert songcraft. Not long after, thanks to inimitable singles like "Closer," the album became a surprise mainstream hit and against all odds now ranks as one of the decade's most commercially successful albums, as well as one of its most artistically enduring. On the eve of The Downward Spiral's 25th birthday, we asked some of our favorite contemporary musicians to talk about their experiences with this pivotal record.
Below, Lingua Ignota mastermind Kristin Hayter explains why Downward represents “an era of crushing pubescent defeat, self-loathing, unstoppable acne, braces” and how Trent Reznor’s complex architectural compositions influenced her own creativity.
TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU HEARD THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL, AND HOW YOU DISCOVERED IT.
KRISTIN HAYTER The first time I heard The Downward Spiral I was maybe 12 years old, which was still many years after its release. I probably saw the video for “Closer.” I became deeply obsessed with Nine Inch Nails.
WHAT DOES THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL MEAN TO YOU?
For me it represents an era of crushing pubescent defeat and self-loathing, unstoppable acne, braces, awkward attempts to express myself with mesh and combat boots under my gym clothes, and kids telling me to kill myself a lot. Sonically, The Downward Spiral was a gateway into industrial music and then noise and experimental. It’s not too difficult to get from Nine Inch Nails to Neubauten to Merzbow.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL BECAME AN UNEXPECTED MAINSTREAM HIT, THANKS TO SINGLES LIKE “CLOSER.” WHAT DID IT MEAN TO YOU THAT IT BECAME SO POPULAR? DID YOU FIND THIS EMPOWERING OR FEEL DISILLUSIONMENT?
I was 8 years old when The Downward Spiral came out, so too young to be an enraged punk. But generally I think it’s kinda cool when heavy and smart stuff mysteriously slips into the collective consciousness.
HOW, IF AT ALL, DID THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL INFLUENCE YOUR OWN CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT, OR THE WAY YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WRITING MUSIC?
Massive. I think Trent generally is a huge influence on me because he’s also a classically trained musician who integrates elements or fragments of classical composition into more abrasive settings. The Downward Spiral is not my favorite Nine Inch Nails release but it is the strongest example of Trent’s neat and architectural style of composition, the kinds of grids he builds. He uses a lot of signature formulas and conceits, structurally and melodically, like lines that begin minor and end major, which hit me hard because a lot of sacred music does the same thing, closing a dark phrase with an open major chord. Before I ever started making my own music, I would fuck around on my dad’s synth trying to make music like Trent, imposing layers on top of simple repeating motifs. Later I learned about all of the complex things he was doing with samplers and synths, and it’s amazing how he makes it sound so effortless and accessible. Total master.
THE VIDEO FOR “CLOSER” WAS CHALLENGING FOR MANY VIEWERS,AND WAS CENSORED BY MTV. TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TIME THAT YOU SAW THE VIDEO.
There’s a lot going on in this video, I think at the time I was probably overwhelmed by the atmosphere created by all this imagery. Probably the only thing I really recognized or understood was the sacrilegious component as I was beginning to question my own faith at the time, and the song itself is so bizarre and such an unlikely pairing of styles, while also being vulgar and visceral, I think I was really kind of shocked and mesmerized.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DOWNWARD SPIRAL TRACK, AND WHY?
Fuck the hits. I would say that for a long time it was “Reptile,” it has a really satisfying ebb and flow, and when he whispers, “GET IT” and it breaks down into that icy two note solo it’s so sick. But now I strongly feel that “Eraser” is the best track, it has a very strong build and the space it creates is very cool, very distant and then very close.
IS THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL SOMETHING YOU REGULARLY GO BACK AND LISTEN TO? OR DOES IT REPRESENT A CERTAIN PERIOD OF TIME IN YOUR HISTORY?
It definitely encapsulates a moment of nascent goth. I recently put this on driving during the night from San Francisco to So Cal on the way home from tour. There are classics like “Hurt” that you hear in the ether still, but listening through is something I hadn’t done in a long time. It’s still brilliant and a lot of it holds up, especially in our current climate of nostalgia for dark electronic/industrial music.