There were precious few moments of release in Nine Inch Nails’ sprawling barrage of flashing light and urgent rhythms Friday night at KeyArena. But when catharsis came, it confirmed that frontman Trent Reznor’s four-year hiatus from NIN left little rust.
If anything, Reznor seemed energized by time away from his seminal band, which he spent composing movie scores. The band has been playing to packed houses on its “Tension 2013” tour, with openers Explosions in the Sky, and Reznor treated Friday’s sold-out crowd to a two-hour set that impressed with its scope and thoughtful construction.
The aggressive “Copy of a,” from the band’s latest album, “Hesitation Marks,” got things started as Reznor appeared on stage in an explosion of white light and billowing smoke. He wasted little time getting his new live band (including former The Who fill-in bassist Pino Palladino) cranking with “1,000,000” from 2008’s “The Slip.”
Reznor is 48, and it’s easy to forget just how long he’s been doing this. After 25 years, few things are accidental. From the expert use of a sophisticated and often overwhelming LED light show with a “you-just-gotta-see-it” quality to the perfect ebb and flow of the set list, Reznor was in complete control.
It makes sense that an artist who has written so much about submission and dominance over his career would get a kick out of manipulating his audience so completely — not that doing so was hard.
He used raging versions of “March of the Pigs” and “Piggy,” from the 1994 classic “The Downward Spiral,” to get the crowd amped up before seducing them with the odd hip-hop sensibilities of another new song, “All Time Low.” Numerous songs, including that one, benefited from the unexpected presence of backup singers Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson.
The give and take continued as “Came Back Haunted” — menacing even without the creepy music video directed by David Lynch — gave way to three more songs that ratcheted up the tension before NIN finally offered up the fist-pumping absolution of “The Wretched.”
That Lynch directed a music video for the band makes perfect sense, since Reznor is the rock star equivalent to an auteur. But even auteurs have to know when to give their audience what it wants and Reznor made sure to save some megahits (“The Hand That Feeds” and “Head Like a Hole”) for last.
Most people probably would have been satisfied if they had called it quits after that, but the band came back out for an expansive four-song encore that spanned two decades of material. It was a subtle reminder that a lot of time has passed for Reznor and his fans, so it seemed fitting that the last thought he chose to leave them with was a haunting version of “Hurt.”
“You are someone else,” he reminded them. “I am still right here.”