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Line-ups that make (or break) the band

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Logic would suggest that problems with conflicting egos and other internal issues could be avoided by operating as a solo act, but few musicians truly work alone.

Nine Inch Nails was formed in 1988 when studio assistant Trent Reznor asked owner Bart Koster if he could borrow the equipment to record a demo in his spare time. Reznor played everything except drums, and managed to blag a support slot with his idols Skinny Puppy. Nine tracks from those demo sessions ended up on the unexpectedly successful Pretty Hate Machine.

Reznor’s schoolfriend, Chris Vrenna, had played with Trent back in 1987 in the local Cleveland band The Exotic Birds, so it can’t have come as a surprise when Reznor called on Vrenna to perform percussion duties for NIN. Reznor portrayed NIN as a solo act, but he and Vrenna appeared inseparable from 1988 to 1997. He played keyboards and samplers as well as drums on Pretty Hate Machine, Broken, Fixed and The Downward Spiral. Along with percussionist Ron Musarra, he performed at the Skinny Puppy support shows and – despite a brief fall-out in 1991 – remained a constant presence in the band until the end of the Self Destruct tour.

Since ex-manager John Malm Jr and Trent Reznor didn’t fall out until 2003, it’s a fair bet to rule him out as the “quality control” in NIN, even if he did have a critical role in steering the band’s direction. The change in NIN’s standards had happened the minute Vrenna had left – or at least between the release of The Downward Spiral and 1999’s The Fragile. Not to say that The Fragile is a bad album – it had some pretty wonderful songs on it – but where The Downward Spiral and its predecessors had been concise, blistering exercises in combining perfect pop songcraft with disquieting electro-noise, The Fragile was saggy and bloated. It was the Kill Bill Vol 2 to its predecessor’s Pulp Fiction: in dire need of someone to tell it when to shut the fuck up. The following albums fared worse: With Teeth had maybe three good songs; Year Zero didn’t even have one. Ghosts I-IV was turgid and dull, and The Slip was only as good as With Teeth.

Perhaps it was coincidental – after all, Reznor had battled with chemical addictions and many songwriters struggle to regain their creative flow after sobering up. Perhaps he’d simply run out of ideas. He’d always suffered from writer’s block with long breaks between albums. Not many acts can release more than three strong albums in a career. Perhaps the first three was “it”, and every release since was just limping on after the sell-by date.

But we still had ‘Into the Void’ and ‘Please’ from The Fragile, ‘Hand That Feeds’ and ‘Only’ from With Teeth, and ‘Head Down’ and ‘Echoplex’ from The Slip. Reznor was still capable of writing good songs. And a lot of bad ones. He just needed someone to tell him which was which.

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