Although it borrows its primary title from the controversial 1975 experimental noise album by Lou Reed, the full title of this documentary – Metal Machine Music: Nine Inch Nails and the Industrial Uprising – reveals the filmmakers’ main intent, which is to position Trent Reznor as the most influential agent in ushering the so-called Industrial music movement into the mainstream. Although Reznor does not participate in or endorse the content, it does bring a fair amount of historical background to support this idea, making Metal Machine Music one of the more detailed documents of the cultural and artistic elements that paved the way for the Nine Inch Nails phenomenon.
I’ve mentioned many times on these pages how the industrial genre began life as something very different than the loops, samples and drum machines that most associate with it today, and this history effectively forms the first quarter of this documentary. With archival footage and interviews, the filmmakers explain in detail how the movement began with bands like the UK’s Throbbing Gristle, who arguably coined the term “Industrial music” with the creation of their own label Industrial Records, and Germany’s Einsturzende Neubaten, who used heavy machinery, factory scrap metal and power tools to create alien rhythms. Even the sampling technology that quickly found its way into the driving rhythmic styles of the ‘80s and ‘90s owes a debt to the pre-digital “musique concrete” techniques that often used triggered tape loops to transform non-musical sounds into new rhythms and melodies.
The main thread tying this doc’s early chapters together is the emphasis on the DIY aesthetic employed by those early innovators, who threw out the rock ‘n’ roll rulebook even more completely than their punk-rock contemporaries, and cobbled together strange new instruments out of junk, trying to coax new, disturbing and provocative sounds out of them in an attempt to capture the attention of open-minded listeners. Interviews with Throbbing Gristle co-founder Genesis P-Orridge (the only musician outside the NIN circle to speak on this DVD) reveal a lot about the chaotic, anything-goes attitude that drove that band’s outlandish performances. Many of the revolutionary acts of this period embraced new synthesizer technology that became increasingly more affordable, opening up new avenues of experimentation that paved the way for bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Skinny Puppy and Ministry.
It was during this electronic transition that the young Trent Reznor – a talented, classically-trained musician in Cleveland who had played in a handful of ‘80s synth-pop bands – found his calling. Borrowing the hook-laden dark pop melodies of innovators like Depeche Mode and fusing them to the anger-fueled aggression of Al Jourgensen’s Ministry (which had itself begun life as a dark synth-based dance band before incorporating heavy metal guitar riffs and heavily distorted vocals), Reznor created a hard-edged sound filled with rage and nihilism… and you could dance to it. It’s no accident that his debut album was entitled Pretty Hate Machine, because those three words sum up his music perfectly.
From that first album’s original lukewarm reception to the subsequent explosion of underground popularity – thanks to the violent ecstasy of live shows on the band’s first promotional tours – the documentary draws on interviews from early Reznor collaborators like Chris Vrenna and Richard Patrick to recount the band's rugged but rapid rise to international fame. It emphasizes key “crossover” moments such as their televised appearance at the 1994 Woodstock revival, during which the mud-encrusted band blasted out songs like Terrible Lie and Reptile to a surging audience of over 70,000 and instantly made them a household name.
Vrenna and Patrick are joined by other musicians including Chemlab's Jared Louche, and music journalists like Classic Rock's Tommy Udo and Revolver's Jon Weiderhorn, to recount many well-known anecdotes that admittedly most serious NIN fans probably know fairly well, particularly surrounding the release of Broken – such as Reznor’s antipathy toward his first label TVT (a conflict which many believe inspired the fury-filled tracks from that EP) and his banned video for Happiness in Slavery which featured that notorious torture machine (and still makes me put a protective hand over my junk).
But it also adds some interesting new perspectives and anecdotes, including the story of a DJ putting the EP’s first single (and future Grammy-winner) Wish on the air without listening to it first, thus exposing the local airwaves to the words Fist Fuck. Unfortunately there is no mention of the infamous promotional movie for Broken, which was co-directed by Reznor and Throbbing Gristle’s Peter Christopherson and designed to look like a serial killer’s gory home movies – predating the so-called “torture porn” horror craze by over a decade.
A great deal of the archival Nails footage used here was originally compiled for the official NIN video chronicle Closure, which saw a limited VHS release but has never seen the light of day in DVD format (unless you count the version that Trent allegedly let out via BitTorrent a while back). Most of this footage is of poor quality, but does manage to capture the chaotic energy of the band’s first crazed tours, showing Trent and company leaping on each other, swinging from stage rafters and smashing nearly all of their instruments (a tradition they continue today). Sadly, the filmmakers couldn’t secure the rights to the hilarious Closure bonus clip of the band lip-synching to Down In It for Dance Party USA (I laughed so hard at that one I did a coffee-noser that might have caused brain damage). There’s also excerpts from several early NIN videos, (with the exception of the aforementioned snuff stuff), and concert footage through their With Teeth tour.
The latter section of the doc wisely focuses on Trent’s influence on the recording industry and his embracing of new marketing and selling strategies in the wake of his departure from Interscope records following the release of Year Zero. The groundbreaking campaigns for self-released titles Ghosts I-IV and The Slip (both of which yours truly reviewed for these pages) are discussed in detail as examples of the changing landscape of music distribution and Reznor’s active role in re-shaping that terrain.
There’s not much in the way of extra features, but one very welcome supplement is The Genesis of Industrial, made up of a large section from the Genesis P- Orridge interview in which the artist tells some interesting stories about Throbbing Gristle’s early years, and the conversation in which GP-O’s catchphrase “Industrial music for industrial people” worked its way into the genre’s lexicon. It’s a lively and affectionate interview, and Genesis is always fascinating to watch (partly due to his/her “pansexual” gender ambiguity). The only other significant supplements are text bios of various participants. Given the unauthorized nature of the documentary, it’s not surprising that there’s no additional Nine Inch Nails archival footage, but it’s still an unfortunate omission.
Despite the unfortunate lack of participation from Reznor – who no doubt is very protective of his legacy – this is still a fairly informative, wide-reaching project (lengthy too, clocking in at 135 minutes) that should fill in any gaps in knowledge for anyone with more than a passing interest in this transformative artist, and the genre he helped bring to the masses with most of its transgressive attitude and DIY techniques still intact. The story told on this DVD may conclude with the release of The Slip, but hopefully Trent’s creative journey will continue, even if the band he made world-famous may soon be put to rest for the foreseeable future.