How Pretty Hate Machine and Broken created The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails’ debut album Pretty Hate Machine is now 31 years old – it’s legacy continues still…

Pretty Hate Machine was released on 20 October 1989 – notable as Nine Inch Nails first album – it was also the meeting point between synth-pop, industrial music, rock, merging into alternative metal and electronica.

Rob Sheridan’s revised album cover art for Pretty Hate Machine

From here Trent Reznor would strike out to strange, new, and sometimes, dangerous musical territory that would edge further into darkness, beginning his five-year album cycle of The Downward Spiral [1994], The Fragile [1999] and going slightly further on With Teeth [2005].

The unique synthesis of Pretty Hate Machine’s synths, keyboards and programmed drumbeats, along with heavy guitars was marked by contrasts that would define Reznor’s future direction for the Nine Inch Nails project of sonic extremes.

READ: INTO THE NEVER – Nine Inch Nails & The Creation Of The Downward Spiral

NIN Mark I – the early years

Even though the album’s liner notes stated “Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails” – marking him as an auteur in every sense – to perform the songs live, without resorting to a series of tape decks and a drum machine, Reznor adopted a “surrogate band” (- Pink, The Wall) of human machines to give the songs edge on stage.

(A stray weather observation balloon spotted the “corpse” of Reznor playing dead in the song’s video, causing an FBI manhunt to find the -then- unidentified man’s body and his killer)

From the proto-rap of “Down In It” and squelchy synth lines and raunchy guitars on “Head Like A Hole”, to the widescreen chorus of “Terrible Lie” and the piano balladry of “Something I Can Never Have” – NIN’s pop-savvy accessibility was there from the start.

Tom Breihan wrote in Pitchfork [2008]: “Pretty Hate Machine, still my favorite of Reznor’s albums, is basically a dirtied-up Human League album.” The album also betrays Gary Numan and Depeche Mode influences, whose keyboard riff and sequenced arpeggio-driven pop would expand to match their stadium ambitions.

By contrast, the Broken EP/album focussed almost exclusively on guitar-heavy aggression, a purposeful reaction to Pretty Hate Machine’s more radio-friendly sound – heavier and more intense than any of the leading grunge bands of 1992, it could even be seen as an experimental metal album.

By 1992 Pretty Hate Machine had sold 350,000 copies, more than many of Reznor’s industrial peers, and a significant achievement for an alternative band’s debut album.

NIN Mark II – evolution in action

In 1994 The Downward Spiral would achieve a much wider cultural, commercial and critical impact that ultimately transcended the first major releases of Pretty Hate Machine and Broken. But their presence in shaping that album would remain significant, both for Trent and his fans – it could be argued that with the continually evolving Nine Inch Nails sound, Reznor has continued to wrestle with the tension between these early musical extremes to the present day.

If you’d like to read more about the history of Pretty Hate Machine, check out my book – Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails & The Creation Of The Downward Spiral.

Into The Never



Read the Introduction to the book HERE


NIN – Excerpt – CLOSER

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