The Downward Spiral album is Nine Inch Nails’ most consistent, unified piece of music and remains one of the most artistically and culturally significant albums of the 1990s, with an influence that reaches well into the present day. The album expressed the mood and the atmosphere of its time—political, social, and personal—but more importantly it continues to resonate with countless fans and new generations of listeners. Almost in spite of itself, it has become, for many, that rare thing—the album that saved your life.
Released on March 8, 1994, to immediate critical acclaim, Spiral went on to sell over 5 million records in the United States alone. It accomplished this working for and against its fusion of transgressive themes and ideas, such as depression, obsession, addiction, BDSM, violence, atheism, and self-loathing—ideas that remain shocking today, still court controversy, and are, for some, highly offensive, directly challenging societal norms through freedom of expression and confronting middle America with itself, the harsh truths that many would prefer to ignore.
The beating begins slow and measured each strike hitting its target as it seeks a rhythm like a pounding heart — the sound within a sound — it becomes increasingly frenzied speeding-up and vigorous a blow upon a bruise one repetitive note upon note merging into a constant drone, pulverising already damaged flesh we hear the guard’s exertion huffing and puffing but relentless pushing towards an ending that never seems to come beating the victim for its own sake beyond violence.
Then sharper, faster sequencer throbs thrash against the pummelled skin of a kick drum, echoing the beating. A swarm of chainsaw guitars are driven into acceleration by a TurboSynth heaping sound upon sound, driving the track into overkill, a voice cries out, blurring pain and ecstasy, there is as much a sense of release as falling into a greater, unknowable depth.
The beating sample that opens The Downward Spiral comes from George Lucas’ first film, THX 1138  the film is set in a dystopia world, a prisoner is being beaten, the listener shares in the torture, the blind spectator to almost 30 seconds of physical attack before the song explodes into the punishing rhythm of a new information overload. The introduction to Mr Self Destruct sets the tone of violent imagery driven by the application, and abuse, of power.
From the first line of the song Reznor’s narrator emerges alongside the ‘hidden’ voices, the “bad parts” of himself, long-suppressed, now unleashed, interrupting thought and barking directives to command absolute control. Already we hear echoes of the track, Atrocity Exhibition that begins Joy Division’s final album, Closer, it begins: “This is the way/Step inside.” borrowing its title from J. G. Ballard’s book, which recounts a psychological breakdown through a series of fragmented vignettes of increasing carnage. Having just overheard someone beaten to a pulp, the listener is presented with an emerging horrorshow suggesting things will only get more extreme from here.
Mr Self Destruct meets the original definition of the word ‘atrocity’, an image or experience that metaphorically burns itself onto the eye, scarring the mind. Already, the listener is placed in a controlling position of pain and pleasure, fascinated enough to embrace the vision or too shocked to keep watching; suspended at a point of witnessing: Oedipus blinds himself for killing his father and sleeping with his mother, in the film Oldboy  the protagonist cuts out his own tongue so he cannot be made to confess an awful truth. Jean-Paul Sartre traded one version of hell for another, from his famous line: “hell is other people” his play, No Exit  about people without eyelids, who have no choice but to see everything and to be seen by one another. For Reznor’s narrator the addictive drive of self-destruction is an abyss he cannot help but gaze into.
Reznor purposefully distorted the whole track making it a more abrasive listen, driving the intensity of the song and distancing the voice from its humanity into something alien. We feel the anger, aggression and self-loathing, a series of trigger reflexes, the beginning of an ongoing conflict as the narrative voice wrestles with itself.
The song directly references intravenous drugs suggesting narrator’s drive towards excess, feeding the speed of the song as a boost to the bloodstream, a bullet fired from a gun, all moving towards a point of exhaustion and collapse. Addiction is the unsatisfied hunger that ultimately defeats the addict. As William S. Burroughs wrote of the junk experience in Naked Lunch : “The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. […] He degrades and simplifies the client.” This quote reflects the chain of seeming contradictions, the crooked truths that make up the song’s lyrics where the narrator expresses the self-destructive duality of his nature, as he becomes the victim of his own actions.
The intensity of the track threatens to overwhelm the listener making the break into the ambience of the verse all the more striking: whispered lines, a gentle bass pulse all reveal a sudden opening up of space, and emptiness, from the claustrophobic wall of noise, torn down, but even in the eye of the storm there is disquiet. The chorus line returns and Reznor’s narrator is offered escapism, taken to a place he knows he will keep returning to, whatever the cost, the other voice’s hostile whisper promising an exit. Is this a way out of the song, or the forbidden pathway of drugs as a way of forgetting oneself, to feel like someone else. “I am an exit” is easily misheard as ‘I am an insect’ — doubling the meaning of the narrator as silencing self-doubt and pain behind drugs. Keeping to the mode of the song, a state of constant movement much like the clean sweep of Bowie’s instrumental track, Speed of Life [from Low, 1977], suggestive of moving across great distances at speed, continuing to accelerate away without having to think about your problems, or ever worrying how to stop; the narrator is offered a way out, but knowing that at some point this energy will burn itself out and he will have to come down again.
Reznor again surprises the listener as Adrian Belew, former guitarist for King Crimson and David Bowie’s Lodger  album appears in the first bridge section of the song. A flailing whine of shimmering high notes mark Belew’s considered experimentation. Invited to the studio by Reznor for a single day Belew said: “I went from doing Paul Simon’s Graceland album, straight into working with Nine Inch Nails – you couldn’t get much more different than that.” Reznor made his aims clear by stating that the performance he was looking for was to be the antithesis of Belew’s melodic work with Simon. He told Request magazine in 1994: “We started him on Mr Self Destruct because it was the harshest thing we had and we wanted to put him through the wringer. He was awesome; I‘ve never seen anyone play like him, with such a command of the instrument.” Reznor’s guidance for Belew was purposefully open to interpretation, moving from rhythmic concentration to abandoning pitch and key in favour of pure noise.
Belew explained his effects set-up as mixture of trusted effects and experimentation: “I had a giant effects rig, things like an Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer [ring modulator] and a Fox-Tone machine [an old 60s fuzz-box] and a pallet of choruses and flangers. Someone suggested: ‘What if you put those sounds together?’ So I did, for the first time, and we got some really nice things.
“One of the most important effects was a Roland GR50 guitar synthesiser, it was great for atmospheric stuff because it wouldn’t play exactly what I played, it kind of played itself, an accumulation of sound ‘clouds’. I was playing modified stratocasters sustain note pickups to create feedback and extended notes, with built-in MIDI so I could go direct to the desk and load effects.
“Working with Trent was a new experience for me, very profound, very powerful. These were not songs in the normal sense – it was a new world – which reminded me of working with King Crimson. Trent and Flood played the track with no vocals. I was a little in shock of how great the music was that I was hearing, the sound was amazing – it was wide open.” Sean Beavan, the album’s engineer, considers Belew’s playing as developing an expanding themes already present on the album: “The decay of nature — when things fall apart — Adrian would make a sound like a swarm of wasps or a herd of lambs running off a cliff.” Belew would go on to play on three more Nine Inch Nails albums, including The Fragile , Ghosts I–IV , and Hesitation Marks .
Although much of Belew’s playing merges into a looming wave of sound that seems to ride behind, or even ‘above’ the main track, his ability to play around the music, almost in spite of it, seems to have influenced Reznor to put his own stamp on the guitar sounds of the album, except for Belew’s contribution, playing every guitar part on the record, he told Musician magazine in 1994: “I started this album on the computer or keyboard, because of my classical training I feel more competent on keyboards, then I fleshed them out by bringing in some guitar. As soon as I put my hands on the piano, the chord is far richer, I know where that added bit of harmonic depth is, and that’s one thing I wanted to expand on with this album.”
Reznor’s straight but direct guitar playing was more about attitude and creating pure sound, than technical proficiency. Speaking to Guitar World in 1994 he said: “I’m not as intimidated by it as I was. Nowadays I find the guitar more expressive than the keyboard. Just because of the interface, obviously — strings and randomness.” Reznor would often improvise his guitar parts, constructing sounds to suit the mood of the track, instead of trying to write standard band guitar parts such as rhythmic chord progression, lead riffs or extended solos. Sean Beavan remembers: “We’d set up a whole bunch of pedals and once Trent started playing, we’d be patching in the pedals and turning knobs, and he’d go, ‘That’s cool!’ All of a sudden, he’d be making up this cool guitar part because of how we’d fashioned the sound.”
Reznor’s guitar playing style and encouragement of his collaborators to actively subvert a song’s structure marks him out as a destructive architect, while kicking away the foundations of rock music, he built his tracks methodically to create tone, driven by sudden inspiration, accident and instinct. Far from crushing the human element, this part of Trent’s creative practice introduced more spontaneity and eclecticism to the Spiral sound, Belew is appropriately credited with contributing ‘texture generating guitar’ to Mr Self Destruct.
Reznor would make a similar left-of-field selection for the Hesitation Marks album  working ex-Fleetwood Mac guitarist, Lindsay Buckingham who in a 2013 interview with Fader, gave significant insight to Reznor’s approach as a continuation of The Downward Spiral: “Even though our styles differ, it seemed to me that our methods were very much the same – approaching the writing process through color, working the textural and tonal relationships of the track, much in the way an abstract painter works.”
Mr Self Destruct marks a powerful introduction to the album, establishing the paradigm for the sonic tones of the record; its dynamic shifts and overarching themes somewhere between frenzy and retreat, a song never at home in its own skin. As the final guitar part continues to reveal itself, trapped in a tangled loop, like a dial tone that continues to beep unanswered, the song runs into itself, the hopelessness of endless escape leading back to the start. Drugs, personal demons and inner pain continue to hound the narrator as he in turn chases after them, this is the beginning of the spiral’s winding descent with no end in sight.
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY – THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL!
–The above text is an extract from my book, Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral, available online and in bookshops.