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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Nine Inch Nails

Pretty Hate Machine

Review by Rick Damigella

I am sitting down to write this one month and a day from the 20th anniversary of the release of Pretty Hate Machine - an epochal day if there ever was one. It was the waning twilight of the 1980’s. Hair metal ruled. The Alternative scene was huge. Boy Bands and Bubblegum pop were ruining radio. And Trent Reznor quietly unleashed what would be the first release in his pantheon of recorded sound.

Nothing else sounded like it. It was angry, dangerous, compelling music. It wasn’t a huge hit at the offset, but it garnered a rabid cult following. History now shows this album is a bridge, spanning musical space-time, and linking the synth-pop era, across the wasteland of the 90’s and into today’s era of fractured genres. There is nothing dated about its sound after 20 years. Like the entirety of Trent Reznor’s music, it is unique.

Setting down your opinion on an album like this is no easy feat, but I am doing it by request of a friend who is a newcomer to NIN and as a companion piece to my review of their final live performance. If, like my friend, you have never listened to Nine Inch Nails outside of repeated airplay of the edited version of “Closer” on the radio, I invite you to let the music of Trent Reznor inside your mind. I recommend a good pair of headphones to appreciate it properly.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 5 at

Track by Track Review
head like a hole
Synth beats set the pace, followed by a foreboding low end groove. Reznor's voice is augmented by the razor barrage of guitars in the chorus. Reznor's opening vocal salvo is angry, agro and as gripping then as it is over two decades and super-stardom later.
terrible lie

A soundtrack for anyone who’s ticked at someone who wronged them, the synth sounds here have always made me think of this as a direct precursor to “Closer.” It’s a great example of what sets Reznor apart from other performers of aggressive music: Even when he belts his angriest lyrics, he still sings them, even when they are shouts.

down in it

Reznor’s synth-pop influences are immediately recognizable in the sound of the percussion. Crowd noise sample hits and pin-prickly synths support his near-spoken word delivery.


One of the cleaner bass parts you will hear on a NIN song propels this number. The percussion takes a quieter space in the mix until industrialized blasts begin to punctuate the chorus.

something i can never have

This is arguably the first example of Reznor’s “ugly-beauty” sound, which most people know from the quiet version of “Hurt.” Multitracked piano lines set the tone. It’s balladry, but not a ballad.

kinda i want to

Listen to this one with your head phones on and realize that nearly everything recorded for the album was done by Reznor.


Sure it got airplay and a single release, but I have often considered this song to be a criminally underappreciated NIN masterpiece that should have been received by a wider listening audience early on.

that’s what i get

Angry mechanical synths offset by Trent’s flesh and blood vocal delivery create the core of this piece. If the angst-ridden lyrics are about one person in general, I would hate to be them.

the only time

Structured much like “sanctified,” this one features prominent clean bass lines at the start and builds to a pulsing industrial fervor. It is shapes of things to come, as they say.

The early 80’s New Wave synth lines here stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the album, but don’t feel out of place. As I suggested at the start of this article, wear a pair of head phones when listening, especially to this one, to appreciate the placement of the sounds within the stereo spectrum.
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