5 Ways Trent Reznor Transformed Heavy Metal

Celebrate the Nine Inch Nails' mastermind by exploring his impact on hard rock.

“Head Like a Hole” – Nine Inch Nails

A former high school marching band geek, Trent Reznor first emerged from Cleveland, Ohio in the late 1980s as an underground force with which to be reckoned. Over the course of the next few years, Nine Inch Nails ascended meteorically as Reznor’s omnidirectional vehicle to explore and expand the extremes of hard rock and electronic music.

“Closer” – Nine Inch Nails

By the mid-’90s, NIN reigned as one of the most commercially popular and creatively significant acts on the planet. Reznor’s body of work and sphere of influence has only expanded over the course of the twenty years since then, and there is no indication he’ll be stopping anytime soon.

“Hurt” – Nine Inch Nails

As Trent Reznor stares down the half-century mark, let us salute this visionary multimedia artist by looking at just a handful of the ways he’s affected, elevated, and intensified not just the culture all around us but the offshoot of rock that can seem most intimidating to outsiders: heavy metal.

Industrial Metal

"Supernaut"-1000 Homo DJs

For many traditionalist metalheads in the 1980s, industrial rock seemed to exist only in the same dandified ranks as new wave synth-pop on the order of Erasure and the Human League. After Nine Inch Nails, nobody questioned the concept of an earth-scorching subgenre known as “industrial metal.”

Having emerged from the soul-scarring mechanized brutality of avant-garde acts such as Throbbing Gristle and Suicide, though, industrial used electronic instrumentation to plunge the same pitch-black depths that heavy metal typically explored. It was that aspect that prompted a large swath of the punk movement to embrace hard-and-heavy synthesized noisemakers such as Skinny Puppy, Non, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, and Einstürzende Neubauten.

Metallica first alerted many a headbanger to the harsh potency of industrial on their landmark Garage Days Re-Revisited with a cover of “The Wait” by industrial post-punks Killing Joke. Two years later, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine debuted and, while not quite metal, it delivered a new kind of industrial sound that caught the ears of hard rock fans. On stage, Trent Reznor performed like a man possessed, landing on the original Lollapalooza tour in 1991, and converting metal fans with the NIN live show in time for him to unleash Broken in ’92.

Composed at Sharon Tate’s house where the Manson murders took place, Broken spearheaded industrial metal into the alt-rock decade, with Reznor leading a charge as Al Jourgensen of Ministry took no prisoners alongside him. The two innovators even collaborated on a side project, 1000 Homo Djs, that, in case their metal roots weren’t plainly evident, performed a cover of “Supernaut” by Black Sabbath.

Since then, Nine Inch Nails has been fully embraced as a supreme heavy metal powerhouse, ushering in an entire new field and form of rock’s most extreme outposts in its wake.

Gothic Metal

“I Forgive (But I Won’t Forget Your Name)” – Lacuna Coil

Clad in black, trafficking in gloom, and mixing the scary with the sad, Reznor has channeled gothic music via Nine Inch Nails from the start. The band successfully opened for goth gods Peter Murphy and the Jesus and Mary Chain in the late ’80s and the top hat and blood-red-lipstick set has always loved everything Reznor has done.

Floating up from the post-punk moans of Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bauhaus, gothic rock is darkly engrossing, tragically romantic, grandly aristocratic, consumed with pain and isolation, and, weirdly enough, usually pretty easy to dance to with a Dracula-fashion-bedecked fellow traveler.

For all the alternative-rock success of goth giants such as Depeche Mode and the Cure, it was Nine Inch Nails that truly brought this batty culture and its aesthetics to the mainstream. Building off the harder-rocking end of goth pioneered by the Sisters of Mercy and the Cult, Reznor put goth sounds and ideas on Top 40 radio via smashes such as “Head Like a Hole,” “Closer,” and “Hurt.”

In NIN’s aftermath, gothic metal has become a major world force in rock, pioneered by boundary breakers such as Type O Negative and Cradle of Filth, and led more recently by acts spooky doom patrols on the order of Lacuna Coil, My Dying Bride, and Within Temptation.

Shock Rock

“The Beautiful People” – Marilyn Manson

Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, Ozzy Osbourne, the Butthole Surfers, and GG Allin simultaneously mesmerized and horrified audience in the 1970s and ’80s with their varyingly theatrical, universally over-the-top antics on record and in concert. Even with Gwar running wild at the dawn of the 1990s, shock rock seemed like it had perhaps run its course, as the world felt like it had seen and heard it all.

Then came Nine Inch Nails, whose sounds and music videos were immediately bracing, and, behind them, Trent Reznor’s genuinely astonishing and appalling protégé, Marilyn Manson.

Backed by Reznor (with whom, inevitably, he had a falling out), Manson’s self-named band absolutely scandalized even the coolest-seeming concertgoers during the decade where everybody came off hip. So berserk was the reaction to Marilyn’s anti-sacred and wholly profane undertakings, in fact, that the music was blamed for school shootings and other national tragedies, igniting a hysteria that everyone thought would not happen again after the 1980s’ Satanic Panic.

From the storm whipped up by Trent Reznor an entire new generation of heavy metal shock rockers to terrorize the mainstream. Among them were White Zombie (and then Rob Zombie), Slipknot, Mudvayne, and Mushroomhead.

One-Man Band

“One Man Metal: Leviathan, Striborg, Xasthur”

At any given time, Nine Inch Nails is a band, but at all times, Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor. That’s to say that Reznor is NIN’s one constant, a singularly driving force who assembles the proper players and collaborators under the umbrella of the group's name to bring his vision to brilliantly brutal life.

Beyond the music, Reznor has also managed the business end of Nine Inch Nails in this manner, too. Upon founding Nothing Records in conjunction with Interscope, Reznor seized control of his endeavors, including NIN’s two successive masterworks, The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. Since then, Reznor created The Null Corporation to oversee his creative undertakings, sometimes releasing material on his own, sometimes in cahoots with a major label.

That spirit of self-determination has inspired and encouraged countless other artists to bypass the old way of handling commerce and distribution, with online channels and social media empowering acts to connect directly to their fans.

In addition, that same developing technology has enabled myriad “lone wolf” artists to create music that is 100% their own. Even if they’re not directly following Reznor’s lead with Nine Inch Nails, the paths he blazed have made existence possible for explosively unique creators such as the black metal visionaries portrayed in the Vice documentary, One Man Metal.


“Altar” - Sunn O))) and Boris

Before, during, and after it gets done pummeling you, the music of Nine Inch Nails first envelops you. It seizes the listener’s consciousness in an all-consuming fashion, shrouding him or her not so much inside a bubble, but within a universe of sonic emperor Trent Reznor’s own making and absolute control.

Much of that is driven by the electronic backbone and heartbeat of NIN’s dynamics. Since the turn of the 21st century, “post-metal” has arisen, often propelled by similarly ambient sounds and notions. Experimental adventurers from Tool and the Melvins pushed metal to new realms of power, whereupon the likes of Neurosis, Isis, Pelican, Om, and Boris continued exploring forward.

Perhaps the ultimate ambient post-metal band, Sunn O))) actually specializes in drone metal, slowly and methodically pumping out long, loud, hypnotic sound-spells that harken back to Nine Inch Nails’ ability to mesmerize, and then trudge onward into the endless possibilities of whatever is out there still to come.