Concert Review: Explosions in the Sky, Nine Inch Nails @ Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario (with full setlist)

Not many things are better than a Friday night except maybe free candy. A Friday night with a concert by Nine Inch Nails and openers Explosions in the Sky? Well, cancel my obviously amazing plans (clearly doing this) because this is looking like an even better than usual Friday night.

We’ve already seen (and interviewed) Explosions in the Sky, so we knew what we were in for (spoiler alert: lots of awesomeness). I last caught Nine Inch Nails at Lollapalooza back in 2008, and they were blowing minds with their stage show. But now Trent is an Oscar-winning, married man with a kid, so his show probably sucks, right? Not quite.

Due to lots of excuses that I’d like to consider legitimate (“one more beer, friends!”), I missed the beginning of Explosions in the Sky. Shroud in darkness, with purple and red shadows cast on the screen behind them, the Texas quintet did their best to win over an area filled with middle aged, darkly dressed people by playing vocal-less, rock music. Without much fuss, the band did their thing – 5 guys playing complex music in sync, mastering the quiet/loud dynamic, and making it look easy. Although maybe better set for a smaller setting, the band didn’t look out of place bringing their tunes to the Air Canada Centre.

The 6 piece touring version of Nine Inch Nails took the stage, while smoke was pumped across it and the band played in relative darkness. What opener Copy of A lacked in volume and punch it made up for in tempo and layers of sound. The first of many unique lighting arrangements kicked off – very low flood lights, hovering only a few feet about each band member, as well as isolated strobe lights around the band members.

1,000,000 from the Slip got the parts of the crowd that weren’t standing for Copy of A to their feet. The short vocal solo part by Reznor was a stand out part, because the entire stage went pitch black except for a few lights aimed solely at him from close range.

An older classic kept the crowd excited – Terrible Lie. I’m going to be saying this a lot but the video and lighting arrangements were generally incredible and what you wish more bands would do. The lights moved around the stage, while lights stationed at the front of the stage illuminated the crowd from front to back in sync with the two note guitar riff present throughout the tune.

The band’s relentless pace continued into March of the Pigs, with Reznor not addressing the crowd but powering through NIN’s catalogue. The crowd sung the “Doesn’t it make you feel better” part, to which Trent replied “That’s right.”

Purple spotlights centred on Trent on piano at centre stage as the pace finally slowed and the band played The Frail. 10 lights and hundreds of smartphones light the sky. Then, one of my favourite transitions in all of music inevitably followed, as the Frail launched the next track The Wretched. There were sweeping lights from back to front, top to bottom, showcasing the many arrangements and capabilities of the band’s stand set up.

All Time Low was next, and it’s aptly named as it’s one of the new songs I don’t particularly care for. 2 backing female vocalists swelled the band size to 8. A thin screen of lights that doubled as a screen came down like a cage in front and beside band but was transparent. Blue and red flames eventually filled the front and back screens and was a bit of an illusion, as it was difficult to get a handle of the depth of the images.

Another new track was next – Disappointed. This is also when the video screens started to show off their power, drawing cheers from the crowd. The front screen now had rotating yellow lines, making roads, boxes and other shapes. Both back and front screens were used to form 3D, connected lighting images. More bands really need to kick up their lightings and visuals a little more, and Reznor can help you with this. The instrumental jam at the end really picked things up, and the song translated nicely live.

Lead come back single Came Back Haunted followed, and it made me notice just how much Reznor uses vocal echoes and delays. The chorus didn’t pack the same punch despite backing female vocalists to add vocal layers. The crowd didn’t embrace the song like a mega hit and seemed restrained, and granted it wasn’t a radio smash, it is a really good tune.

Nine Inch Nails at Air Canada Centre Toronto (Copyright: PeteHatesMusic)
NIN slowed things down with Find My Way. Trent was out in the spotlight with a half circle like a planet of only water behind everyone else, casting neat shadows at the back of the stage.

Another new song followed, Various Methods of Escape, and the middle section of the concert started to lag compared to the vicious intro to the night.

Into the Void saw the video screen used for actual video and not just awesome lights. Survivalism was next, and thankfully the crowd was back. It was sort of funny to see the back up singers rocking out. The song was blisteringly loud, and the drummer was killing it. We also had what I think was the first crowd surfer of the night.

Unfortunately, Running was just as boring live as studio version despite cool lights. The moody instrumental A Warm Place was a nice stop gap before the opening track on the Fragile, Somewhat Damaged, destroyed my eardrums. The intro to the song was mellow and not the usual screaming, and at first I didn’t think I’d like this new version. But wait – there is screaming, and it was glorious. The lights flashed with the music as the song built to a frantic end.

NIN reached back into the vault and played Wish, sending the crowd into a tizzy (yes, a tizzy!) yet again. Given the rapturous applause, and the darkened lights, I thought this might’ve been the perfect place for the encore. But Trent knows better than I, and the band kicked into Only.

Another good single followed, The Hand That Feeds, and the band exhibited much better pacing than the middle part of the show. Nine Inch Nails continued to make use of the screens and lights, freezing or mirroring the band’s shadows in blue lights on the secondary screen, and even looped back the shadowy video at some points in what was a pretty incredible show of technology.

Head Like a Hole kept the crowd in it with another classic tune from their debut album. The band ended their regular set on a high note.

The first song of the encore featured cool and eerie imagery of a creepy forest at night time. Maybe they’ll play Monster Mash? No, we got the equally awesome Even Deeper.

Reznor addressed the crowd for the first time, thanking fans for embracing the band after their hiatus, and saying to wants to move to Canada because the States have some shit to work out.

In This Twilight was next, followed by the last 2 tracks on new album Hestitation Marks – While I’m Still Here and Black Noise. The jazzy outro to the songs were punctuated by a saxophone being played live – thankfully this wasn’t a recorded bit! Hooray for musicianship.

The band closed off the night with megahit Hurt, leading to a predictable (and loud) singalong. At this point, the video screen was directly behind the back, scretching from the floor to about 30 feet high. The band used an incredible video montage, parts of which they have used in the past, such as a snake approaching the camera, looking like it was coming right at Trent. It was a powerful way to end the night – a classic song with a beautifully executed video.

Generally, the new songs didn’t seem well-received by the crowd, but that might be due to lack of familiarity, as most of them were played well live. Sometimes when a band goes on hiatus and does the album/tour thing, a lot of fans come just for the older stuff. When a band’s singer says the new album “cost $10 or go fuck yourself”, you might get a handful of people going to fuck themselves.

The backing vocals made some of the songs a bit more poppy and watered down. I get it – you need backing vocals for some tracks, and since you’re paying the vocalists to tour with you, you might as well use them. However, it doesn’t work for every song (especially the ending to rock track Survivalism), so just have them sit on the sidelines, coach.

For a band that’s been around for nearly 25 years, they’re still pushing boundaries. I cannot stress how incredible the use and functionality of the lights and screens were. And the amazing thing is that I think the arrangement could be even more powerful, and it’s not used to its full potential. While that might come across as a backhanded compliment, it’s a plea for Reznor to keep pushing things forward, not only for the sake of my enjoyment at a Nine Inch Nails concert, but for the sake of the industry. A simple video screen or back drop won’t cut it for $100 – we need musicians to innovate and engage, and we need veteran talents like Reznor to show everyone the way.

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PHM Rating for Nine Inch Nails: 9.0 out of 10

Setlist for Nine Inch Nails @ Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario – October 4, 2013
1 – Copy of A
2 – 1,000,000
3 – Terrible Lie
4 – March of the Pigs
5 – The Frail
6 – The Wretched
7 – All Time Low
8 – Disappointed
9 – Came Back Haunted
10 – Find My Way
11 – Various Methods of Escape
12 – Into the Void
13 – Survivalism
14 – Running
15 – A Warm Place
16 – Somewhat Damaged
17 – Wish
18 – Only
19 – The Hand That Feeds
20 – Head Like a Hole

21 – Even Deeper
22 – In This Twilight
23 – While I’m Still Here
24 – Black Noise
25 – Hurt

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