Nowadays Trent Reznor is suiting up and hobnobbing with A-list celebs as a newly cemented Oscar nominee for his outstanding work with Atticus Ross on the score for The Social Network. But over two decades ago he was just a prickly little synth geek living in Cleveland, hobnobbing with not much else than tools and cleaning supplies as a janitor for Right Track Studio. That studio is where he began to develop the sound of Nine Inch Nails. The rest is history.
Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut would set the stage for an industrial revolution. Aside from help behind the boards, the creation of Pretty Hate Machine was mostly a one-man operation. And Trent Reznor made quite a masterpiece, a well-oiled machine run on keyboards, drum machines, guitars and samples that, somewhat ironically, released a beast of raw emotion. The only things to remind us a human is behind this madness are those feverish howls and those lyrics of existential dread, all fed straight from the self-loathing depths of Reznor's boiling psyche.
The album, however, is not without its myriad influences. The birth of industrial came well before Pretty Hate Machine. Reznor drew from the metallic menace of bands like Skinny Puppy, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Ministry, whose rigid clinks and clanks of synths were distant and dehumanizing, the music so frigid it seemed it could give off steam upon human touch -- making it that much more compelling to the human ear.
Reznor also found comfort in the post-punk paranoia of Joy Division and Nick Cave, and the introspective moroseness of The Cure and The Jesus & Mary Chain (with whom he eventually toured in support of Pretty Hate Machine). The artsy eccentricities of David Bowie and the Talking Heads (whose Remain in Light cover inspired the now indelible NIN logo) and the synth-pop provocation of Gary Numan and Soft Cell rounded out Reznor's robust musical taste, which had a proclivity for anything visceral, gloomy and experimental. But Reznor was also a pop fan: Prince's "Alphabet St." (along with Jane's Addiction's "Had a Dad") can be heard on Pretty Hate Machine's "Ringfinger." Even Public Enemy are credited in the liner notes.
It makes sense that Pretty Hate Machine came out right at the tail end of the '80s. It's like a love letter to some of the great musical movements of the decade, and like the best love letters, its vulnerability, its rawness and its passion have stood the test of time.