As the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails for three decades, Trent Reznor has made rage his default: at himself, at others, at God, at the political system. That’s how it remained Tuesday night at the Anthem.
“I’ve been so . . . angry lately, just overwhelmingly disgusted,” Reznor said. “I really appreciate that I can be up here and . . . scream for two hours and get it out of my system.”
If Reznor was looking for catharsis, he got it, and delivered it to a capacity crowd as well.
Before launching the Cold and Black and Infinite tour, Reznor spoke with the BBC about bowing out of the production “arms race” that made recent Nine Inch Nails tours technological marvels that were often imitated by other acts. Reznor recalled the impression early in his career of seeing the Cure or opening for the Jesus and Mary Chain (a favor the Scottish shoegazers returned on the current tour) — “smoke, maybe a color, a little bit of someone’s hair, and real, real loud guitars” — and promised “music being played somewhat sloppily with an element of danger and uncertainty and unpredictability” this time around.
True to his word, Reznor and company delivered, pummeling eardrums from behind a curtain of smoke and strobe lights. The stripped-down production has allowed the band to tweak the setlist every night of the tour. On Tuesday — the first of two nights in D.C. — that meant a mix of scream-alongs, including old favorites like “Head Like a Hole,” “Wish” and “March of the Pigs,” industrial deep cuts like “Reptile” and “The Big Come Down” and most of semi-recent EPs “Not the Actual Events” and “Add Violence” (but nothing from this summer’s “Bad Witch”).
In an era when concerts at this scale are precision undertakings, the spontaneity was thrilling. For the most part, the crowd let the waves of distortion wash over them. The meditative approach was appropriate during the slo-mo hypnosis of “This Isn’t the Place” and “Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” but disappointing during the end-of-the-world seizure of “The Great Destroyer,” when the energy in the sold-out crowd barely changed.
At one point, Reznor recalled the last time he was in D.C.: to visit the Obama White House for a screening of “Before the Flood,” a documentary he helped score in an effort to “remind people that there’s a thing called climate change and the world could . . . end pretty soon.”
Just days after the release of a grim report about how little time humans have left to save the planet from themselves, Reznor’s words were a reminder that anger still fuels him. Time has not diminished his rage — just sharpened it into a better tool.
And then the band covered David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.”