The Downward Spiral remix album is so much more than a remix album
The period from February 1994 through November 1997 is fondly remembered now – a lifetime later – as a special one for thirsty devotees of Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor.
On commercial offer during these golden 46 months: one full-length studio album; a two-hour long VHS compilation crammed with sanctioned videos, live footage, and miscellaneous sundries; three extended remix EPs; one video game soundtrack; two movie soundtracks; and differently track-listed U.S. and U.K. versions of an album dedicated to remixing the aforementioned studio album. Reznor – a telegenic, talented native Pennsylvanian fond of fishnets, synthesizers, self-deprecation, and full-scale spectacle – was all but inescapable during these years.
He was engineering or remixing or contributing to albums by Marilyn Manson, Prick, Tori Amos, David Bowie, and KMFDM. Nothing Records, the record imprint he co-founded, was leaning hard into IDM and industrial. If his gently PhotoShopped visage wasn’t gazing at you from countless covers on magazine racks, he was being referenced on The Simpsons or his songs were peppering mass-culture cinema. Sorority sisters were certainly down. The Woodstock 1994 masses were, too.
Released in March 1994, The Downward Spiral immediately registered as a cultural flashpoint. If 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine was a synth-pop diarist’s confessional and 1992’s Broken the ultimate anti-major label spleen-vent, Spiral was a fantasy concept LP about the total eclipse of the male id. Introducing musical subtlety and lightness, Reznor’s protagonist broke out or himself, hurtling away from adolescence and into danger; extremity became the key capable of unlocking a door into another world beyond religion, propriety, and morality in search of a truer sense of self. Released the following June in U.S. and U.K. editions, the remixes comprising Further Down The Spiral might be thought of as what awaits us several paces beyond the threshold of its source material. The Downward Spiral was exterior; Further Down the Spiral is markedly interior, a hailstorm or warm, warped echoes.
One doesn’t ride Further Down the Spiral like a rollercoaster. Rather, one stumbles into it, and never stops falling. While “The Downward Spiral (The Bottom)” doesn’t inaugurate either version of this record, it certainly epitomizes the atmosphere. In the hands of British industrial legends Coil, The Downward Spiral’s muted, suicidal title track is transfigured into a psychic plunge – you can hear Reznor’s foothold slip early on in his scream – that resolves itself into an almost comforting dub current. The effect is pure transcendence, and lets us know early on who this Halo really belongs to. Certainly, Rick Rubin steers “Piggy (Nothing Can Stop Me Now)” away from the original’s sly, insolent funk, burning rubber towards something more kinetic and rock ’n’ roll by stirring in blazing guitar pyrotechnics from Jane’s Addiction member Dave Navarro. Certainly, NIN submit the stormy, squirmy, whispered “The Art of Self-Destruction, Part One.” Certainly, Reznor himself serves up quiet (for the Americans) and live (for the Britons) takes on ode-to-cutting “Hurt”.
But Further Down the Spiral – alongside the earlier March of the Pigs and Closer EPs, where members of Skinny Puppy and Meat Beat Manifesto, among others, got their licks in – is ultimately a mass-market olive branch to those less-celebrated clank and hiss stalwarts who industrial stans loudly declaimed Reznor as a pale, poseur imitations of – and a wink at Richard D. James, better known then and now to the world at large as Aphex Twin.
“Self Destruction, Final” churns the gnashing blare of “Mr. Self-Destruct” into sirening, stadium-rattling M.C. Escher whirlpools; the original’s bruising tyranny, uglified into an acid-trip Magic Eye poster by Foetus’ J.G. Thirwell. Coil distend the annihilating ascent of “Eraser” into “Erased, Over, Out,” a slithering S&M dungeon purgatory; that it never quite bothers to exceed the volume or intensity of an existential simmer only makes it scarier. James’ two contributions are originals: “At the Heart of It All” would seem to have trace Downward Spiral hidden in its DNA – the snare hiss, the strafing steam – while his morosely gorgeous wind-down of “The Beauty of Being Numb” is almost whimsically seductive. Like everything surrounding it, it has the feel of a carefully crafted nightmare in danger of melting into the sweetest of sweet dreams. That a string of constructions so niche, so insular, and so intermittently ambient could slot so neatly into a startlingly populist phenomena tells us something about the schizophrenia of that mad moment of truth, as the 20th century gasped its last.