‘Pretty Hate Machine’: How Nine Inch Nails’ Debut Album Defined A Genre

Taking industrial music into the mainstream, Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ remains an uncompromising, genre-defining album.

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Cover: Courtesy of The Bicycle Music Company

Industrial music’s long, twisted history reaches back to the 70s and such diverse acts as prolix prog experimentalists Tangerine Dream, electro pioneers Kraftwerk, and confrontational noise terrorists Throbbing Gristle. Perhaps because of this seemingly incompatible mix of influences – wilfully open-ended jamming forced to bend to technical precision and an overall goal of pummeling the listener into submission – the resultant industrial music scene was not born to please. Rather, it reveled in its bludgeoning heaviosity, seeking destruction over making any sort of emotional connection. What it needed was a figurehead who would retain a fierce refusal to compromise while infusing the music with a melodic sensibility – hooks, even – that would ensnare a wider audience. Enter Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, who released their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, on October 20, 1989.

Listen to Pretty Hate Machine on Apple Music and Spotify.

At the time of recording the album, Reznor worked odd jobs at the Right Track Studio in Cleveland, Ohio – waxing the floor one minute, performing assistant engineer duties the next. When left to his own devices, however, he was working on a set of demo recordings that would take industrial music into unchartered territory, while establishing himself as an icon capable of inspiring near-maniacal devotion.

Despite attracting the attention from a slew of record labels, Reznor, ever contrary, signed to the independent TVT imprint, a label known more for releasing jingles than it was slabs of pioneering gothic electronica. With input from, among others, the likes of dub figurehead and On-U Sound co-founder Adrian Sherwood and alt-rock/electro-pop polymath Flood (both British-based producers who, between them, had helped sculpt new sounds for Primal Scream, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, and New Order), Reznor’s demos became Pretty Hate Machine.

The barrage of drum machines, synths, and samples that greet the listener on opener “Head Like A Hole” firmly set out Reznor’s credentials as fearless noisenik, but his vocals are almost just as startling. Clear, melodic, and brazenly catchy, the song’s chorus – replete with defiant “I’d rather die than give you control” refrain – proves, for arguably the first time, that industrial music could have (whisper it) chart appeal.

Nine Inch Nails - Head Like A Hole

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So Pretty Hate Machine nestled at No. 75 and No. 67 in the US and UK, respectively, but it also went three-times platinum in the US, becoming one of the biggest-selling independent records of all time, with “Head Like A Hole” even breaching the UK Top 50 when it was released as a single in March 1990. Follow-up single “Sin” did even better, deservedly making it to No. 35 in the UK and proving that there was room in the dance-rock stable for tortuous lyrics borne aloft by a super-charged electro fusillade. Elsewhere, however, Reznor took the tempo down for the chilling soundscape of “Something I Can Never Have”; hit a more overtly danceable groove on the likes of “Sanctified,” courtesy of an infectious cyclical bassline; and even had the audacity to sample Prince’s “Alphabet St” on “Ringfinger.”

As a statement of intent, Pretty Hate Machine couldn’t have made it any clearer: here was a new master, forcing what was once outsider music into the mainstream with no apology and no compromise. An edifice like this was here to stay: though fans had to wait five years for its genre-defining follow-up, The Downward Spiral, a slew of industrial metal bands had risen in the interim, fashioning themselves in Reznor’s template, but without ever once touching the purity and honesty of his music.

Pretty Hate Machine can be bought here.

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