Trent Reznor, the enigmatic mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails, leered past his microphone in front of a stark backdrop of chaotic video imagery – beads of sweat dripping profusely down his scowl. It was more of a warning than a question.
On cue, the band blasted Chula Vista's Sleep Train Amphitheatre with “The Great Destroyer” from their 2007 full-length, “Year Zero” – a primal, machine-like juggernaut which eventually segued into a glitch-filled, beat-crunching solo by the frontman. Hunched over his machinery, Reznor performed digital surgery with knife-like precision -- twiddling knobs, punching keys and smacking buttons while the destruction of binary code assaulted the audience.
Similar to co-headliner Soundgarden, the group’s Thursday night set spanned their career -- and found Reznor prowling the stage in a black leather kilt, frequently circling around the massive stage screens that roadies slid back and forth in orchestrated movement to the industrial ballet.
Like a cold, gear-chewing engine, the band (including longtime guitarist Robin Finck, drummer/multi-instrumentalist Ilan Rubin and keyboardist Alessandro Cortini) hit on all cylinders through fan favorites like "March of the Pigs," "Terrible Lie," "Eraser," "Head Like a Hole," "Copy of A," "Piggy (Nothing Can Stop Me Now)," "Came Back Haunted," and the eerie, wistful encore "Hurt."
But it was during the sleezy squelch and guttural smack of "Closer" (off of 1994’s "The Downward Spiral") that the stark, calculated spectacle became truly otherworldly: Reznor stepped behind his backdrop, stared point blank into a video camera that distorted his face into a malfunctioning video game character, and delivered the song's infamous, animalistic lines: "I wanna f--- you like an animal/My whole existence is flawed/You get me closer to God."
As expected, it was a radical departure from the hard rock thunder of ‘90s grunge titans Soundgarden who hit the stage prior. Amid dense fog and ominous video imagery behind them, the band (consisting of original members guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd, guitarist/singer Chris Cornell and tour drummer Matt Chamberlain) powered through their hit-filled catalog that became veritable crowd sing-alongs for "Outshined," "Blow Up the Outside World," "Fell on Black Days," "My Wave," "Rusty Cage," and "Spoonman."
In a surprising move though, the group’s biggest hit, "Black Hole Sun," came off entirely lethargic; the song's unforgettable chorus eruptions were replaced by oozing sludge – the dynamics of the original recording altogether absent.
Thankfully, that lackluster rendition was instantly redeemed by the following heavy thump and blast of "The Day I Tried to Live." Cornell’s glass-shattering voice was in impeccable form, hitting seemingly impossible notes with ease. Thayil was equally impressive -- his lightning quick, double-jointed fingers careening through riff after monstrous riff.
After the deep cut (and set closer), "Beyond the Wheel," off their 1988 debut album "Ultramega OK," Cornell and Chamberlain left the stage while Thayil and Shepherd remained, engaged in a feedback-filled noise session -- until, with one furious chuck of his arm (and to the horror of every music gearhead there), the bassist physically launched his instrument over his shoulder and sent it flying 10 feet behind him, crashing into a row of amplifiers.
It was a small highlight during a night filled with phenomenal stage shows, exceptional performances and some of the biggest hits modern music has ever known. The crowd ate it up like rock candy. We had been waiting for this.
Yes, Mr. Reznor, we were ready.