"It serves as a testament to doing what entertains you with no borders." How Trent Reznor created a masterpiece with Nine Inch Nails' timeless The Downward Spiral - and influenced everyone from Korn to Johnny Cash in the process

Trent Reznor on stage in 1994
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the spring of 1997, US current affairs magazine Time published a cover story on the 25 Most Influential People in America. Nestled unexpectedly among heavyweight names from the worlds of politics, science and sport sat that of a man whose music, the publication wrote, “is filthy, brutish stuff, oozing with aberrant sex, suicidal melancholy and violent misanthropy”.

How, middle-class America could be forgiven for asking, as it thumbed through the issue in question, had it come to this: where the name Trent Reznor, of a band called Nine Inch Nails, was sharing column inches with US Secretaries Of State present and future? The answer was The Downward Spiral. Released three years prior, Nine Inch Nails’ second album may not have been on the radar of the majority of Time readers, but the roots that had grown from its dank, dark depths had sunk themselves deep into the foundations of popular culture.

A concept album exploring one man’s self-destruction, The Downward Spiral’s challenging fusion of industrial metal with borrowings from noise, ambient, electronic, drone and alternative scenes was as complex as its subject matter, and antithetical to the heavy music world from which it was born. Released 30 years ago last month, The Downward Spiral debuted at No.2 on the Billboard charts, positioning Nine Inch Nails as the new industrial face of alternative music. It would also subsequently turn Trent Reznor into a deeply uncomfortable superstar, positioning him as a new poster boy for music fans seeking to fill the void left by the recent death of Kurt Cobain.

The Downward Spiral is that rarest of things: a record of immediate impact, and of even greater lasting legacy; both defined by its time, and defining of it. Deeply layered, richly textured and disguising a multitude of secrets – from dozens upon dozens of twisted samples, to manipulated instrumentals, reversed sounds, hushed lyrics and more – as the album celebrates its 30th anniversary, it continues to enthral and confound in equal measure. “It is the unquestionable Mount Everest of industrial music,” says Jake Duzsik, frontman of Health, a band that collaborated with NIN in 2021 on the track Isn’t Everyone. “But it is bigger than that genre, too. It is unparalleled in its importance.”

The concept for The Downward Spiral began taking shape in Trent Reznor’s mind in the summer of 1991. Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut album, Pretty Hate Machine – ostensibly a synth-pop record strutting atop an industrial metal undercurrent – had marked them out as exciting, if not hugely original, up-and-comers. For their second act, Trent envisaged a labyrinthine, cinematic exploration of the depression and addiction he himself was battling. In a notebook, the frontman sketched out “the story of someone trying to find salvation through sex and drugs and self-destruction and self-loathing, and trying to find purpose and reason”, as he told Netflix’s Song Exploder programme in 2020.

To achieve his vision, Trent needed two things: space and a supportive partner. He found the former in a rented house at 10050 Cielo Drive, high up in California’s Beverly Hills, building a home studio in which he could conceive his ideas. Trent would christen it ‘Le Pig’, after belatedly learningthat the address was the location of the infamous murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends by the followers of Charles Manson (murderer Susan Atkins scrawled ‘Pig’ in Sharon’s blood on the front door of the house).

A partner would be found in Interscope Records boss Jimmy Iovine, who moved heaven and earth to rescue the band from the contractual hell they were embroiled in with TVT Records, the label that had released Pretty Hate Machine and then virtually disowned it. After nearly two years of pained gestation and long periods of writer’s block, Jimmy’s reward for handing Trent creative freedom – not to mention his own label imprint, Nothing Records – was what the musician deemed “a small-scale, personal, potentially ugly record”, which he “felt sorry for them having to try [to] sell”.

But sell it Interscope did – and then some, to the tune of some four million copies to date. The industrial stomp of March Of The Pigs made for an obvious first single, a Nine Inch Nails calling card that remains one of their most iconic songs. Less obvious, to everyone other than Jimmy, was the choice of Closer as the album’s second focus track. Despite Trent’s fears that the song’s ‘I want to fuck you like an animal’ refrain was trite, Jimmy saw the song as a radio smash – with a choice edit, of course. Accompanied by a controversial music video featuring crucified monkeys, severed pigs’ heads and scenes of BDSM, Closer quickly became NIN’s most successful single to date, landing on mainstream charts the world over.

Such success was at odds with prevailing trends. The grunge goldrush was still in effect – The Downward Spiral was kept off the No.1 spot in the US by Soundgarden’s Superunknown, released on the same day. The beginnings of the pop-punk boom, soon to explode with Green Day’s Dookie and The Offspring’s Smash, was bubbling to the surface. Pantera were staunchly holding the 90s metal fort - Far Beyond Driven, released two weeks after The Downward Spiral, would reach No.1. Misanthropy meant big bucks, but few offered the heart that sat alongside the hurt in such a way as The Downward Spiral and Trent Reznor.

The 90s felt like a time when No.1 records could be so aggressive and provocative,” says Jake Duzsik. “But there was also an over-simplified masculinity to rock music that was communicating toughness and edginess and all these things that were antithetical to The Downward Spiral. It’s complex, androgynous, vulnerable and honest. It communicates emotion so profoundly, which I think is part of what has touched people in a timeless way.” 

The Downward Spiral crossed the boundaries in terms of what music like this could sound like,” says Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, a ‘day one’ Nine Inch Nails fan. “Beyond rock and industrial, Trent was utilising elements of hip hop, weird funky sounds, real soulfulness, even references to Pink Floyd. The dynamics of the songwriting were risky in a way that I don’t think people managed before or have managed since.”

The Downward Spiral was more just than an unlikely commercial juggernaut. It marked Trent Reznor’s first experiments in creating sounds that could lurk within his music to elicit a subliminal response. “I’d been thinking about sound design in films,” he revealed in Song Exploder. “How it can make you feel uncomfortable by hiding something in there that subconsciously can make you feel a certain way... to emotionally set the stage for what I was trying to get across.”

“The sound design of that record is an enormous inspiration,” says Code Orange’s Jami Morgan, who worked with former Nine Inch Nails drummer/The Downward Spiral programmer Chris Vrenna on his own band’s 2020 album, Underneath. “Though it moves through different genres, there is a sonic identity that is instrumental to the story. There are these thematic melodies that build throughout, which take you on a journey. It all adds up to this very particular emotional ambience.” 

“If you listen to that record from start to finish, it’s completely immersive,” adds Jake Duzsik. “It creates a very cinematic sort of backdrop – which is obviously something that David Fincher recognised in it.”

Fincher, director of the classic 1999 movie Fight Club, would enlist the Nine Inch Nails frontman to score 2010’s The Social Network, the story of the birth of Facebook. Trent had prior experience in that world, compiling the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s 1994 serial killer satire Natural Born Killers and collaborating with director David Lynch on the music for 1997’s mind-warping Lost Highway, but The Social Network was his first original score. It found him drawing on techniques he had explored on The Downward Spiral, inflecting an almost entirely electronic and suitably cold score with the repeating piano motif of Hand Covers Bruise to hint at the loss of morality that was central to the story.

Fight Club itself had a deep connection to The Downward Spiral. Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel on which the movie was based, revealed that it was written with the album “playing on repeat in the background”. The novel’s themes of nihilism, anti-consumerism and rage unsurprisingly reflected many central tenets of the album exploding from Chuck’s headphones.

In time, Fight Club would be wrongly held up in a darker light, drawing criticism for its seeming glorification of a male aggression and violence that pockmarked 90s America. Indeed, five years after its release, The Downward Spiral itself would be examined during the investigation into the Columbine school shootings of 1999, as the shooters had referenced it in their private journals. The track Big Man With A Gun had been intended as an admonishment of such themes, Trent describing the song as “a parody of the whole super-macho misogyny thing”. Still, such was the cultural top-table seat The Downward Spiral took upon its release that Trent would soon be defending his work against attacks from senators within the right-wing Republican Party, who decried its lyrics as morally bankrupting American’s youth. 

Even before The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails had inspired soundalike bands, among them Filter, featuring former Nine Inch Nails live guitarist Richard Patrick. But the wave of imitators only accelerated after it was released, with the likes of Gravity Kills and Sister Machine Gun clutching at its coat-tails. Ridiculously, Mötley Crüe would swap spandex for trench coats and cod-industrial beats on 1997’s derided Generation Swine album, while even Judas Priest’s Rob Halford turned in a NIN-indebted solo album under the name Two (released on Trent’s Nothing Records). Incredibly, Axl Rose was also rumoured to be considering making a Reznor-inspired solo album (in his defence, he was a long-time fan of the band, even inviting them to open for Guns N’ Roses at Wembley Stadium in 1991).

Yet The Downward Spiral didn’t simply funnel bands into a Nine Inch Nails-shaped genre mould, it also told other artists that it was OK to shatter genre moulds completely. Six months after its release, Korn would lay the foundations for a nu metal scene that would similarly throw caution to the wind of convention. In 1997, Spin magazine crowned Trent Reznor as “the most vital artist in music”, and one who was as readily responsible for the “mainstream acceptance of techno and electronica” as much as industrial metal.

Conversely, when ailing country icon Johnny Cash covered The Downward Spiral’s anthemic album-closer Hurt in 2002, he lent the song a new resonance and reach of its own. Cash authentically reframed the record’s conflicted emotional coda on life and love in the context of the latter stage of his life. Trent admitted to Alternative Press that he felt that Hurt “isn’t mine anymore. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in. Some-fucking-how that winds up reinterpreted by a legend from a different genre and era, and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.”

Today, The Downward Spiral stands not simply as one of modern metal’s most defining albums, but as a monolith entirely of its own. The work continues to serve as a blueprint for bands that want to build something far bigger and more meaningful than a simple album – be that Poppy’s all-encompassing, genre-distorting universe, or Parkway Drive’s structural and conceptual template for 2022’s Darker Still LP.

Trent Reznor’s ability to craft not only a distinctive sound, but a distinctive world on The Downward Spiral has made it the North Star for Jami Morgan, with Code Orange using music, visuals, videos and artwork as “puzzle pieces” of a bigger picture. For Jami – and, indeed, Mike Shinoda – that all began with The Downward Spiral’s front cover and inner packaging, a mixed-media body of work by British artist Russell Mills, in which he incorporated his own blood, rusted metal and dead insects into his canvases.

“The album’s visual identity – including how the band presented themselves, and in their live show, too – felt as instrumental to the story being told as its musical one,” says Jami. “It was a story you could connect to on so many different levels. There’s not been a record since that has managed to do all of that at once. And everything that we’ve tried to do in Code Orange has been deeply inspired by that.”

“I think the coherence of The Downward Spiral is the fact that it’s Trent at the centre of it all,” says Poppy, who holds the album up as one of her gateways into heavy music. “If you’re making a project of your own design, your identity is across it, from the lyrics to the way it breathes. To me it serves as a testament to doing what entertains you with no borders.”

Thirty years on, it’s perhaps that which continues to stand The Downward Spiral in good stead. It remains a record without equal, in sound, design or production – a truly unique and unparalleled release, even within the storied Nine Inch Nails canon.

“What continues to fascinate me about that album is that, even now, you simply don’t understand how it was made,” Health’s Jake Duzsik says. “You can take an album like Nevermind or Hybrid Theory, and it’s banger after banger. But you don’t listen to those wondering how they were made, or what the fuck that sound is, or how those vocal melodies were written. To retain so much mystery but to touch people so deeply on an emotional level, it’s just astonishing.” “People have been trying to copy or emulate that record in some way ever since,” adds Jami Morgan. “But what they never can match is the songwriting at its heart.”

Sam Coare

Sam is a writer, editor and music industry consultant who has been covering all things loud for the better part of two decades. The former editor-in-chief of Kerrang! and managing director of Alternative Press, he’s hopped on tour with Metallica in South America, joined Black Sabbath in the studio, followed Guns N’ Roses around the world, and had Frank Iero write a song about him (well, sort of). His debut book, celebrating the first 20 years of the Download festival, arrives in 2024.