Review Summary: Pretty Hate Machine thrusts you into a truly dark place and pummels you with aggression and obsession before letting go.
It's a cold and dismal afternoon, as you plod along a desolate street adjacent to a noisy, colorless factory. The overcast skyline is engulfed in smog, and your clothes are tattered as the dreary environment slowly consumes you. If I had to illustrate what it is like to listen to Pretty Hate Machine, Trent Reznor's first outing under the Nine Inch Nails moniker, that would basically sum it up. A loud and high-powered torrent of industrial music, the album willingly basks in its own ugliness. From the album's sharp, mechanical sound to Reznor's bitter vocals, this LP pulls the listener beyond any form of comfort and throws the listener into a tumultuous factory filled with razor blades and hostile machinery.
Pretty Hate Machine is not exactly easy on the ears, a trait to which many conditioned industrial music fans will be accustomed. However, despite the teeth-gnashing anger that Reznor hurls at the ears track after track, there is something strangely hypnotic about this album. Following the shock value of the incessant shouting on the chorus of "Head Like a Hole", it becomes fairly evident that the LP will present as bumpy a ride as possible. Ragged drum machines and pugnacious synthesizers form the crust of the songs, while hostility, lust, and regret comprise the scorching hot core. Nine Inch Nails paint a brutal picture of distress that constantly reminds the listener of its overwhelming influence.
The pummeling rhythms frequently give way to raw emotion, so much so that the experience often becomes cumbersome. Thus, the synthetic shell of Pretty Hate Machine is ultimately just an enormous conveyor belt for Reznor's dark personality to slowly manifest itself. As soon as "Terrible Lie" commences, I find myself thrust into a shady steel mill with a myriad of bruising machines. The heavily processed sound of the LP makes sense right when Reznor takes a strong jab at materialism on the opening track.
In the midst of the animosity and assertion of the first few songs, the vulnerability of "Something I Can Never Have" feels very realistic and sincere. The coupling of obsession and pain make for a haunting, but delicate trek into a dark tunnel of loss and depression. Thus, the wispy piano sets the scene until it gradually becomes clear that there is no light at the end of that tunnel. While Reznor definitely displays his ability as a complex artist, Pretty Hate Machine suffers from a few underwhelming tracks that don't quite match the intensity of great tracks like "Sin", "Kinda I Want To", and "The Only Time". "Sanctified", for instance, appears ready to escalate into something terrifying, but never reaches a fulfilling climax. The flow of the album is sometimes offset by lapses of potency in the form of mundane synth beats and melodies, yet Reznor manages to prove that Nine Inch Nails are a force to be reckoned with.
Although Pretty Hate Machine sounds violent and malicious, it still finds itself having many things to say. Reznor constantly sounds upset and disillusioned, but he is not acting this way for no reason. From his lyrics alone, it is easy to infer that he has been tortured by the environment around him. From forbidden love to his own self-destructive sentiments, Reznor portrays himself as a damaged individual. In that light, his music sounds relentless and brutally frank. On "Sin", he sings, "I gave you my purity; my purity you stole.", reflecting on his romantic past, in which his inner psyche has been beaten and defaced. Therefore, the sound of this album is that of a backlash; Reznor is striking back.
The internal conflict that boils underneath the punchy percussion and industrial beats shows the album's human side. Nine Inch Nails establish a dirty and forceful sound that would lay the groundwork for later releases. While Pretty Hate Machine occasionally fails to deliver compelling and notable song structures, it makes up for it with bone-crushing fervor. This aptly titled album was just a starting point for this burly musical project, but it has the potential to keep you awake at night.
Something I Can Never Have
The Only Time
Head Like a Hole
Kinda I Want To