When Nine Inch Nails Shattered Expectations With ‘The Fragile’
On Sept. 21, 1999, after years and years of painstaking effort put into the conceiving, recording and sequencing process, Nine Inch Nails unveiled their masterpiece, The Fragile, to the world.
"It was a testament to his vision and ability to see the future that he didn't just—and he never does—just repeat what worked last time," keyboardist Charlie Clouser once said about NIN frontman Trent Reznor. "He's always trying to push his own boundaries and get on unfamiliar territory, which I think is key to having a long career that grows with your psyche and your audience."
Clouser—the man behind much of The Fragile's programming—is right. The double-album that took years to create ushered in a never-before-heard sound from Nine Inch Nails, and continued to pave the way for Reznor's inimitable creative force for years to come.
"As a fan, I want to listen to an album, not just singles," Reznor announced with the release of The Fragile back in '99. "I want something that I can sink my teeth into, something that I can listen to a million times, trying to get more out of it with each spin. That's the record I tried to make here. That is The Fragile."
Because of that desire to create a piece of work, not just a handful of songs that fit together on a disc, fans will likely never know just how much work was put into the creation of The Fragile. What we do know, though, is that it was unlike anything that came before it, and truly, unlike anything that has since been released.
Though fans will argue over what is the crowning achievement on The Fragile, it's not hard to point to "Starf---ers, Inc." as one of the stand-out tracks, if for no other reason than its ferocity and utter vileness toward Reznor's enemies. Clouser programmed the drums and synth bass on the track and recorded it as a long mono audio file while he "jammed out" on the knobs of a Rave-O-Lution and distortion pedal. "It sat on the server for months (years?) until Trent heard it, liked it, and wrote the rest of the song around the beat," he wrote on Reddit in 2017.
As for the vocal stutters, those were also handled by Clouser. "Trent recorded and edited his final takes," he explained. "Back then there weren't any 'stutter edit' plugins—in fact, there were no such things as plug-ins at all. Imagine that? This was long before the era of VST plugins and modern DAW software ... So, I rolled up my sleeves and did what had to be done: I manually created the stutter edits by chopping the vocal track up inside StudioVision software, which was the MIDI+Audio sequencing software we used back then, on a Mac Quadra 950 equipped with 16 tracks of audio recording via Pro Tools cards in a NuBus expansion chassis. It was full manual operation—just chopping and repeating little slices until I liked what I heard."
That tune didn't see the light of day too frequently on the stage, but Clouser does mention that the few times it was performed, it was done so without any backing tracks.
"This was unusual," he explained, "since out of all the songs, that would have been one where you'd think we'd just lay that programmed beat on tape and play along. But Trent (as usual) wanted to subvert expectations and decreed that we'd do it completely live—no tape, no click ... punk rock style."
Clouser goes on, "There were a few songs that we played life with no backing tape and this gave us the flexibility to make a wide variety of set lists depending on our level of boredom/exhaustion."
An unforgettable performance of "Starf---ers, Inc." is, of course, the night Marilyn Manson joined forces with Reznor and company at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Regardless of your favorite track, there is no denying the sheer power of The Fragile. From the massive production to the artwork, it is a complete and total experience for whoever spins it. And though Reznor went into its creation without any ideas of a "story line," with the help of sequencing genius and legend Bob Ezrin, he was able to put together a cohesive, brilliant group of tracks.
"I wasn't here just to string together the best sounding combination of stuff, even though there was a feast of sonic delights that differed from piece to piece, which made me eager to get as many of the really cool moments into the final form as possible," Ezrin writes in the liner notes of the definitive vinyl edition of The Fragile. "I was there to help create a deep emotional experience for the listener that best reflected Trent's and his collaborators' intensions."
The Fragile continues to reveal more and more with each spin, creating an eternal, deep emotional experience from the moment the guitar strings are plucked on "Somewhat Damaged," all the way through the next 104 minutes.
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