Nostalgia’s not big in the heavy, contrasting worlds of Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. NIN mastermind Trent Reznor has sporadically retired that group and pursued other projects that include award-winning soundtracks. For NIN’s 2013 comeback Hesitation Marks, Reznor dabbled with electronic bleeps and beats closer to EDM than his early industrial rock — and he’s a continual pioneer of theatrical staging. In turn, Seattle grunge kings Soundgarden have been very workingman-like since their return a few years back, touring a lot and quickly hatching a substantive new album in King Animal.
However, it’s the 20th anniversary of career-defining albums for each group — The Downward Spiral for NIN and Superunknown for Soundgarden — and that fact was not lost on the crowd that packed the Xfinity Center on Tuesday for the groups’ current co-headlining tour.
Given that Soundgarden has played Superunknown in its entirety for a smattering of shows behind a deluxe reissue, it was not surprising that half of the quartet’s Tuesday set was culled from that album. Even though the band played two songs from King Animal, you couldn’t beat classics like “Outshined,” “Black Hole Sun” and “Jesus Christ Pose,” where fill-in drummer Matt Chamberlain earned his keep by pounding cyclical patterns and screamer Chris Cornell crossed his mic stand with a feedback-rung guitar.
Alas, Soundgarden suffered from a muddy (beyond grunge) sound mix, burying the Superunknown deep track Like Suicide, though the album’s title track still soared with its power-swing and Kim Thayil’s fuzz-guitar finesse. Soundgarden should have left fans’ jaws dropped there, rather than ring their ears with “Beyond the Wheel” (from the band’s metallic 1990 debut), which lapsed into an interminable noise-guitar coda.
Nine Inch Nails — far from the instrument-trashing force that hit the same Mansfield shed on 1991’s inaugural Lollapalooza tour — instead began its closing set in sleek, minimalist form. A fit, head-bopping Reznor emerged alone at a small podium of electronics to rock the new “Copy of A” before his three bandmates took contrasting posts to add to the synthetic pulse.
Even when Reznor flailed on guitar and the band fully kicked in, their loud washes of sound were spread in broad dynamics, and almost as many songs hailed from Hesitation Marks as The Downward Spiral. Wide distribution extended to one track from 2007’s government-critical concept album, “The Great Destroyer,” which essentially dropped into a noisy EDM faceoff. Again though, one couldn’t deny the intense impact of vintage warhorses like “Terrible Lie” and “March of the Pigs,” which was flailed into submission by drummer Ilan Rubin (an MVP who shifted to bass and guitar) apart from eerie breaks where Reznor crooned, “Doesn’t that make you feel better?”
If stripped down from last fall’s NIN arena tour, the set still boasted spectacular staging, hinged on a bank of panels that moved — even during songs — and served as projection screens that flashed silhouettes, static (morphed like medical imaging) and geometric shapes. For the resurrected “Closer,” the hidden Reznor’s pixelated face throbbed on the screens as he sang, only for those panels to part and reveal him as he leaned into into a camera lens to spit the song’s carnal thrust of a chorus — seemingly an apt jab at our reality TV culture.
However, much like Soundgarden eventually pushed its sound mix to bothersome extremes, Nine Inch Nails brought its own barrage to a peak – if not so much with volume as with rows of blinding strobe lights that made it difficult to watch the stage by final diatribe “Head Like a Hole.” Both bands explore pain and aggression in their music, but they didn’t have to overload the senses of the crowd to drive that all home.