When Nine Inch Nails released their second full-length album, The Downward Spiral, on March 8th, 1994, it immediately sent shock waves through the alternative music scene with its bold concept (Trent Reznor's dark examination of obsession, suffering and self-destruction) and even bolder industrial-rock sound and expert songcraft. Not long after, thanks to inimitable singles like "Closer," the album became a surprise mainstream hit and against all odds now ranks as one of the decade's most commercially successful albums, as well as one of its most artistically enduring. On the eve of The Downward Spiral's 25th birthday, we asked some of our favorite contemporary musicians to talk about their experiences with this pivotal record.
Below, Heather Gabel, singer for Chicago post-industrial duo HIDE, talks about how the album taught her that you could "channel your most fucked-up shit" into something positive, the joyful experience of revisiting The Downward Spiral with her own nine-year-old child and more.
TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU HEARD THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL, AND HOW YOU DISCOVERED IT.
HEATHER GABEL I rode my bike to the record store and bought it on tape after seeing the video for "March of the Pigs" on [MTV's] 120 Minutes. I was in my third year of high school when it came out. I stayed up trying to see it again for weeks and the tape stayed in my Walkman for months.
WHAT DOES THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL MEAN TO YOU?
It represents a real kind of darkness to me. It feels honest and vulnerable, I think that's why people connect so hard with it. There's this ferocious reckoning happening on the fine line between love and hate, life and death, that is being unapologetically exposed over the course of the album.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL BECAME AN UNEXPECTED MAINSTREAM HIT, THANKS TO SINGLES LIKE "CLOSER." WHAT DID IT MEAN TO YOU THAT IT BECAME SO POPULAR? DID YOU FIND THIS EMPOWERING OR FEEL DISILLUSIONMENT?
It didn't really matter to me. At that time a lot of popular music was being made by what I regarded as real bands — Nirvana, Hole, Marilyn Manson — not stuff I was into at the time. But nonetheless, real legitimately raw stuff made by artists with actual dirt under their nails, not at all like popular music before or after it. I didn't feel like Nine Inch Nails being on MTV or being popular watered down what they were doing. I was excited to be able to see a video by a band I liked, something I related to. It was before the internet was everything, I had no idea how popular they were. MTV played weird subversive shit for a minute, bands that were just too weird to catch on: Shudder to Think or Shonen Knife, for example, would be on 120 minutes pretty often, but there wasn't social media to keep you up to date on what bands were doing or give you any idea of how many fans they had. I only knew a handful of people who liked Nine Inch Nails then.
HOW, IF AT ALL, DID THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL INFLUENCE YOUR OWN CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT, OR THE WAY YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WRITING MUSIC?
I guess my takeaway from that album was that you could channel your most fucked up shit into something else that other people could relate to and that it could be a positive thing. The other music I was listening to then taught me that too — bands like Crass, Rudimentary Peni, Econochrist, Born Against — but The Downward Spiral was seemingly more personal even at its most political and also had a more varied range of feeling, it wasn't just fucking pissed. I don't know if it's influenced my visual art or the band, but we for sure share a spirit of dissent and feel compelled to scream about the bad things.
THE VIDEO FOR "CLOSER" WAS CHALLENGING FOR MANY VIEWERS, AND WAS CENSORED BY MTV. TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TIME THAT YOU SAW THE VIDEO.
Same as with "March of the Pigs," I saw it on 120 Minutes. I thought it was so cool that they were referencing Joel Peter Witkin's work. I hadn't seen fine art referenced in that context before and it was really exciting. The hanging cow carcasses reminded me of my favorite Francis Bacon painting. It was thrilling because I didn't feel like anyone got me back then and here was something that was speaking my visual language.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DOWNWARD SPIRAL TRACK, AND WHY?
I can't choose a favorite but "March of the Pigs" still makes me want to destroy everything when I hear it and I've been listening to it for 25 years.
IS THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL SOMETHING YOU REGULARLY GO BACK AND LISTEN TO? OR DOES IT REPRESENT A CERTAIN PERIOD OF TIME IN YOUR HISTORY?
So far it's been a part of three distinct periods of time in my life. I listened to it as a kid with no friends in high school when it first came out pretty hard for a few months. Then a dear friend I loved so much died in 2011. We talked a lot when he was in the hospital and he'd send me videos he'd make to different Nine Inch Nails songs, all off The Downward Spiral. It got me back into the record and after he died, I couldn't listen to it for years. Then in 2017 my friend gave my nine year old a copy of Pretty Hate Machine on tape, they loved it and so I got them The Downward Spiral last year. They love Nine Inch Nails, we saw them last year for their ninth birthday and sang along to all the songs together, it was so sick.