Nine Inch Nails Air Canada Centre, Toronto ON, October 4

Nine Inch Nails Air Canada Centre, Toronto ON, October 4
Photo: Carrie Musgrave
It wasn't until Nine Inch Nails' encore that Trent Reznor finally addressed the audience with anything more than a "thanks." After remaining mum for most of the band's two-hour plus set at the Air Canada Centre, he thanked the fans for coming, explaining that when talk of resurrecting the band started a year ago, they thought that many people would have moved on.

It was a curious thing to say given the size of the packed venue, and even more so because Nine Inch Nails built their reputation on records Reznor and collaborators spent half a decade crafting. The four years that the project was on ice seemed par for the course, even for casual fans.

Maybe it was Reznor who had changed, though; the last time the band came through Toronto, their show was all violent release, band members thrashing about on stage while Reznor slammed his mic stand into the stage floor or any piece of equipment that got in its way. Typically the centre of the chaos, on this night the front man and musical mastermind led his seven-piece band through a tension-fueled set of slow burners and tense numbers from last month's Hesitation Marks that rarely went in for the kill the way that many of the band's prototypical numbers do.

After a terrific set from Texas post-rockers Explosions in the Sky, who seemed as bemused by their minuscule presence onstage as many in the audience (the wide open grandeur of their music could easily reach stadium size audiences on their own given a more elaborate stage set-up), a black curtain that covered the stage dropped as the minimalist beats of "Copy of a" pulsed through the venue. One by one, band members were revealed, bathed in light from overhead, at stations that looked like they were built for a post-apocalyptic Kraftwerk. Reznor, looking muscular in a black vest, tank top and what appeared to be drop-crotch pants, assumed centre-stage where he remained relatively static, a far cry from the stalking caged animal that's he's played in the past.

With the run of "1,000,000," "Terrible Lie" and "March of the Pigs," the band seemed on track to deliver a pummelling set of hits, but lighting rigs were rearranged, and the night's vibe was transformed. Matching the new tone, Reznor retreated to a keyboard near the drum riser where he played "The Frail" before transitioning to "The Wretched" as a giant fence was lowered in front of the band while they played. As the song peaked, LED lights slowly engulfed the stage, reducing the musicians to bits of data stream.

Nine Inch Nails' music has always oscillated between stadium-sized muscle and headphone mastery (their best work hits the sweet spot in the middle). Even while it created a literal barrier between audience and performer, this stunning light show allowed Reznor and co. to explore the latter without getting lost in the cavernous confines of a hockey rink.

The set's middle third was heavy with tension-fueled new material and a surprising number of tracks from The Fragile, all backed by ever-changing set design and visuals. Reznor has always played with great musicians, and this current incarnation of the band, which includes long-time collaborator Robin Finck, is one of the best, and brought Reznor's studio creations to life. But even the most adept players would have a hard time getting the subtleties of these tracks heard in the booming acoustics of the Air Canada Centre.

"Wish" marked another turn in the night, as the band transitioned into more groove-based numbers like "Running," "Only" and a supremely funky "The Hand that Feeds" before ending with "Head Like a Hole."

Their encore was perhaps the greatest indication of where Reznor's head is at these days. Nine Inch Nails have a very deep catalogue of great tunes and a rabid fan base eager for deeper cuts; Reznor obliged but kept the energy level to a minimum with songs like The Fragile's "Even Deeper" and Year Zero's "In this Twilight." The night ended, as it always does, with "Hurt," which still retains much of the emotional heft it had when it was released almost 20 years ago.

Reznor's always been one to do things his own way, so it came as no surprise that Nine Inch Nails' current set list plays to his artistic muse as much as it does audience expectations. Perhaps the intricacies of many of these songs are a bit much for the spaces the band are playing, but there's no doubt that Reznor's days as one of rock's great iconoclasts are far from numbered.