A great rock band requires a source of tension. It can be almost anything: the relationship between melody and noise in Nirvana, for instance, or the competing interests of creative co-captains like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones.
During its original run, Nine Inch Nails drew on several such sources, including frontman Trent Reznor’s uneasiness about the celebrity he’d attained and the obsession in his lyrics with submission and domination. The group packaged a sense of danger for a mass audience.
Some of those feelings still drive Nine Inch Nails, which after a four-year hiatus began playing concerts again in July, then in September released a new studio album, “Hesitation Marks,” its first since 2008.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t trust a single word I say,” Reznor sings in “Disappointed,” “Think by now you should know nothing’s gonna change.”
Yet a primary thing had changed (or evolved, anyway) when Nine Inch Nails performed Friday night at Staples Center, the hometown stop on a North American arena tour that stretches to the end of the month. The production is called Tension 2013, but instead of the psychodrama of the old days, the show’s animating conflict is a formal one: How should a rock band do its work in an age of digital overload?
You can tell that Reznor, 48, is pondering the question given the touring band he put together. In addition to veterans such as guitarist Robin Finck and drummer Ilan Rubin, the current eight-piece version of Nine Inch Nails includes three newcomers: Pino Palladino, the Welsh bassist who’s played with D’Angelo and the Who, along with backup singers Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson, known respectively for their work with the Rolling Stones and Whitney Houston.
At Staples, where the group’s set pulled heavily from “Hesitation Marks,” those players helped emphasize the album’s muscular R&B grooves, as in the scrubbing “Satellite” and “All Time Low,” which echoed the heavy-bottomed swing of “Money” by Pink Floyd. In “Disappointed,” Palladino pushed the music toward Giorgio Moroder’s endless-horizon disco, but for “Various Methods of Escape” he pulled the band behind the beat.
Wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt and what appeared to be a pair of drop-crotch trousers akin to those favored by Justin Bieber, Reznor put as much of his body into the songs as he did his voice; several times his dancing recalled that of Thom Yorke in the Radiohead frontman’s funked-up side project, Atoms for Peace.
And though he growled plenty in combustible older songs like “Wish” and “March of the Pigs,” the singer summoned a convincing sensuality that expanded the music’s emotional range even as he was describing brutal scenes of control and paranoia.
Reznor got more bandwidth still from the kind of fine-grained electro-acoustic textures he perfected while scoring films (including “The Social Network”) during Nine Inch Nails’ break. The new album's “Find My Way” struck a strange balance between soothing and unsettling, as did a mordant rendition of the band's great 1994 ballad "Hurt," which it performed in front of a screen flashing artfully rendered images of death and decay.
The screen was just one of several in Friday's show; at other points in the concert the musicians disappeared into or behind the visuals, some of which flickered on a scrim of LEDs that hung near the front of the stage. It felt like another way to illustrate a rock band's shifting identity, from main attraction to part of the matrix.
Which didn't mean that Reznor and his mates were above taking the room's attention by force. Near the end of the show the band reached back to Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut for a ferocious version of its breakthrough single, "Head Like a Hole," and as Reznor raised his arms to salute a crowd roaring his words, the tension he'd built all night momentarily broke. This was domination without resistance.