Review of Nine Inch Nails: Pretty Hate Machine

Please read Alain DuPuis’ selection article of Nine Inch Nails: Pretty Hate Machine before reading our reviews below.
Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails is definitely one of the most influential bands in the past 25 years in the alternative music scene. There is no denying that fact. However, Trent started as many of us do, by learning the ropes in your chosen career. He recorded this album while he worked as a janitor in a recording studio. Some artists explode onto a scene and release a first album that is classic. Pretty Hate Machine is not exactly that classic first album that nailed it. Though Alain loved it, even he admits that it was a little repetitive and basic.
We all had very different opinions here but we all had very strong opinions, which is good. Read the reviews below and laugh and cry with us about this album.
As always, the meat is in the individual reviews but here are some themes we saw from all the reviews.
What was cool about this album:

  • It is a glimpse into where NIN would end up, but sounds so basic now.
  • Something I Can Never Have was liked by a few of us.
  • It introduced industrial music to a new crowd as it was played in top 40 dance clubs. It was more approachable than contemporaries Skinny Puppy, KMFDM and Ministry.

What we didn’t find so cool:

  • The sound is a bit dated and cheesy(But pretty much all of the 80s was cheesy. Ha ha ha)
  • The songs were quite basic and repetitive
  • Why does Reznor yell words randomly?

We have also implemented a rating scale that you will see below in the reviews. All ratings are out of 5.
Our Reviews Average:
Overall opinion: 2.5
Would we recommend?: 3
Influenced our tastes: 3
Worth the hype? 3
Read our full individual reviews below. 
Don’t agree with us? Have a comment or suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment or contact us.

Our Full Reviews

alain-dupuisAlain DuPuis’s Review – This was Alain’s Pick

Maybe I was already biased, or maybe it’s because in the wake of some personal dealings over the summer, this album just really hit home for me – whatever the reason, Pretty Hate Machine had me at hello. The juxtaposition of aggressive, raw noises, inelegant, but emotionally charged vocals, and meticulously calculated production on this album created a springboard that launched Trent Reznor’s career as an icon. Pretty Hate Machine really defines the industrial music genre. Heavy use of samples, synths, dark themes, and plenty of aggression are present, but somehow the album still remains more accessible to the average listener than anything contemporaries like KMFDM, Skinny Puppy, or Ministry had to offer at the time.
I liked:
Every single track on the album was solid, but Terrible Lie, That’s What I get, and Something I Can Never Have really hit home. Particularly the latter – it showed the clearest hints of the more refined and melodic path Nine Inch Nails would ultimately take in later albums.
Down In It is extremely catchy and sounds upbeat, despite being a pretty dark/depressing song. It even appeared on a number of underground dance mixes back in the day, earning NIN exposure to an unlikely fanbase.
I didn’t like:
After a number of repeated listenings, it became pretty clear there was a fair bit of repetition in a number of tracks on the album. Chalk it up to a symptom of using synth loops as a primary means of instrumentation. Additionally, some of the synth lines were quite basic and simple, which doesn’t really help matters.
Final thoughts
As a longtime fan of NIN, it was a lot of fun for me to go back and explore their first album in depth. Hints of what was to come in subsequent releases were already present on Pretty Hate Machine. A shift from cold, hard, mechanized, syncopated sounds would eventually give way to more layered, thoughtful, and melodic music, which makes taking a trip through the entire Nine Inch Nails library something I’d highly recommend.
Give a listen to the 2010 remastered version of Pretty Hate Machine for best results.
Overall opinion: 5
Would I recommend?: 5
Influenced my tastes: 5
Worth the hype? 5
Scott Coates’s Review
I like rock, hard rock, some electronic music, but sometimes the combination just doesn’t work for me. Case in point: Linkin Park – I’ve never gotten it; the sound just doesn’t gel, despite it having the elements I usually enjoy in music. It’s strange how a format of music and band you should like on paper sometimes just doesn’t add up to a pleasing sound. Unfortunately this seems to be the case with Nine Inch Nails (NIN).
For years I thought I liked NIN, more in concept, with a respect for the ‘genius’ of Trent Reznor I’d read about. Looking back, I tried many times to listen to NIN and appreciate their work, but rarely got through an entire album. Nor did I go back for another listen to finish an album. I now know why: I don’t like NIN.
I feel a little embarrassed writing the above, as many of my peers and friends enjoy NIN, they are a band and concept I fundamentally buy in to, but after listening to Pretty Hate Machine a few times there’s no way around it, I don’t like this album or band.
Released in 1989 and having been highly experimental at the time, Pretty Hate Machine’s sound is dated and doesn’t stand the test of time. None of the tracks particularly stand out, and after a full pass, I felt as though I’d listened to one very long song. The lyrical themes are repetitive, depressing, and there’s nothing that got me in any kind of groove. Perhaps this is an album for those contemplating the end of the world and their place in it?
Several times I found the synthesizers on Pretty Hate Machine reminding me of a soundtrack for a 1980s skateboard movie where the kids are being chased by the bad guys down an alley. I don’t skateboard and didn’t like that movie when it came out way back then.

Head Like a Hole
is as close to liking a song on this album as I can get, but it even grates on me to a degree. The other tracks are a bit like listening to a rake being dragged across a concrete sidewalk. I’m simply puzzled by Pretty Hate Machine and don’t know what to make of it. I feel as though I’ve failed with this month’s selection but just can’t make it work for me.
I’m more curious why I don’t like NIN or Pretty Hate Machine? There’s high creativity, hard rock/guitar elements, some overlaying electronic depth, it was very unique at the time, and the rest of the world seems to worship Trent Reznor’s work. But it’s painful for me to listen to. This surely shouldn’t be the case. But as the saying goes, “You can’t be all things to all people.” Perhaps music is the same and this one just isn’t going to do it for me, ever, despite wanting it to.
Overall opinion: 1
Would I recommend?: 2
Influenced my tastes: 2
Worth the hype?: 2
Darren Scott
Darren Scott’s Review 
Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor. I will admit that I had heard this album back when it came out. I did find it catchy and it was played in dance clubs at that time. The sound in the late 80s at that time was young, so it isn’t just this album that sounds a bit dated and cheesy now. I wasn’t a big fan of the goth alternative industrial sound as much at that time but appreciated the different sound. I remember lots of the all-black-clothing kids loving Skinny Puppy, the influential Canadian band from Vancouver at that time. I liked some songs like Assimilate and Smothered Hope but found the rest too weird for my young ears at that time. Give Skinny Puppy a listen here now:

I found NIN and Pretty Hate Machine more approachable and I liked that his rhythm in the songs was more uptempo, organized and danceable. I get now that this wasn’t what Reznor was trying to do and that he was one angry and jaded bastard back then. He basically took influences of rock and industrial and reproduced the sound he heard at that time. Compared to later albums like The Downward Spiral and With Teeth this album does indeed show it’s lack of polish and originality that Trent became known for. However, you can hear the humble beginnings of where NIN came from and you hear parts of songs on Pretty Hate Machine that Reznor would later refine and turn into mind-blowing tracks.
Knowing that Reznor actually disliked this album himself greatly and actually tried to get it stopped from future production shows his self-awareness that these songs were not his finished sounds and songs he wanted to be remembered for. It is comparable to someone finding a classic authors notes and scribbles about a great book but with no organization. The author would hate it if you tried to decipher their classic story from these unfinished scribbles. Only when properly organized into chapters that then tell an amazing story does a book form. Pretty Hate Machine was a bit like those scribbles. You get glimpse of great sounds, songs and a musician but it never came together as a great book(album).
All that being said, though it wasn’t what Reznor wanted, it was a catchy album and that was the sound of the late 80s. It was also more approachable than Skinny Puppy and introduced an alternative style to kids who mostly heard top 40 at the club. I do like this album and can relate and dance to it even though in hindsight Reznor went on to produce much better albums. It was like getting a look into where NIN came from, and I liked that. Worth a listen but make sure to listen to the other albums too.
Overall opinion: 3
Would I recommend?: 3
Influenced my tastes: 3
Worth the hype? 4
Greg-JorgensenGreg Jorgensen’s Review
My first experience with NIN was a poster in High School. It was actually more of a banner – easily 8ft tall, a picture of Trent Reznor holding his hands up to his face, each clad in shiny black latex or leather. I don’t know who got it or from where, but it hung in the drama room for months. It was mesmerizing – sexy and dangerous and full of mystery. Granted, I was a shy drama geek in a hick town in the prairies, but still.
NIN is an important band, no doubt about it. PHM was largely responsible for laying the groundwork for the modern sounds of industrial rock/metal/rap, all genres which I enjoy to varying degrees, and NIN has continued to lead the charge in the evolution of that genre. I love what Reznor does, I love his style, his durability, his work outside of NIN (like film scores), his tech-savviness, and his wife (have you seen her?) But Pretty Hate Machine…not so much.
I’ve listened to NIN’s hits on and off over the years, never really digging them enough to listen to any albums all the way through, so I was eager to dive into this one. While I can say that I really enjoy the broader image and sound of NIN, this album didn’t do it for me at all. It was like brushing your teeth or drinking a glass of water – you remember doing it, and both are important parts of their respective oeuvres (music, dental care, living), but there was absolutely nothing that stood out about about it, nothing that made it unique or memorable. It just was.
“Head Like a Hole” is an effective, energetic opener and sets the pace for what’s to come…but it’s hard to remember when that song stopped and the next one began. In fact, beyond the spooky, melancholic, atmospheric ending of “Sanctified” and the bridge into “Something I Can Never Have”, I’d struggle to describe any particular song or moment on the entire album. I’m not sure if “ironic” is the right word, but the only thing about PHM that I found unique or memorable was its existence. For me, definitely a matter of the forest being more interesting than the trees.
Overall opinion: 2
Would I recommend?: 3
Influenced my tastes: 3
Worth the hype?: 3
Scott GregoryScott Gregory’s Review

So I had a chat with Darren about this album, and he mentioned Trent wasn’t super happy with his earliest work, and would like it to vanish off shelves. I sort of agree. I’m a bit of a tourist when it comes to NIN, but I know enough of his later work to know how sucky the first chunk sounds in contrast.
I just couldn’t get into this. My tastes drift more to Depeche Mode, Revolver, Econoline Crush, and other more-polished sounds in this space. The best thing I can say about this is that, Reznor probably sounded exactly the same shouting into a crappy studio mic as he did in concert, so nobody would have been disappointed by any drop in quality between studio/live.
Were there really only five years between this and Downward Spiral? Did he go to Devry for song writing in between and get his money’s worth? I don’t mean to be overly critical, but I’m a little mad I can’t get into this album. There’s just nothing for me to latch on to. I don’t like the lyrics, the loops, the guitar riffs, or even the “Devil’s Pink Paintbrush/Pitchfork” cover.
Let’s get into some highlights on the songs, shall we?

Head Like a Hole

Holy crap, could this song be any more repetitive? The first 30 seconds were ok, but then I had to listen to them over and over again. This song isn’t AABA, it’s AAAAAAABAAAAAAABA. No I can’t take it, can’t take it, you can take this song away from me.


Ooo, ominous plucky base, this is going to be an edgy song. I can’t wait for the lyrics. Oooh, girls touching with fingertips, I like where this is going. “If she says come inside, I’ll come inside for her”? Oh you cheeky monkey, I see what you did there. This is so edgy, they almost had to cut it from the performance on the Muppet Show. Please refund me 5:48. Thanks.


Ok, it starts out a little Depeche Modey, which is good. Oh no, he’s doing that “shout every sixth word thing” again. Why you mad bro? You have a cool keyboard you can use to cover better bands if you wanted. That has to be a bit of a cheery thought?
Ok, so maybe I’m looking at this from decades later, and some of this could have been fresh and new when he did it, instead of feeling trite and formulaic. Does he deserve some nod if he was one of the originators of a successful formula I’ve eventually grown tired of? I think of his precursors in this space, and I’m thinking the answer is no.
Future-Trent puts out some pretty polished and laudable work, but proto-Trent just isn’t my cup of tea. Maybe he’s yours; give it a listen and you can at least play the “take a shot every time he shouts only one word in a sentence” drinking game.

By the numbers

Overall opinion: 2
Would we recommend?: 2
Influenced my tastes: 1
Worth the hype? 1

Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine

Nine Inch Nails is not so much a band as it is one man’s musical sandbox. That man is Trent Reznor, and even if you’ve never heard of him before, chances are you’ve probably heard some of the music he’s produced over his prolific career, either through movies or video games. But long before Reznor was an award-winning producer, he was a janitor…

Photo by Kevin Westenberg
Photo by Kevin Westenberg

Working nights as a handyman and janitor at the Right Track Studio in Cleveland, Ohio, Reznor took advantage of his down time and access to equipment to record and develop his own music. Playing most of the keyboards, drum machines, guitars, and samplers himself, he recorded a demo and began to shop it around to various record labels. Eventually settling on the name “Nine Inch Nails”, he scored a deal with TVT, a small label originally known as TeeVee Toons, whose bread and butter was releasing novelty and television jingle records.
Thanks to his new recording contract, Reznor got the opportunity to work with a number of producers he idolized, and thus Pretty Hate Machine was born. Much like the demo he cut, Reznor refused to record with a conventional band, preferring to record by himself.
On October 20th, 1989, Nine Inch Nails released Pretty Hate Machine to commercial success, and mixed critical reception. It was the starting point of a long, storied career for Trent Reznor, and it’s the album we’re reviewing this month.
Listen to Pretty Hate Machine on Rdio

Useful links
Wikipedia – Pretty Hate Machine
Wikipedia – Trent Reznor

Other albums under consideration for this month’s review:

  • Alanis Morisette – Jagged Little Pill
  • New Kids on the Block – Step By Step
  • Rage Against The Machine – Rage Agaist The Machine