For decades, Nine Inch Nails has been synonymous with frontman Trent Reznor’s dark and anguished lyrics, whether delivered in a whisper or a scream. But Reznor is also a gifted producer and multi-instrumentalist who’ll let the music do the talking from time-to-time. The instrumental compositions that may have once seemed like artsy uncommercial flourishes, or interludes between vocal-driven songs, have become a major piece of Reznor’s legacy while offering a wider variety of sounds and moods than the band’s abrasive industrial rock hits.
The first fully instrumental Nine Inch Nails album, 2008’s Ghosts I-IV, was sampled last year on Lil Nas X’s record-breaking chart hit “Old Town Road.” Reznor’s increasingly prolific film and television work with Atticus Ross won them an Oscar for 2010’s The Social Network and has been featured in a number of other productions. On March 26, Nine Inch Nails rolled out the surprise release of two new instrumental volumes, Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts. All in all, there are now over 20 hours of commercially available instrumental music by Reznor. So here’s a chronological look back at 10 of Reznor’s best instrumental tracks, whether solo, with Ross or as Nine Inch Nails.
Nine Inch Nails – “Pinion” (1992)
The instrumental side of Nine Inch Nails made its first appearances on two tracks on 1992’s Broken EP. “Pinion,” like later NIN album openers “HYPERPOWER!” (from 2007’s Year Zero) and “999,999” (from 2008’s The Slip), is effectively a brief tension-building intro for the first full song. With a simple, sludgy guitar riff repeating for one minute over atmospheric synths, “Pinion” sets the tone perfectly for “Wish.” The video for “Pinion,” which starts with a camera going down a toilet and gets nastier from there, was co-directed by Eric Goode, now best known for creating the hit Netflix docuseries Tiger King.
Nine Inch Nails – “A Warm Place” (1994)
On The Downward Spiral, “A Warm Place” is an ambient intermission in between thundering songs like “Big Man With a Gun” and “Eraser.” A year later, Reznor used an edited version of “A Warm Place” on his first soundtrack for a major film, Natural Born Killers, the song again functioning as a moment of calm among louder selections by Dr. Dre and Patti Smith. Another edit of “A Warm Place” was set to visual accompaniment in the 1997’s home video release Closure.
Trent Reznor – “Driver Down” (1997)
The first time Reznor released music under his own name was on the soundtrack album he produced for David Lynch’s Lost Highway – the uptempo single “The Perfect Drug” was credited to Nine Inch Nails, while two other tracks were credited to Reznor. “Driver Down” has a harsh wall of guitars and a propulsive beat that contrast nicely with the eerie strings of the preceding track by Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch’s longtime musical collaborator. But as “Driver Down” winds down to a quieter coda, you hear Reznor playing a somewhat surprising instrument: saxophone. Though he played saxophone in high school marching band and included some deep in the mix on Pretty Hate Machine, Reznor wouldn’t be heard playing sax regularly again until 20 years later, on both 2018’s Bad Witch and this year’s Ghosts VI: Locusts.
Nine Inch Nails – “Just Like You Imagined” (1999)
The Fragile was a sprawling double album with several tracks that featured little or no vocals. But one track, “Just Like You Imagined,” was one of the album’s hardest-rocking moments without Reznor singing. Danny Lohner and King Crimson’s Adrian Belew contribute a wall of guitar overdubs to the track’s insistent 5/4 groove, while a surprising moment of cascading piano comes from longtime David Bowie sideman Mark Garson. In 2015, Reznor released instrumental versions of all the songs on The Fragile, as well as 2005’s With Teeth, on Apple Music.
Nine Inch Nails – “34 Ghosts IV” (2008)
For 10 years, “34 Ghosts IV” was buried deep towards the end of a two-hour album that had niche appeal despite the fame of the band that released it. Ghosts I-IV was notable for being the first independent Nine Inch Nails album, released digitally with a Creative Commons license. “34 Ghosts IV” was only notable in the sense that it was the longest track on the collection. That changed in 2018. There, a Dutch teenager calling himself YoungKio decided to sample the song’s minute and add trap drums. An Atlanta teenager calling himself Lil Nas X hearing the plucked banjo riff and decided to rap about horses and boots in a silly cowboy voice. After an unpredictable sequence of events that included Billboard controversy and a Billy Ray Cyrus cameo, “Old Town Road” topped the Hot 100 for a record-breaking 19 weeks in 2019 with Reznor and Ross’s blessing and co-production credit.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – “Pieces Form The Whole” (2010)
Reznor has always produced both solo and with a rotating cast of co-producers, most notably Flood and Alan Moulder. But since English musician/producer Ross began working with Nine Inch Nails on 2005’s With Teeth, he’s has emerged as Reznor’s most consistent collaborator, co-producing the majority of NIN’s music ever since, and receiving equal billing as a co-composer for the pair’s enormously successful film score work. David Fincher, a video director-turned-filmmaker whose hi-tech sensibility and interest in dark subject matter made him an ideal collaborator, brought Reznor and Ross to the big time with 2010’s Oscar-winning score for The Social Network and 2014’s Grammy-winning score for Gone Girl. The former featured atmospheric compositions like “Pieces Form the Whole” that leave enough empty space for a dialogue-heavy Aaron Sorkin script while still leaving the inedible emotional impact of a dense and moody Reznor track.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – “Juno” (2016)
From 2012 to 2018, Reznor served as Chief Creative Officer at Apple Music and before that, Beats Music. And while his role, lending a veteran recording artist’s perspective to the tech giant’s streaming music arm, rarely involved actually making music for Apple, the partnership did result in one notable track. In the summer of 2016, as NASA’s Juno space probe reached Jupiter’s orbit for a groundbreaking mission, Apple celebrated the occasion with an eight-minute documentary, Visions of Harmony. Reznor and Ross’s score was released as a single entitled “Juno,” a beautiful piece that slowly blossoms from a spacey ambient wash of synths to a warm, memorable melody that appears in the track’s sixth minute.
Nine Inch Nails – “Play the Goddamned Part” (2018)
As a change from a traditional album cycle, Nine Inch Nails broke its output into a trilogy of shorter releases from 2016 to 2018, concluding with Bad Witch. That 30-minute mini-album was also unusual for its mix of four vocal tracks and two instrumentals, and the audible influence of David Bowie’s final album, 2016’s Blackstar, which spurred Reznor to pick up his saxophone again on “Play the Goddamned Part.”
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – “NUN WITH A MOTHERF*&*ING GUN” (2019)
After years of cinematic success, the Reznor/Ross soundtrack braintrust turned to work on the small screen, scoring documentaries including Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War. But their best television work so far has been for Watchmen, Damon Lindelof and HBO’s bold modern take on the classic 1987 graphic novel. Where their scores are often more focused on acoustic sounds and less prominent percussion, Reznor and Ross broke out the synths and beats for Watchmen, most notably on “NUN WITH A MOTHERF*&*ING GUN,” which pings around a busy, syncopated synth pattern with a driving beat and even some groovy tambourine.
Nine Inch Nails – “Run Like Hell” (2020)
As the COVID-19 pandemic was rapidly disrupting American life in late March, a message appeared on NIN.com announcing two new instrumental albums from Nine Inch Nails and suggesting that the music could both comfort and disturb the band’s troubled fans. “Ghosts V: Together is for when things seem like it might all be okay,” the message read in part. “And Ghosts VI: Locusts… Well, you’ll figure it out.” True to that description, Together features some of the most soothing soundscapes Reznor has ever made, while Locusts has an anxious undercurrent that might suit the mood of some who feel like they’re hiding from a biblical plague. “Run Like Hell” is one of the album’s most unpredictable tracks, building from a music box-like keyboard texture to a brief crescendo featuring trumpet and a funky live drumbeat, before stripping the layers away again to introduce an ominous bassline.