Darkness fell on the Orpheum last night, blacker than the vinyl skirts and inky hair and tattered fishnets that filled the hall, harder than tongue studs and deeper than the purple fog that rolled off the edge of the stage. It was the darkness inside Trent Reznor, frontman for and brain trust behind Nine Inch Nails, whose triumphant return after a six-year absence demonstrated that he's still an artist who can transpose his sooty soul into 800 shades of bleak.
The band began with the pure assault of ''You Know What You Are" from ''With Teeth," the top-selling album in the country this week. A hailstorm of lights rained on the frenetic march, with all four of Reznor's sidemen screaming the profanity-addled refrain. From there the tempos shifted and moods ranged from grinding to hyper, but the intensity of the music never flagged.
Reznor's new four-piece lineup -- restless guitarist Aaron North, keyboardist Allesandro Cortini, kinetic drummer Jerome Dillon, and bassist Jeordie White (once known as Twiggy Ramirez, sidekick to Reznor protégé Marilyn Manson) -- was the proverbial well-oiled machine. ''Sin" seemed for all the world to be set to thunder, gunfire, and chains, and ''The Line Begins to Blur," a slab of sludge from the new album, was riddled with the equally rattling sounds of a power drill and a lilting tune.
That's one of Reznor's great gifts to the hard-hearted world of industrial rock: pretty hooks. Midway through scary, serpentine ''March of the Pigs" he threw his arms open and sang the song's melodious coda, ''doesn't it make you feel better?" with a huge grin on his face. The answer is yes, which accounts for the packed (both Boston concerts sold out) and surprisingly diverse audience that achieved a state of near-spiritual release during the show, which alternated well-chosen new tracks with fan favorites. ''Something I Can Never Have," a huge, slow beast of a song made of ethereal keyboards and dry pounding on a drum, was connected to ''The Hand That Feeds" -- practically a dance tune -- by a thick thread of angst. Furious ''Head Like a Hole" and majestic ''Hurt" are two sides of a coin, one seething and one eloquent, both striking for their grueling humanity.
Any qualms about Boston duo the Dresden Dolls making the leap from local clubs to the concert stage were vanquished the instant Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione began flailing, twitching, and smashing at the piano and drum kit, respectively. ''Coin-Operated Boy," ''Girl Anachronism," and the epic piano-rocker ''Half Jack" were as thunderous as they were quirky, and far more inspired than covers of Radiohead and Black Sabbath.
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com