By Brad Kava, The Mercury News

The months on the road, and a new drummer, have been good to Nine Inch Nails, which played a blistering, excellent two-hour set at Oakland's Arena Saturday.

The show was a replacement for a cancelation in September, and it was well worth the wait. Frontman Trent Reznor also announced two more area shows, small ones at Santa Cruz's Civic Audtorium and Cal Poly's auditorium in San Luis Obispo.

One can only hope that the small shows have the same energy as this big one, because the bigger one was much better than Reznor's summer appearance at the initmate Warfield.

What made it so good? Besides the music, the lights and visuals were among the best in touring rock.

The band opened behind a gauze curtain, which surrounded all four sides of the stage. Eventually, it slipped away, but the stage lighting matched the dark, thunderous music. It was often dark, with laser points of light cutting through as Reznor conjured up images of a wounded life. "It didn't turn out the way you wanted it to," he sang on "The Wretched."

"My whole existence is flawed," he continued on "Closer."

But for the night's best moments, the screens came back up and the potent videos that have made NIN some of rock's most contemporary artists, took over, with the band playing behind trippy images of amoebas, war, George Bush at a ball, a gorilla chasing and catching a flamingo in the water.

Then in a Floydian moment, Reznor picked up his guitar and smashed it against the screen, which shattered like a mirror and fell away. Holy, 3-D, Batman.

New drummer Alex Carapetis, who has played with Lenny Kravitz and Nikka Costa, fit perfectly in the mix. Which is more than can be said for guitarist Aaron North, whose singing and playing was usually fine, but whose rock star poses were annoying, even on a mostly darkened stage.

No one needed to see his histrionics. All they wanted was the man who formed NIN and played most of the early material solo. Get a clue, dude. This is industrial music, not Alice Cooper or Poison.

Reznor, who threw water bottles into the surging, pulsing crowd, is sort of the anti-Bono. He barely spoke, only apologizing briefly for the canceled show (after drummer Jerome Dillon's heart ailments), and, unlike the U2 frontman, had nothing much positive to sing. He's an A-bomb of dark negativity, his message more about wiping away the pains of this world and seeing what's left afterwards.

Nothing negative can be said about bassist Jeordie White or keyboardist Alessandro Cortinini. They hammered away perfectly, building these songs into monsters, taking complicated, precise breaks, hitting the silences and then roaring away like a bomb, just right.

No wonder Reznor wants to keep them playing. They've got some momentum now and it is turning out the way he wanted it to.