I’ve heard this phrase for about ten years now, beginning way back when fifteen-year-old me picked up Hybrid Theory in the fall of 2000, much to the dislike of my friends and their super-cool, “it’s only good if it’s hardcore/punk/real metal” music sensibilities. Music snobs, this review isn’t for you.
That sentiment only got louder as LP became The World’s Most Popular Band, circa 2003 with the release of Meteora. They took the style made popular by bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit and made it more accessible to more people, and as a result their hybrid of hip-hop, hard rock/metal and electronica polarized the general public, creating enemies in those music fans who hate popular things because they're popular.
Well, the band has, since Meteora, only gotten BIGGER, with 2007’s uneven Minutes to Midnight propelling them even higher into the stratosphere of mainstream music and worldwide supremacy. This only made the “haters” even more pissed off, especially those who said the band had “sold out” with MTM’s significantly more mellow sound and less of the in-your-face-and-filled-with-angsty-lyrics thing that put them on the map.
Well, with today’s release of A Thousand Suns, Linkin Park have shown the world that they don't care what you want them to sound like. In fact, I’m positive this album will turn a lot of LP fans into the type of person who says “yeah, I listened to them before they really sucked”.
The thing is, though, that this album doesn’t suck. It’s actually extremely intriguing and ballsy.
Listening to the strange array of noises and songs and interludes and speeches and other curiosities that make up the disc, I realized something I hadn’t quite realized before.
Linkin Park is NOT a “rock band”. They’re a fantastic pop band.
That’s right, kids. Chester Bennington, Mike Shinoda, Joe Hahn, David “Phoenix” Farrell, Rob Bourdon, and Brad Delson are no longer the hard rock outfit you once knew.
Just listen to the eclectic and surprising collection of music on A Thousand Suns and you’ll understand what I’m saying.
I pre-ordered the album and received via email a digital download of the entire album in one uncut mp3 track, so it would appear that the band intends this thing to be consumed as the sum of its parts instead of a bunch of tracks jumbled together.
In that context, what they’ve done really stands out as a cohesive collection of intricate instrumentalism and precision.
Album opener, The Requiem, features some Robot-Tuned female vocals reciting lines from lead single The Catalyst, leading into The Radiance, a 50-second speech from Robert Oppenheimer set to some future robot planet marching noises.
The first full song, Burning in the Skies, is not the familiar barrage of guitar riffs and anger that you might expect. Instead, it’s a hushed, mellow piano-driven tune with Shinoda on main vocal duties. Bennington takes over for the chorus, offering lines like I’m swimming with the smoke of bridges I’ve burned. As with most Linkin Park albums, I have no idea what they’re really talking about, as lyrically they’ve always been about puffed-up wordplay that doesn’t really mean anything yet resonates with the listener. The song sounds like it could have been on Minutes to Midnight, had that album had some of the same techno-beeps and computerization that Transformers single New Divide provided.
The next real song on the album, When They Come for Me, is my favorite track from the record. Its percussive explosion of drums and rhythm set to some buzzy guitars gives it this really strange and alluring atmospheric feel, almost as if it’s an attempt to make a song in the style of Nine Inch Nails doing James Bond theme music.
Shinoda drops a line in this song that I think is the key to this whole record: I am not a pattern to be followed/The pill that I’m on is a tough one to follow/I’m not a criminal, not a role model/ Not a born leader/ I’m a tough act to follow/I am not the fortune and the fame/or the same person tellin’ you to forfeit the game.
I think he’s alluding to the fact that the media and LP fans whined that Meteora was “too much” like Hybrid Theory, then when the band totally revamped their sound with Minutes to Midnight as a response to that, it was “too mellow” and the fans whined and bitched that it wasn’t as cool as Hybrid Theory or Meteora. This must have made the band feel pretty incapable of satisfying their audience. Mike’s line about not being a pattern to follow nor “the same person tellin’ you to forfeit the game” (itself a line from Points of Authority from Hybrid Theory) sounds like a statement to the whiners that “we’ve changed, get over it”.
Musically, the song is great too, mixing tribal drums, vocal chants and hip hop/techno beats seamlessly. It’s a new kind of sound for them and the result is just mesmerizing.
Robot Boy isn’t as great, instead being a low-key piano-driven jam that isn’t terrible either. It’s just not a high point on the album individually. It does work well as an interlude, though.
Jornada del Muerto, a real interlude, is effective enough with echoed vocals and heartbeat rhythm building into the next track, Waiting for the End. This was one of the songs the band released a few weeks ago, and its pseudo-reggae vibe made no sense on its own, but in the musical context of this record it fits perfectly. It’s still a bit weird hearing Mike and Chester adopt some dancehall-ish vocals, even if they don’t do it 100% authentically.
Blackout is the strangest track on the album, with Bennington’s screaming and choppy, reversed and remixed voice set to a synth beat and staccato rhythm. His weird talk-rap used in the song’s verse was strange at first, considering he hasn’t ever really done this before, but it adds an element to the song that makes it stand out even more. This track is more of a showcase for Mr. Hahn on the turntables, and he puts on quite a performance.
Wretches and Kings is also one of the album’s best moments, and probably the closest thing to the “old sound” that the band gets. Shinoda’s MC duties on this one are familiar, and Bennington’s chorus, despite the tinge of almost-hip hop/reggae, is vintage LP. It’s also nice to hear Brad Delson actually get to play some guitar riffs, too.
Wisdom, Justice & Love samples MLK, setting his words to a slow piano melody, before becoming Robot-Tuned toward the end and leading into Iridescent.
This song is Stadium Anthem Linkin Park. Another piano-led exercise, it finds Shinoda and Bennington splitting lead vocal duties, singing about the search for hope and being lost and desperate and things of that nature. The song builds and builds until an epic, lighter and glowing-cell-phones-waving-in-the-air chorus. As a whole it sounds very U2-ish (not unlike Shadow of the Day from MTM), but it’s also really aesthetically pleasing, probably due to the soaring chorus of voices that kick in with the guitar toward the middle. It may seem odd, a feel-good track from a band known for anger and aggression, but it’s very musical and pretty uplifting.
Fallout adds more interlude beeps and whirls and robot voices before The Catalyst kicks in. We all know that song and its surprising (at first listen) structure, going from drum blasts and DJ scratches to a repeated vocal hook that builds into a techno freakout before relaxing into a melodic piano outro.
The album’s closer, The Messenger, is a tender acoustic ballad with Chester singing and, sometimes, screaming. The scratchiness in Bennington’s voice relays an energy and passion that hasn’t been expressed this way in a LP song before. The line When life leaves us blind/Love keeps us kind is repeated over and over, and sticks with you long after the song fades and the album comes to an end. The song sounds like an epic 1980s hair metal ballad, but without all the cheesiness. Instead, it’s quite moving, and that’s not a word I had ever expected to use regarding a Linkin Park song.
In closing, A Thousand Suns is definitely not for everyone. There is no Crawling, no Faint, no In the End, and definitely no Given Up to be found here. There are also only nine full songs, the rest being interludes, which could irritate some listeners.
If you can keep an open mind and appreciate a band’s growth and evolution, though, then you might “get” this record. People who don't like the band probably won't like this record inherently, but they do have quite a knack for changing styles and challenging themselves, that much is certain.
This album is incredibly ambitious, and whether or not you like what you hear, they at least deserve credit for trying. Bands of this stature don't usually produce albums with the potential to polarize their fanbase as much as LP has done with this one.
Just don’t expect a lot of blistering guitar riffs or anything that you really remembered and liked (or hated) about Linkin Park.
They’re different now, so deal with it.