In Brief: An intriguing collage of new sounds and terrifying yet fascinating lyrical themes, if you can navigate around the massively embarrassing mistakes that they made here.
We’ve had three years now to get over the shock of Linkin Park attempting to prove to fans and haters alike that they were all grown up. Whatever your opinion on the band during their early days of poppy nu-metal superstardom (personally, I liked ’em and figure they were a bit of harmless fun), I think we can all agree that 2007’s Minutes to Midnight was a strange beast. I guess the album, a strange brew of attempts at new sounds ranging from the explicit to the innocuous, had its defenders. But it was hard to hear any of those folks over the cries of former fans pining for the endless, compact rap-and-scream-along hits of Hybrid Theory and Meteora, and the snarky commentary of detractors convinced that they were destroying themselves by trying to be all things to all people. I rather abruptly switched camps on that one, turning from fan to detractor. But I did my best to give it a fair shake. “What I’ve Done”, while somewhat pedestrian, was catchy without having to rely on the rap breaks or the screaming. “Bleed It Out” was a bit of silly fun once I navigated around Mike Shinoda‘s dirty mouth. And a few songs showed something a little more intelligent than just desperate genre-hopping for its own sake. The finale of that record, “The Little Things Give You Away”, still gives me goosebumps. If only this band could find some sort of a cohesive sound, I figured there might still be some potential there.
Their latest effort, A Thousand Suns, shows no signs of finding that cohesive sound. It’s their most disparate record yet, sure to infuriate old fans and give critics another easy target to take swipes at. (Apparently the kids are calling it A Thousand Sucks. Which is just so clever. Are you guys even old enough to remember Hybrid Theory?) At least, that seems to be true at first glance. The obsession with Doomsday scenarios that gave Minutes to Midnight its title and a few of its better tracks has given rise to the most dreaded of self-important actions for a pretentious young band to take without realizing they’re in over their heads… the concept album. They’ll deny it, but I think it’s fairly obvious that there’s a recurring theme running through this latest effort – and a bleak one at that. You’d probably expect absolutely none of this to work – and at first, I was convinced that none of it did. But stepping back from my initial shock and disgust, I’ve found that A Thousand Suns is actually a not-too-shabby effort from these guys. It’s a minefield of embarrassing flaws, almost as if they went and made every mistake in the Musician’s Growing Pains Handbook, but despite that, when something works on this album, it actually works quite well. Minutes to Midnight often felt like it was pandering to people who said they relied on certain gimmicks too much, as if it were Linkin Park minus their trademark moves. This new disc feels more like they’re creatively using their assets and applying them to different styles. DJ Joe Hahn gets to do a lot more sampling and electronic stuff, which will be off-putting to people who just want the rawk, but I don’t care about them. Chester Bennington uses his obnoxious scream where it will work best (usually, anyway), and opts for a milder approach that actually isn’t half bad elsewhere. Mike Shinoda splits his time more effectively between rapping and singing – sometimes singing lead in a much more interesting context than the dull “in between”. When he raps, the group breaks out into almost full-fledged hip-hop songs, with jarring electronic sounds maintaining the overall “dystopian future” feel of the album. In terms of creating a mood, this isn’t half bad.
Ironically, going through a phase where they weren’t sure they wanted to create albums or singles in the conventional sense at all might have turned out to be this disc’s saving grace. Scattered amongst the 15 tracks on this album are 6 interludes, and while that leads to legitimate complaints about a lack of content (there are only 9 true “songs” here), it also leads to sonic experiments that help to bridge gaps between songs that would otherwise have no business being on the same record. This helps to mitigate the whiplash that was such an off-putting factor on Minutes to Midnight, and it also serves to break the record into distinct acts, counteracting criticisms that their old material was the same thing song after song (it wasn’t always, but taken superficially, I see why someone might think that). It doesn’t tell any sort of unified story, but those who listen carefully will hopefully smile at the recurring motifs and realize that, perhaps for the first time, the band really planned this thing out in terms of what track order would suit the album best. The lead single’s buried at track fourteen. That alone should be a clue that the intent isn’t just to shove all of the most ear-grabbing material upfront.
But these guys still have the major downfall of trying to sound grown-up in all the wrong ways. While it only infects a few tracks, that Parental Advisory label is in full force, to the point where the F-bombs can be as embarrassing as they were on “Given Up”. I’m not diametrically opposed to strong language in a song, but I really hate it when it feels like it’s being used just to prove you’re aiming at a “mature” audience. Elsewhere, a few softer moments come across as cloying, particularly in the album’s closing number, which is every bit as egregious as the material most “hard” bands would leave as a hidden track, as a joke to make fun of other bands that they think are wusses. So the whiplash is still there, in a sense. The most frustrating thing is that some of the better material does a good enough job of creating a contemplative mood that Linkin Park really doesn’t need to rely on more cliched methods of making us feel all sentimental. It’s errors like these that are so glaring, that it’s easy to take one listen to this disc and want to chuck it out the window. These guys have a disease, but at least they’re managing to quarantine it to a few bad tracks on an otherwise salvageable album. Much to my surprise once I got over my initial disgusted reaction to the worst tracks, I truly enjoy the rest of A Thousand Suns enough to consider it a worthwhile purchase. Considering that I never expected to take them seriously again after Minutes to Midnight, this is certainly an improvement.
1. The Requiem
I know we live in an age where anyone who takes music seriously seems to despise Auto-tune, but when you want to do something that sounds eerie, robotic, and detached, it can be a useful tool. Linkin Park employs it in this introductory track, with an androgynous, mechanized voice softly singing the chorus of a song that will appear later in the album. “God save us, everyone/Will we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns/For the sins of our hands, sins of our tongue/Sins of our fathers, the sins of our young.”The use of a bookending theme like this can only mean that this is Capital I “Important”.
2. The Radiance
Having an intro lead into an interlude before we even get to the first song is borderline ridiculous, especially when the music segues seamlessly from soft electronic tones to a tuneless, mechanical rhythm over which a human voice speaks – it would have worked fine as all one track since the combined balance of the two is merely about three minutes. The voice speaking here is that of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. (Thanks, Big Bang Theory, for saving me a trip to Wikipedia!) He discusses people’s impressions after the testing of said bomb, offering a nightmare-inducing quote from Hindu scripture. This is all a bit pretentious considering that we haven’t reached an actual song yet, but I’ll give the boys this – they’ve done their homework.
3. Burning in the Skies
Finally, a song! And a pretty good one, too. Interestingly, it’s not at all the type of thing you’d expect Linkin Park to get started with, since the preceding intro would have the average listener expecting something blistering and apocalyptic. The mood is actually more reflective, with both Mike and Chester singing in much mellower tones than we’re used to, for a song that isn’t quite predictable but that is melodically quite smooth. I like the fluidity of Phoenix‘s bass and Joe Hahn’s electronic ambience. The mood here is one of regret, and the rhythm shifts uneasily from a 6/4 verse to a 4/4 chorus – this took some getting used to in the same way as Copeland‘s “The Grey Man” once did (and there’s a band I never thought in a million years that I’d be comparing to Linkin Park!) Despite some hackneyed metaphors, I really like Chester’s chorus, as it seems to skip past the apocalypse and express regret over the damage done, leaving pieces of the puzzle to be filled in by later songs on the album. “I’m swimming in the smoke/Of bridges I have burned/So don’t apologize/I’m losing what I don’t deserve.” Brad Delson gets to bust out a halfway-decent guitar solo, too. Were it not for Chester’s recognizable voice (true even when he’s not screeching), you could probably play this for someone and they wouldn’t have the first clue that it was Linkin Park. To not sound like yourself and to still come up with a good song is no easy task, so mission accomplished on this one.
4. Empty Spaces
Twenty seconds of nocturnal insect ambiance and vague battleground sounds? This is a waste of space, not long enough of one to get worked up over.
5. When They Come for Me
This track was the embarrassing moment where I found myself ready to declare that the entire album and Linkin Park’s new musical direction was a huge load of crap. That was short-sighted of me, because for the most part, this is actually a pretty solid hip-hop track, built on shrill, dissonant electronics, a beat with a bit of a tribal feel, and some spooky Eastern-sounding vocalizations. Listen to just the backing track, and it’s all good. Mike Shinoda’s lyrics actually aren’t too shabby at the outset either – perhaps a bit boastful like a lot of his Fort Minor stuff, but sort of a clever Take That aimed at the folks who just can’t let Hybrid Theory go. It’s a bit weird to break from the apocalyptic theme for this declaration of who we iz, but that’s not my main gripe. My main gripe is the chorus, which pretty much ruins any goodwill built up by that awesome track as Mike repeatedly declares, “Try to catch up, motherf*cker!” See, I’m all for a clever diss pointed at the whiny “fans” who expect you guys to stay the same, but this just takes it into unforgivably rude territory. Under no circumstances is it necessary to call people who once liked your music motherf*ckers. That just demonstrates a desperate level of contempt towards old fans, and it’s jarring enough to ruin the song almost completely for me. (Given the theme of the album, I could possibly see “Sons of b*tches” serving as an acceptable insult. The more nerdy among us will get that joke.)
6. Robot Boy
The piano that leads into this one would have you expecting some sort of power ballad on most pop/rock albums. The introduction of a slamming mid-tempo hip-hop beat tells us that’s not going to be it at all… but this isn’t a hip-hop song either. (From the title, I’d have expected some sort of rebuttal from Mike toward those who criticized his rapping style. But we’ve had enough of that already.) Chester sings a repetitive, but effective melody that basically dismantles a person who has lost all feeling. They use past hurts to justify a lack of forgiveness and compassion, and just go on militantly pursuing their vengeance no matter the cost. It’s almost more of a chant than a conventional song.
7. Jornada del Muerto
The fadeout from the previous track leads into this rhythmic pastiche of vocal snippets and sounds resembling the melody and chord progression of both “Robot Boy” and “Burning in the Skies”. It’s just a minute and a half, so it doesn’t develop into a full song, but it works well enough as a segue. The Spanish title translates to “Day of the Dead”, for whatever that’s worth.
8. Waiting for the End
More of a mid-tempo R&B feel here – not really a song I’d classify as rap or rock, despite how much the band wants to deeceive us with the rhythmic electric guitar opening or Mike’s “Yeah.” that leads into the first verse. Mike’s doing sort of a rap/sing hybrid here, and it’s surprisingly effective, especially when matched with another smooth Chester chorus. (Has he even screamed yet on this album? I don’t miss it all that much.) It’s an ode to dismantling your former self and starting over again, and as with a few tracks on this otherwise bleak album, it’s actually quite hopeful in its tone. DJ Hahn pulls some tricks here, like chopping up little bit’s of Chester’s melody to play back in the bridge, and overall, this is quite a catchy creation. It’s more the kind of thing that gets hands swaying rather than fists pumping, but it’s another good example of the band taking a successful detour.
Alright, those of you who have been waiting halfway through the album for a charged-up rocker to help you get the frustration out of your system… well, this might work for you. It’s certainly high energy. And Chester’s back to screaming, sort of. The chorus here will certainly make your blood curdle. But then there’s this whole techno-dance thing going on, and… whoa, is Chester actually rapping here? Have he and Mike temporarily switched bodies or something? It’s more like that fast robotic talking thing that people do when they ‘rap” to techno music, and actually, the more I listen to it, the more it reminds me of Family Force 5 and their obnoxiously raspy approach to techno-fied crunk rock. For something that reminds me of FF5, though, this actually ain’t bad. it’s quite entertaining, and it drops you into some unexpected twists and turns, including a hurricane of intense vocal sampling in the bridge and then a quiet little interlude sung by Mike before the song builds back up for its anthemic, melodic conclusion. Lyrics are quite bitter here, like Chester’s telling someone off who left him in a mess, which is fine, but… “F*ck it, are you listening?” Really Chester, you had to interrupt the flow by tacking that onto the end of a verse? If you had to execute the Precision F Strike, “Are you f*cking listening?” would have flowed much better.
10. Wretches and Kings
A speech from political activist Mario Savio opens this track, and since at first it’s by itself before the music kicks in, I have to wonder about the logic of not putting it on a separate track (like they did do with other snippets of sound that would have been better combined into the surrounding tracks). That’s a small complaint – it’s a fierce little speech that you’d expect to lead into some sort of science fiction-y song about doing whatever it takes to destroy some doomsday machine. Instead, we get more of Mike’s hip-hop posturing. I like the sound of it, but the words are hit and miss. Sometimes I think it’s a clever reassignment of cliches to support this track’s mood of fear and rebellion (such as taking “Get down” incredibly literally, or “If you fear what I feel, put ’em up real high”, getting the crowd moving to indicate unity against something they’re scared of rather than just for the sake of mindless partying). Sometimes I think Mike just likes to talk about his role in the music business and remind his critics that they’re just talking a lot of sh*t. I like the deep grumble of this song’s synth groove and the machine-like sounds that are injected into it. Chester’s shout-along chorus isn’t too bad, either, even though I think it sounds mildly silly for him to imitate a reggae accent here. The two guys make a good tag-team, which has been true of LP’s better songs since the early days.
11. Wisdom, Justice and Love
I’ve heard Martin Luther King, Jr. sampled on a lot of records. Something about the timbre of his voice is just immediately inspiring, and attempts by various bands to use it as a shortcut to create such a mood range from brilliant to cliched. It takes a lot, then to make MLK sound creepy, but that’s what Linkin Park manages to pull off here, taking an exceprt from a speech decrying mindless war and bloodshed that “cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love”, tweaking his voice so that it slowly melts into a more and more distorted, robotic form, as if the very ideals of this speech have become decayed and forgotten with the advent of new ways of blowing one another up. For just a little interlude, this is quite a frightening and fascinating collage of sound.
The moody piano that backed MLK resurfaces in this track, putting Mike in the solo spotlight for what actually turns out to be – honest to God – a power ballad. There are so many reasons why this shouldn’t work, ranging from a fairly pedestrian chorus about letting go of sadness and frustration, to a somewhat predictable build to a big finish full of U2-esque guitar grandeur, to a freaking choir of voices joining in for that final refrain. LP’s really walking on thin ice with this one, and yet it works due to the intriguing verses (try this one on for size: “And in a burst of light that blinded every angel/As if the sky had blown the heavens into stars/You felt the gravity of tempered grace falling into empty space/No one there to catch you in their arms.” WHOA.) and the overall release of emotion that the entire album’s honestly been building up to. I’m not sure how this would play if detached from the album and released as a single – it really needs the context to make it fly. This really should have been the album’s final movement, since it seems weird to dive back into apocalyptic anger after this, and since the album’s actual finale is a total trainwreck. We’ll get to that in a few minutes.
This is the inverse of “The Requiem”. Another metallic voice reprises the chorus of “Burning in the Skies” (note the symmetry there), slowly morphing back into a human voice over the course of a minute or so.
14. The Catalyst
Remember how I said that the lead single was buried at track 14? Turns out there was no better place for it, as this sprawling, five-minute number is one heck of a fist-pumping climax. It’s funny to hear that some fans found this one so off-putting at first due to its unabashed techno rhythm and its noticeable lack of rapping and screaming, because the backbeat seems to me like it resembles a new and improved “What I’ve Done”, and really, we should have gotten over LP not sounding like themselves back then. The chorus and lyrics are probably ten times better here than in “What I’ve Done”, though, bringing the consequences of nuclear war back around to face us, as Chester leads a group of gang vocals in a terrifying last-ditch prayer for the salvation of mankind. For all of the fooling around on laptops, you might not even notice how a real guitar and drums slowly start to take over somewhere around the bridge. I feel like everyone in the band gets something worthwhile to do here, and I also think the band has struck a not-so-easily-attainable balance between relentless catchiness (seriously, try getting that chorus out of your head after you’ve heard it a few times) and artistic exploration. I know some folks don’t think “Linkin Park” and artistic belong in the same sentence. But I think this track qualifies. I also think you’d do well to turn off your CD player or iPod or whatever after this gloriously triumphant song fades out. (Or pretend that “Iridescent” was supposed to come next.) It’s the best way to finish A Thousand Suns on a high note.
15. The Messenger
WORST. SONG. EVER. I’m serious. I would have thought this was either a cruel joke of a hidden track, or else a leaked demo that never should have seen the light of day… but nope, it is the honest-to-God grand finale that Linkin Park thought would be the best way to end this album. Whatever musical whiplash might have come before, at least there was a general mood and flow that tied it all together, and the electronic elements played no small part. Here, absolutely nothing is plugged in, leaving Chester with nothing but the dull, dry strum of an acoustic guitar (played as if someone just picked up the instrument last week and learned a few chords for the very first time) and a little bit of piano. Some bands could work a lot of magic with such simple tools, but LP approaches them like the instruments themselves are pure novelties, showing no proficiency. I haven’t even gotten to the lyrics yet, which are such a sappy, glurgey ball of platitudes that it’s almost impossible to stomach. This is the kind of crap a wannabe Christian rock band with designs on Linkin Park’s sound would likely close their album with, completely abandoning their core style just because there’s some sort of unwritten rule that we have to finish an album all grown-up-like. Does my description of this God-awful song sound bad enough to keep you away yet? Well just wait, I haven’t even gotten to the best part, which is Chester’s singing. I’m honestly shocked – he demonstrated so much vocal control throughout the rest of the album, but here, despite the Kum Ba Yah vibe, he’s screeching out half of these words at the top of his lungs, to the point where several notes are painfully off-key. What the hell does he think he is, Bryan Adams? Maybe Rod Stewart? Wow, guys. Just… WOW. Way to take all the goodwill I was starting to feel toward you guys with so many other interesting songs, and completely flush it down the john.
So yeah, it’s hard to walk away from this album without a painful reminder of the band’s seeming inability to differentiate between innovative ways of trying new things, and downright embarrassing ones. Really, only two of these songs are bad enough to make me slap my forehead in sheer disgust (and one of those at least has good music), but subtract two songs from nine and you’re left with seven decent-to-good ones. Those aren’t good odds, seeing as the interludes almost outnumber them. And that’s why, despite some fascinating successes throughout the album, I’m left with a bad enough taste in my mouth that I can’t give A Thousand Suns more than an average rating. A slight revision and shuffling of the track order would alleviate this problem and give you a really solid EP. But Linkin Park hasn’t quite made the full transition from throwing whatever ideas they like onto a record into making a complete, satisfying album that works as more than just a collective of individually catchy songs. Maybe they’ve got it in them. They’ve certainly done enough to break their fanbase into thousands of tiny schisms that I don’t feel like perceived fan expectations should dictate where they do from here. Then again, they seem to have a bad habit of responding to critical backlash, so the next record could either be a revelation, or a rehash of Minutes to Midnight. I guess I’ll try to catch up with them in 2013.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Requiem $.50
The Radiance $0
Burning in the Skies $1.50
Empty Spaces $0
When They Come for Me $.50
Robot Boy $1
Jornada del Muerto $.50
Waiting for the End $1.50
Wretches and Kings $1
Wisdom, Justice and Love $.50
The Catalyst $2
The Messenger -$2
Chester Bennington: Vocals, guitar
Mike Shinoda: Vocals, rhythm guitar, piano, keyboard
Joseph Hahn: Tuntables, programming, sampling
Brad Delson: Lead guitar
Rob Bourdon: Drums
Dave “Phoenix” Farrell: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.