Artist: Linkin Park
Album: The Hunting Party
In Brief: It’s interesting to hear Linkin Park set aside the laptops for most of an album and focus on more of a raw, hard rock sound. Despite getting off to an awful start and wasting a few of its celebrity cameos, The Hunting Party shows a heck of a lot of growth for an album that they’re describing as a Hybrid Theory prequel.
I had my reservations when I heard that Linkin Park had returned to more of an in-your-face, guitar-driven hard rock sound. I’ve actually quite enjoyed the group’s electronic evolution over the years, which has had its share of potholes, but which has brought us such solid material as “The Catalyst” and large portions of their 2012 album Living Things. While their old material may be fun and catchy, I got annoyed with people who couldn’t accept the change in their sound. What was there to go back to that was so wonderful when their music was more guitar-driven? It was almost all mindless power chords, or at least that’s how it was often portrayed by their detractors. Sure, Hybrid Theory and Meteora are still insanely catchy, and I pull them out every now and then just to blow off some steam. But I like to hear growth in a band, especially when they’re over a decade removed from the era in which their initial sound was popular. Rapping to heavy rock music is more or less a faux pas nowadays unless you really know what you’re doing, which is why these guys have been wise to not do it full-time for three albums now. When they started describing this one as a sort of prequel to Hybrid Theory, I honestly thought they were just sort of pandering to the fans who had been pestering them all these years to sound like the old stuff again.
As it turns out, sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too. While they haven’t completely forgotten the influence of deejays and laptops on their music, The Hunting Party sees the group giving those elements a rest on most tracks, and putting their guitarist and rhythm section front and center. It’s not really a revisiting of their old sound at all, because here they’re drawing on influences from the mid-to-late 90s that were a bit rawer than LP’s initial sound. This would have been a disastrous move back in the days when they had literally no bassist and their drummer and guitarist were doing relatively basic things that largely took a back seat to Mike Shinoda‘s rapping, Chester Bennington‘s scratchy yowling, and Joseph Hahn‘s DJ effects. Fourteen years later, Brad Delson and Rob Bourdon have gone from sonic wallpaper to total MVP’s, with several solos and rat-a-tat rhythms pretty much defining these songs. It’s a pleasant surprise, and probably a necessary change of pace given that the group took their love for electronica to its (il)logical conclusion on the painfully dubsteppy remix project Recharged just last year.
And not that I want to drag up another name from the heyday of nu-metal, but I kind of feel like Linkin Park has borrowed a move from the P.O.D. playbook on this one. They’ve brought in a few guests from acts that helped to shape their tastes back when they were all still playing air guitars (and air tunrtables? Is that a thing?) up in their bedrooms, from highly visible rap and alternative rock outfits of the late 80s and early 90s. The result is an urgent and often intoxicating blend of heavier and more dissonant sounds with Linkin Park’s usual gift for finding a solid hook. This certainly goes against the grain of what’s popular in music here in 2014, where hip-hop and party-oriented pop acts dominate the mainstream, while even indie rock is getting all synth-happy. And I appreciate the “out-of-sync-ness” of it all, even if the results aren’t perfect and I can’t pretend that I have a good working knowledge of all the influences here.
So who’s gonna like this if it’s not just pandering to old-school Linkin Park fans? Well, those who enjoyed the hard-hitting “Victimized” on Living Things will probably be thrilled to get a heck of a lot more than two minutes of that general sound. Folks who admired the ambition of the troubled midsection of LP’s discography – particularly A Thousand Suns – will probably be relieved to hear that sort of creative attitude resulting in an album that flows a lot better. I personally didn’t mind that the profanity from those albums took a vacay on Living Things, but it’s only back for the first two tracks on this album, which are easily the worst ones for other reasons. Despite a bad start and a few interludes that don’t really belong, the group fires on all cylinders, musically speaking, from that point forward. Lyrically, in trying to express what makes musicians in their mid-30s angry rather than what makes college-aged mallrats angry, they’ve shown some growth here as well, though I’m not going to pretend to songwriting is brilliant. Shinoda has clever rhymes in pretty much every song he raps on – even the two that I otherwise don’t like. Bennington does his usual thing on pretty much all of them, and while his rough vocals definitely fit the style better than they fit LP’s more electronic stuff, you probably already know at this point whether you’re up for another album of that. Maybe start with track three if you’re still skeptical about the band. You’ll warm up to The Hunting Party a lot more quickly, I think.
1. Keys to the Kingdom
I’ve put off finishing this review for weeks now, and part of the reason was because I knew I’d have to start here. I wanted to say that this one of those songs where I just “can’t even”, as the saying goes, but then I think back to Minutes to Midnight‘s wretched opener “Given Up” and I’m reminded that Chester has gone off on more foul and pointless self-effacting rants before. Right up front is his distorted voice: “NO CONTROL! NO SURPRISE!” At first I think it’s some sort of mindless chant to get the audience riled up, and then I realize that Chester’s singing, and it sounds horribly off key, and OH MY GOD THIS IS THE ACTUAL CHORUS OF THE SONG. It’s not so much the subject matter as the execution that bugs me this time – the band gets a pretty mean punk riff going, Brad gets in a solo guitar solo, and Mike’s raps here are pretty entertaining, particularly the line “Yes, I’m half-anglo, half fried panko.” (I had to Google that last bit just to make sure it wasn’t being used as a racial slur by non-Japanese people. Thankfully, not yet.) But while Mike seems content to go with the typical let-me-introduce-myself, haters-gonna-hate sort of angle, Chester’s fury about how he’s f*cked everything up seems like it got dropped in from an entirely different song. Given that both men are moderately potty-mouthed in this song, I will admit that I chuckle when the song ends abruptly and a kid can be heard shouting, “I’m not allowed to say certain things! AAAAAAGGGGHHHH!” As is often the case on this record, what could have been a sharp segue into the next song is bogged down by the group rediscovering the strange fascination with jamming studio chatter in between most of the songs, as they did on Reanimation back in the day.
2. All For Nothing
If the band is using “Hybrid Theory prequel” as a selling point for this album, I suppose this song could make the case for that claim, even though it’s a case I don’t want to have to make. I could easily see this rather by-the-numbers song fitting into one of their first two albums, Mike’s occasional f-bombs aside. Everything sort of rigidly sticks to the grid, the verses predictably swing back and forth from Mike’s rapping to Chester’s growly singing and occasional playing “hype man” wherever a point Mike’s trying to make needs punctuating, the guitars and drums are stubbornly locked to the 4/4 grid, and… would I have found this catchy back in the day? It seems rather tuneless now despite how easily it would have fit into several radio formats just over a decade ago. Even at their most cliched, LP’s old stuff felt like it had a little more color than this. They’ve brought in Page Hamilton from the band Helmet to assist Chester during the chorus, but despite having a different voice in the mix, it doesn’t really add much flavor to the song. At least when P.O.D. collaborated with Hamilton a few years, I had a strong reaction to it (negative, as I recall, but at least it had some personality and couldn’t be accused of straddling the middle of the road). I’m starting to get rather worried around the point where this song collapses into a producer’s booth discussion about whether they should “put the heavy sh*t here”. Coincidentally, that’s the last profanity to be heard for the entire rest of the album. It gets way better from here, and for reasons aside from just that one.
3. Guilty All the Same
There are a few harder-rocking Linkin Park songs that I really love. And there are a few epic-length Linkin park songs that I really love. Up until now, I can’t think of one they’ve done that fits both categories. So I was quite pleasantly surprised by the raw, thrash-y intro of this song (which starts out sounding like a crappy demo, but expands to full technicolor soon enough), which gives Brad and Rob a hell of a workout on the guitar and drums for over a minute before any vocals come in. When they do, it’s clearly a Chester-dominated song, but one of his better ones, channeling his anger into a diatribe at… well, just about anyone you could possibly be angry at for trying to control your behavior while hypocritically not following their own rules. Chester’s never really been big on the specifics. But he’s got the right sing-to-scream ratio here, which makes the song memorable and singable without compromising its aggressive energy. The real surprise is when old-school rapper Rakim comes in during the bridge, about where you’d expect a rap break from Mike instead. This was apparently Mike’s idea, a way to throw the audience a curveball while paying tribute to one of his own musical idols. It’s an effective flashback, as I feel just about excited hearing his spoken word match up to the rough starts and stops of the music while growing in intensity as I did the very first few times I ever heard rap and rock music being combined, before it was painfully cliched to do so. He takes pretty clear aim at a lot of record executives and media watchdogs who would presume to tell him and the guys in the band what they should look or sound like, and much like with a lot of the guests on Reanimation, I’m not 100% sure if this is on point with the original intent of the song, but it sounds freakin’ awesome. I’m amazed that a song like this, with its breakneck pace, can go on for six minutes without being thoroughly exhausting to the listener. It may be my favorite thing that the band’s done since “The Catalyst”.
4. The Summoning
Sure enough, another abrupt ending that could have made a precise cut right into another fury-filled song is instead squandered on a pointless interlude. This one gets a track all to itself, and it’s nothing more than the sampling and slicing up of the final note from the previous song, while unsettling background noise builds to… the sound of a little leaguer hitting a home run or something. Seriously guys, what the hell?
I want to say that the group went full-on hardcore punk here… but then I don’t know jack about hardcore punk. A “real” punk band probably wouldn’t be bothered with stuff like singing and guitar solos. But LP manages to pack some strong musicianship into this ragged, 2-minute blast of violent despair, in which Chester’s vocals are definitely more on the harsh, screeching side, but somehow it’s a much more convincing use of that approach than “Keys to the Kingdom” was, probably because when he screams, he scream, and when he sings, as rough as it may sound, he seems to stay on key. Brad whips out a blistering solo nearly halfway through the song, and while I can’t say there’s anything particularly deep about this one – just some ruminating on how war doesn’t discriminate and it obliterates the peaceful livelihood of anyone in its path – it sure kicks a lot of ass in a short amount of time.
Boasting the same sort of beat that made me eventually admit A Thousand Suns‘ “When They Come For Me” was quite addictive, but thankfully with nary a “mother f*cker” in sight, along comes this rap-heavy song that finds the band doing a decent job of approximating a hip-hop bounce with heavy guitars and drums, relying only minimally on the programming but getting heads nodding all the same. Mike comes out swinging like a prize fighter on this one, following up on Chester’s war theme from the previous song, but describing it as a “war without weapons”, perhaps more a game of psychological warfare. Sadly, Chester squanders the great potential built up by that performance with a pedestrian chorus that sounds too poppy to really fit the surroundings – and keep in mind when I say that that I love some of LP’s most pop-oriented and melodic material; it just seems really forced here. The broad, sweeping generalization “In the wastelands of today” is all kinds of awkward as a chorus hook, too. He can groan and grumble it all he wants as the song builds to its climax, but it still sounds like a pissed-off teenager ranting against the world’s problems that he can’t grasp specifically enough yet to say anything really meaningful about them.
7. Until It’s Gone
The most radio-friendly track on the album sounds like it could have been a refugee from Living Things – and I don’t mean that as a criticism on either point. The transition out of “Wastelands” into this track’s synth hook, which is deliberately in a different rhythm from the rest of the song, reminds me of the surprise of first hearing a song like “Burning in the Skies” due to how it isn’t straight-up 4/4 all the way through but it segues between time signatures beautifully. I’m also reminded of “What I’ve Done” in that it’s fairly straightforward pop/rock if you take away all of the electronic window-dressing, and while this may be a negative point for some, I actually like how they were able to make the energy of a “breather song” like this one fit in well with the rockier material around it. Chester’s reflecting on the rather simple life lesson that “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” here, which means that the lyric is rather simplistic, but it’s effective, and both his vocals and Mike’s mesh well with both the synthetic stuff and the heavy guitars. So it’s a strong synthesis of the two sides of the band’s personality, even though there’s no rap and it’s not one of their harder rockers.
The band hits another home run here by collaborating with Daron Malakian, guitarist for System of a Down. He brings an absolutely pummeling riff to the table, which keeps the fast and furious momentum of this song going. If LP’s goal with this album was to dsicuss the things that make them angry as adults in their thirties as opposed to their teenage years, then this track hits the nail on the head most effectively. Mike and Chester remind us that they know their place – despite making a career out of protesting this, that, and the other, they know at the end of the day that “We are the fortunate ones/Who’ve never faced oppression’s gun.” Here they turn that anger outward at the rest of the world and its much, much worse situations of social injustice than most of us here in the first world have never had to face. I suppose the sudden social awareness might have been Malakian’s doing, since human rights violations are a topic that SOAD has apparently revisited on a few occasions. But then I think of A Thousand Suns and its many warnings about humanity being on the verge of screwing itself over, and some of the political material on Minutes to Midnight, and I remember, LP has been trying to escape the insular “woe is me” stuff for a while now. They drive it home with one of their most glorious chorus melodies, a classic-style screaming bridge from Chester that makes its point without chewing too much of the scenery, and another non-stop instrumental workout that rivals “Guilty All the Same” in its sheer awesomeness.
9. Mark the Graves
The second track on the album to make an over five-minute sprint is this one, which opens with a good minute and a half of the band volleying back and forth between a brooding riff and a bit of manic thrashing, with a few ragged pauses in between just to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I love that they’re devoting so much attention to instrumental intros on this album – it reminds me that there’s a lot of creative energy in the band outside of just Mike and Chester, and it’s nice that those two know when to get out of the way and let their band enjoy being a band. While the lyrics here are, once again, rather simple, and mostly devoted to laying haunting memories to rest, the sheer length of the song makes it feel like there’s a lot more to it than you might see on the page. I think at one point, when the final coda of “In the dark/In the light/Nothing left/Nothing right” comes back around, Mike is actually harmonizing with Chester as he holds each half-sung, half-screamed notes. It works perfectly, and in general I’m appreciating Mike more and more as a vocalist who can play both lead and background roles effectively, without his leads always needing to be rap vocals (which helps the rap-oriented songs to stand out more, I think).
Now this is… something else entirely. Just as the band used one guest vocalist effectively in the first half of the album while they squandered another one, here they take the great privilege of performing with a legendary guitarist (in this case, Rage Against the Machine‘s Tom Morello), and they waste it on a rather half-hearted instrumental track that sounds like it should have been left as a fan club B-side. Nothing wrong with the overall sound of this one – I like how the contemplative piano melts into rolling drums, while Morello adds a melodic, but slightly distorted and unsettling chime to the mix. But it doesn’t really come to a climax. You’re expecting it to erupt into guitar-shredding greatness, and it just sort of dissolves to that lonely piano, all alone in a dark room. I think they’re teasing at the melody for the upcoming song… but there are still ten million better ways that they could have utilized their special guest. it’s like he popped into the studio to say hi when they already had most of the album finished, but they couldn’t pass up the chance to record something with him, so they just recorded a brief jam session and spliced it awkwardly into the track listing.
11. The Final Masquerade
Just as an instrumental leading into a piano melody brought us into the somber closing track of Living Things, this one feels like it could serve that same purpose for this album, since it’s a somewhat bitter breakup song about a person who apparently did a lot of lying and pretending and couldn’t face up to the truth of… however she did Chester wrong. it’s one of the more personal songs on the album, and while there’s nothing specific about it that advances LP’s sound in the way a few other tracks on this album have, it works well as one last pop/rock-oriented song before we dive back into the more intense stuff. The guitar work here fits the more chill, melodic structure of the song, and Chester manages to stick to the smoother side of his voice throughout – occasionally he ruins the mood in these sorts of songs by bringing out the scratchy stuff when the song doesn’t really call for it, so it’s good to heard him rein it in here.
12. A Line in the Sand
“The Little Things Give You Away” from Minutes to Midnight was a haunting closer on an otherwise forgettable album, and to date I haven’t heard the band close with anything as chillingly epic as that. This song, schizophrenic thought it may be, comes awfully darn close. It seems to have everything – somber atmospheric passages over which Mike sings in an eerily prophetic tune, another one of those driving punk rock sorts of rhythms bastardized back into the sort of progressive rock atmosphere that the first punk bands were probably rebelling against, and a good blend of pretty much all of the vocal styles present into group – rap, screaming, melodic singing. One of LP’s favorite themes seems to be that of the villain ultimately getting his due, often getting hoist by his own petard in the process. “Lies Greed Misery” on the last album was all about this, and A Thousand Suns may have been about humanity in general getting that sort of payback. This track feels like it could have fit into that one, though it’s got more raw rock energy than most of that album. Even though Chester, in screaming “Give me back what’s mine!” might sound like the same upstart teenager whose protests peppered Hybrid Theory, one gets the feeling that it’s playing out on a much more global scale here, less like the voice of a kid crying out over some punishment his parents have meted out, and more like the voice of an occupied nation crying out for freedom from gun-toting oppressors. It’s not about any specific political cause that I can determine, but it certainly goes beyond the personal, and I appreciate that. The group’s certainly figured out the importance of delivering a powerful finale, and I hope they don’t forget that lesson on future efforts.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Keys to the Kingdom $0
All For Nothing $.50
Guilty All the Same $2
The Summoning –$.25
Until It’s Gone $1.25
Mark the Graves $1.75
The Final Masquerade $1
A Line in the Sand $1.50
Chester Bennington: Vocals, guitar
Mike Shinoda: Vocals, rhythm guitar, piano, keyboard
Joseph Hahn: Tuntables, programming, sampling
Brad Delson: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Rob Bourdon: Drums
Dave “Phoenix” Farrell: Bass
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