By: Brady Lavin
Who’d of thunk that rap-rock would experience a revival? Not I, that’s for sure. Once Limp Bizkit, P.O.D., and Rage Against the Machine slid off the map, and Linkin Park was the only real rap-rock band out there, I, along with most music fans, figured it was only a matter of time before rap-rock descended forever into the regrettable 90’s music dungeon. Okay, Rage is anything but regrettable, but the rest are iffy at best.
With their new album, A Thousand Suns, I assumed that Linkin Park would continue on the path set by their previous effort, Minutes To Midnight, a path that would lead to even more generic modern rock that would be indistinguishable from other artists.
Apparently, Linkin Park felt themselves following this path too, and have reacted against that route. On the first page of the A Thousand Suns CD booklet, Linkin Park describe how they wanted to “abandon the precepts of commercial ambition in pursuit of what we believe to be honest art.”
Putting something like that on permanent record takes some testicular fortitude, because they admitted to consciously writing songs for their commercial value on previous albums, which is something that is almost always ridiculed by fans and music critics alike.
While it’s not obvious from the mundane lead single, “The Catalyst,” A Thousand Suns is a significant departure from Linkin Park’s previous albums. Part of their endeavor to create honest art was to craft a complete album rather than just a collection of songs, which was the format of their previous three full-length releases.
A Thousand Suns comes in at fifteen tracks, but only nine of these are full songs, with the other six tracks providing glitchy instrumental interludes, electronically manipulated speeches, and odd ambience. While these may annoy some listeners who only want songs in a row, these interludes, along with the carefully thought-out track order, do help make Suns a complete album.
That is not to say that it is a perfect album, however. Out of the nine full songs, at least “Iridescent” and “The Catalyst” are complete throwaways, and singer Chester Bennington’s part in “Waiting for the End” almost negates how unexpectedly killer Mike Shinoda’s reggae-inspired vocals are on that song.
That being said, the rest is unexpectedly interesting, especially for a band like Linkin Park. Their bread and butter for their entire career has been generic, heavily overdriven guitars over relatively simple drums with some understated DJ scratching thrown in here and there, but with A Thousand Suns, guitars and live drums take a back seat to a myriad of electronic textures and programmed drums.
The first real song, “Burning in the Skies,” is the least adventurous sonically of the album, with piano, clean guitar, some atmospheric effects, and dance-y electronic drums. It showcases, however, a marked improvement of Linkin Park’s songwriting. In the past, their songs were a couple chords for the verse and almost always four chords of equal duration for the chorus, but with “Burning,” the chorus chord progression is much more sophisticated. The melody isn’t as massively catchy as their early hits, but is emotional without cliché, relaxed without being boring, and just plain interesting.
“When They Come For Me” and “Wretches and Kings” are two of the most exploratory tracks on Suns. Both seemingly influenced by dubstep and-or industrial electronic music, they’re also the heaviest tracks, with processed guitars chugging through riffs that are head-bangable and also booty-shakeable.
As has been so successful in the past with hits like, “Papercut” and “Faint,” both those songs feature Mike Shinoda rapping the verses and Chester Bennington singing the chorus. Shinoda turns it on for the majority of the album with some agile rhymes, but his flow is the same as on any other Linkin Park song. He doesn’t do anything revolutionary. He’s Mike Shinoda. He’ll do what he does and it will always be pretty cool.
Chester’s performance, however, is really impressive. His voice is exposed on top of sparser tracks and relatively unprocessed for much of the album, and he puts on a clinic on quality rock vocals. His scream-singing is still present and not lacking in any intensity, but what is really improved is his ability to add a little scream to different syllables to make them jump out a little.
As part of their shedding of commercially driven tendencies, Linkin Park has embraced a bit of non-traditional song structure with A Thousand Suns.
On “Blackout,” Bennington, whose usual forté is rock vocals, takes his turn at rapping the verses with impressive results that build into the intense chorus, which is the only real extended screaming part of the album. From that point the song takes a dubstep turn into a dark electronic dance beat, but transforms into an incredibly uplifting, hopeful outtro. It’s not a Rush-level epic, but they do get away from the usual verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus.
The album ends on the emotional “The Messenger,” which initially comes off as cliché and boring, but again, Chester’s incredible and vulnerable vocal performance turns it into one of the strongest songs on the album as well as a perfect closing track. The chords have been in a million bad sappy singer-songwriter songs, but instead with light female voices cooing the melody. The melody in “The Messenger” isn’t even that amazing, but the intensity and emotion of Bennington’s vocals make it moving.
A Thousand Suns does what any good, complete album does: it takes you somewhere and it makes you feel something at the end. It is by no means perfect, but it is a step in the right direction for Linkin Park. Hopefully they will continue down this path and not revert back to generic radio rock.