It’s funny how the music business works. Release an amazing debut album, and it is generally recognized as such by critics and laymen, helps to set a new genre standard, is replayed for years, and assists the band in building a huge fanbase. After that is when things get weird. If the band in question decides not to vary their formula, makes mediocre music that retains many of the elements of their original material, and plays it safe, their fans stick by them and the critics aren’t too harsh (see: the response to my review of the new Goo Goo Dolls album). However, if the band realizes that to make a real, long-lasting impact on the world they must be fluid, maturing with every album, changing their sound, exploring new territory, they are vilified by former “fans” and critics alike. They are disparaged all over the internet, ignored and/or disemboweled by elitist music listeners, and their efforts at making cutting-edge, mature, different music are mocked, whether or not the mockery is justified. And in many cases, it isn’t.
Linkin Park is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Though they’ve certainly never been darlings of the critics, their 2000 debut Hybrid Theory kicked off the decade with an enormous statement: nu-metal can generate good music. Rap and rock don’t have to battle – they can be melded together if you have a good, hot blowtorch. 2003’s Meteora laughed in the face of the “sophomore slump,” stating strongly that loud modern rock music could be good, and establishing Linkin Park as one of the most important and biggest bands of the decade.
At this point, Bennington, Shinoda, and Co. could have released rap/rock/metal albums until the end of time and slowly faded into oblivion as just another ultra-popular radio rock band. But no. They refused to do that. They grew up, lyrically and musically, taking 4 years to put together 2007’s Minutes to Midnight. And then the funny part of the music business hit them like a battering ram. Rather than rejoicing, countless ignorant people ignored the band’s gorgeous political lyrics (“Hands Held High,” “No More Sorrow”), epic explorations of the sonic landscape (“The Little Things Give You Away”), slightly experimental wanderings (the chorus- less “Valentine’s Day,” the crescendo of “In Pieces”), and catchy-as-fuck recollections of their younger selves (“Given Up,” “Bleed It Out”). Perhaps these people didn’t mature like Linkin Park did, and remained stuck in their teenage angst or masculine anger. Perhaps they wanted fun music, rather than good music. Perhaps they made assumptions or established expectations rather than opening their minds to a new sound. Whatever the case, Minutes to Midnight was vastly underappreciated, seeing as it was one of the best rock albums of the 00’s.
The truth is, Linkin Park were a great hard rock band. If you were a teenager, young adult, or simply in touch with your emotions in the early 00’s, they spoke directly to you. But they are no longer that band. Instead, they have matured, experimented, and changed. They have decided that 2.5 albums about anger, alienation, and angst were enough. They have moved on to what really matters in this world – poverty, war, accountability, life, death, inequality…and that’s where 2010’s A Thousand Suns, Linkin Park’s fourth full-length, comes in.
Firstly (yes, I know it’d odd to finally begin talking about the album itself this far into a review), Linkin Park have an obsession with the apocalyptic. Minutes to Midnight’s title itself was a reference to the “Doomsday Clock,” an invention of scientists that attempts to predict when nuclear catastrophe will eliminate us all. The album, however, only partially lived up to its title, and that void is filled by A Thousand Suns. It is a concept album about nuclear warfare; and god almighty, it is enormously apocalyptic, both musically and lyrically. There has never been, and probably never will be, an album that quite as accurately represents the (potential) destruction of earth by humanity and science.
Secondly, A Thousand Suns is an ALBUM. It is not a collection of songs. It is not meant to be listened to as such. The band is going so far as to release an iTunes version that is one track, 47 minutes and 56 seconds long. This is no more an “album” by convential standards than Dark Side of the Moon or Kid A are. Sure, there are identifiable songs, but to understand or to appreciate any of them you must take them in the context of the entire album. To represent this point, out of the 15 tracks on A Thousand Suns, only 9 of them are full-length “songs.” The other 6 are various segues with recurring themes. The opening track, “The Requiem,” entrenches these: a lonely, minor piano theme repeats forlornly; a female sings lyrics that will later appear on the epic “The Catalyst” (“God save us, everyone/ We will burn inside the fires of a thousand suns”) and morphs into a creepy robotic voice just like Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice will during a sampled speech on the amazing achievement “Wisdom, Justice, and Love.” “The Radiance” establishes another motif: speeches. It samples Oppenheimer’s famous “Destroyer of Worlds” speech over industrial sounds and a rapid heartbeat; later, Mario Savio and MLK Jr. will make appearances even more ominous.
The first actual “song” is “Burning in the Skies,” a melodic and beat-driven piece that recalls “Shadow of the Day” from Minutes To Midnight. Describing the death of the innocent as fuel for the war, it may not be a the best part of A Thousand Suns, but it sets the tone as effectively as the two intro tracks. Its musical mannerisms also recur on “Robot Boy,” which eviscerates those who think “compassion’s a fault” or are too focused on themselves; and on “Iridescent,” whose lyrics detail a sort of heavenly transcendence in the wake of nuclear destruction (“a burst of light that blinded every angel”). It is perhaps the most emotional moment on an album that is sublimely personal at the same time as it is all-encompassing.
Those are the alternative-rock-inspired moments. But what about the rock? Linkin Park just wouldn’t be Linkin Park if they didn’t let it all loose occasionally. And they do. “When They Come for Me” features the year’s best percussion setting the background for Shinoda’s ragga- style rapping and an epic wordless chorus. And just when the song couldn’t possibly get any better, it does: after a short intermission, its last 35 seconds feature middle-eastern vocal stylings that echo the chorus from earlier in the song. It is easily one of the year’s best tracks, as is “Wretches and Kings.” The latter begins with Mario Savio’s famous “Bodies upon the Gears” speech, the perfect segue into dissonant guitars and crunching calamity that features the best chorus that Chester has ever written or sung (“We, the animals, take control/ Hear us now, clear and tall/ Wretches and kings, we come for you”). Linkin Park even go all Rage Against the Machine on our asses in the midst of the nu-metal-inspired consummation of Nine Inch Nails and Hybrid Theory. And in the end, it’s the little things that make an album, and those toms that announce the coming of the bridge of “Wretches and Kings” supply one of those little things.
And for those who miss Chester’s screaming, there’s even something for you: “Blackout.” Opening with a synth and looped drumbeats, the song doesn’t jump out like a villain in a horror movie, but rather sneaks up on you. Around the minute mark, exquisite percussion enters to offset what might be Chester’s best performance ever. When he shrieks “fuck it, are you listening?!”, you’d better be listening. The guitars may be missing, but this is the most hardcore Linkin Park has ever been. Because it’s real.
Speaking of real, the last two tracks on A Thousand Suns are worth commenting upon before wrapping up this review and letting you decide for yourself whether or not Linkin Park has created one of the best rock albums ever. “The Catalyst” is an epic chorusless summation of the previous 13 tracks, combining it all into one huge finale. And then there’s “The Messenger.” Like the first and last tracks on Pink Floyd’s Animals, this closing statement features a lone acoustic guitar, some sparse string arrangements, and Chester. It is desolate yet optimistic, miserable yet beautiful. It is the message of redemption, brought to us by these wonderful messengers, that can save humanity from destruction by “a thousand suns.” “When life leaves us blind, love keeps us kind.” There has never been a simpler, truer statement to close an album.
I’m well aware that many listeners will not share my opinion of this album. It has already received rather disquietingly poor reviews (can we really trust critics if they can’t see the genius in this album?) and been attacked by random screen names all over the internet (I did a lot of research before I sat down to write this review)…and somehow, MTV (phaugh) decided to call it “Linkin Park’s Kid A,” even though they wouldn’t listen to Kid A if they were forced to. This is not Kid A. It’s not Pink Floyd. A Thousand Suns is a completely different genre, but it is exploring that genre just like those previous bands explored theirs. It is an epic quest, a genuinely apocalyptic force of nature, an album that doesn’t need to be classified by “songs” or “singles” or “sales”…in otherwords, it is true art. And it is one HELL of an album.