Say what you will about Linkin Park, they’ve always been a band that arouses passions: they’ve seen their share of detractors and scoffers over the years, but almost no-one has ever been indifferent to them. I’ve always had mixed feelings about their wildly popular early work, which produced some fine songs such as “In the End” and “Numb”, but also some frankly embarrassing material like “Crawling” and “One Step Closer”. Their third album, Minutes to Midnight, was transitional, and while it had its moments (particularly the beautiful ballad “Shadow of the Day”), no-one really seems to be all that enthusiastic about it as an album.
But in the wake of frontman Chester Bennington’s recent suicide, I thought I would shed a little light on an era of their career which, while not as popular or ‘mainstream’, represents their real peak as far as artistic achievement goes. And I thought, what better way to introduce that era into the discussion than to start with the album that inaugurated it, their landmark fourth album, A Thousand Suns.
On this album, they largely renounced their earlier style of Rap- and Electronica-inflected Alternative Metal in favor of a new style based on gorgeous, layered electronic sounds. The closest comparison I can think of is a kind of latter-day Pink Floyd, but this really is a sound all its own.
As for the lyrics, they do not renounce the melodrama that has always been Linkin Park’s stock-in-trade, but this time they deal with subjects larger and more ambitious than the adolescent angst the band are often accused of embodying, or even the real private anguish that Bennington had always intended his songs to be about. This is a Concept Album about tyranny, rebellion, and the possibility of mankind’s ultimate nuclear annihilation, and it ranks with the most far-reaching and visionary Concept Albums of its time, actually tackling far weightier subjects than Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning opus The Suburbs or Janelle Monae’s Android trilogy.
If this album has any weakness, it comes from Mike Shinoda’s attempts at Rap. Shinoda is a wonderful singer (and, as their next album would make abundantly clear, an excellent producer as well), but while he is actually fairly credible by the standards of Nu-Metal Rappers, he doesn’t quite have the Eminem-esque raw fury that Linkin Park’s emotional content usually demands. Here, he does a respectable job on the tribal-sounding “When They Come For Me” and the ode to rebellion “Wretches and Kings”, but his contribution to the Reggae-flavored “Waiting For the End” is almost embarrassing, providing the album with its one weak moment.
The high points of the album come toward the end: the truly epic climactic song “The Catalyst”, and two exquisitely beautiful ballads, “Iridescent” and the sorrowfully hopeful “The Messenger”. “Iridescent” in particular ranks with the all-time greats in the field of Rock Ballads, even if the lyrics seem disturbingly like a prophecy of Bennington’s ultimate fate when heard now (“Do you feel cold and lost in desperation/you build up hope, but failure’s all you’ve known/remember all the sadness and frustration/and let it go”).
This album inaugurated an artistic renaissance for the band, with 2012’s Living Things building on this album’s innovations to create even more monumental mountains of sound and sheen, and 2014’s The Hunting Party turning back to their Nu-Metal roots with a newfound assurance and sense of focus that saw them creating consistently credible Metal music for the first time in their careers. The more fanatical fans of their early work tend to resent these albums, apparently for no other reason than because this is not the sound they grew up with, but I admire the band for their willingness to grow over time…they kept innovating with their sound and style right up until the end, and every single phase of their career featured a sound unique among all of their peers in the Rock genre.
A moment of silence for an artist who was the heart and soul of one of the most unique, creative and interesting bands of their time, a band that, say what you will about them, managed to get a strong reaction of some kind or another out of nearly everyone. This may not have been a perfect band, but it was a band that mattered, and both it and the tormented visionary who led it will certainly be remembered.