Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: Linkin Park's A Thousand Suns

Linkin Park’s fourth studio album A Thousand Suns marks a radical departure from the rap-rock formula that set them on the international stage and made their debut work Hybrid Theory the second best-selling album of the last decade, trumped only by The Beatles 1. It’s a concept album, telling the events of a nuclear holocaust, creepily and confusingly setting the stage with a full minute’s quoting from Robert Oppenheimer’s famous quoting of Hindu scripture, ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’. The band has described it as ‘atmospheric’ and ‘genre-busting’, saying that it’s a more evolved, mature sound, a departure from the angst-driven lyrics of Hybrid Theory and Meteora.

A Thousand Suns is a carefully constructed political statement, a logical progression in subject matter from 2007’s Minutes to Midnight, in reference to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist’s Doomsday Clock. Does this album have what it takes to keep Linkin Park in the spotlight?

Straight away, the old Linkin Park feel is absent, with not one, but two ambient intro tracks aiming to establish a spacey, contemplative mood. Not a good first step for a group whose original single featured the lyrics “Shut up when I’m talking to you!”

After that, three minutes into the album, we arrive at the first actual song, Burning in the Skies, which opens with heavily processed drums and an ambient piano vibe that permeates nearly every track here. “I’m swimming in the smoke of bridges I have burned.” Croons lead vocalist Chester Bennington, in the chorus of this borderline synthpop adventure.

After Burning, we have an eighteen second interlude of crickets chirping (presumably the extended middle finger of the first three tracks was enough to clear the room), which leads into When They Come For Me, a Shinoda-centric rap track with a tribal drum beat, and a Muse-inspired bridge. What’s most annoying about the song is that while it’s more or less a return to form, and excellently displays Shinoda’s rapping skills, it’s like everything else in this album; a sore thumb. It doesn’t fit with what came before, or what comes after - Robot Boy

Robot Boy is another ambient piano item, with overlaid four-part vocals on top of a marching hip hop beat. It’s the second of many times in this album that the band strives for the spacey get-up-off-the-ground balladry of Muse. It’s a largely failed experiment of a song, with Chester’s off-key moaning and ‘YEAAAHHH’S’ toward the end endlessly echoing and cluttering up an already reverb-packed cluster of tones. At the very end, for a few brief bars, Linkin Park remembers that they are in fact a rock band, and bring in their bassist Phoenix to lay down a single note.

Up next is Jornada Del Muerto, yet another ambient passing tone of a track, just over ninety seconds long that builds up to yet another synthesizer riff, with driving marching drums and a cacophony of noise that builds to a magnificent climax only to fade quickly into nothing like it was caught with its hand in the cookie jar, and the cadence is lost just in time for Waiting For the End, which I am doing in earnest now. Another confusing mixture of genres, Shinoda brings a borderline Jamacian accent to the mic to deliver his vocals, describing himself as ‘All cahht up in dee eye ah dah stahm’ while Chester puts down a skillful, if slurred new-age ballad in the chorus.

Next we have Blackout. And here I am the most conflicted. This is strictly a Chester piece, blending the chaotic assault of Mindless Self Indulgence’s acidic-techno rebellion, and the soft keytar bleeps of nerd rockers Freezepop. Two styles of music I like, that, when combined do not complement one another. Within sixty seconds we’re taken from a sample of Chester’s most intense vocal presence on the entire album cut up on a mixing board, and fired from an M16 in a brutal staccato to a tender chorus set against a synthesizer and that damned ambient piano that will leave no track untouched.

Track 10, Wretches and Kings, marks the first time in the album that two actual songs are back to back with no filler material in between. And if Blackout was Chester’s time to shine, this is absolutely Mike Shinoda country. Wretches positively oozes the energy of Shinoda’s masterful hip hop project, Fort Minor. The grinding, shrieking atonal guitar chugging mesh with the drums to create the heaviest, loudest, drag-your-knuckles-in-the-concrete beat that the band has ever produced. Chester makes a devastating foul in the chorus, deciding that it is now his turn to pretend he’s in a reggae band, delivering a chorus straight out of the Bahamas. I guess nothing has gone right on this record.

Wisdom, Justice, and Love is a ninety second sampling of a Martin Luther King speech that sets the stage for the return of the ambient piano. As the track moves, the voice becomes distorted and robotic, with a chorus and the roar of a rocket engine filling the background. ‘Do not be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.’ The robo-MLK warns.

Iridescent comes next, a slow, pop-piano duet between our two vocalists. “Do you feel caught and lost in desperation?” Bennington asks. Yes. Yes, I do. Fortunately, the track redeems itself somewhat, as over time it transforms into a proper rock song, and is the closest the band has come so far to actually getting this whole ‘genre’ thing right so far.

Almost over, and with one more filler track, The Fallout, a robotic auto-tuned reprise of Burning’s chorus. And with that, we are brought to The Catalyst, the album’s lead single. It is important to note that this is not a rock song. This is a synthpop, techno anthem which amounts to Mike and Chester belting out the same chorus over and over and over for nearly six minutes.

Track 15. The Messenger is… a four-chord campfire acoustic ballad. Chester enters the booth for the first time without any autotune and sings the hell out of this song, overloading the mic a couple times. But do you want this guy to be screaming his lungs out on top of, essentially, the chords of Oasis’s Wonderwall? At the song’s end, my longtime friend and entrenched Linkin Park fan only had the following commentary to offer, “It’s over. Silence. Why.”

This album feels like it was designed. Constructed. By an indecisive committee. Everybody wanted their own pet project song on the record, and instead of sitting down and finding a way to link all of this, the hip hop, the balladry, the techno and the Rastafarian post-apocalyptic drum circle, they just said, “Okay, toss your song onto the pile”, and the result was a catastrophic mishmash of genres, styles, and ideas all loosely strung together by that damned piano. And it’s a shame, because if more time was put into this, the filler tracks were turned into something other than howling wind and piano and robot speeches, the album could be so much more. The pieces of a great work are present, but none of them are used properly. Maybe all this 24-million record selling business has gone to their heads.

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