Review Summary: Several steps closer to the edge, Linkin Park jump off into the unknown.
Normally, at the four-album-plus stage of one's career, critics and fans alike will attempt to draw parallels to the work done previously when a new record comes – whether it's a return to the sound of an earlier record, continuing on from the last one or even a combination of these on different tracks. Not so when it comes to discussing A Thousand Suns
, the new record from Linkin Park. The album sounds nothing like 2000's Hybrid Theory
, 2003's Meteora
or 2007's Minutes to Midnight
– not even remotely, and not even collectively. This time around, the sextet have wiped the slate entirely clean for what is almost certain to be the most divisive album of their careers thus far. It doesn't sound like a mass-unit-shifter. It doesn't sound like a Grammy winner. It doesn't even sound like a fan favourite. In short, A Thousand Suns
is quite possibly the biggest sonic risk the band have ever taken – but the far greater shock to the system comes with the realisation that this is nowhere near as bad as you'd expect.
The demographic of power within the Linkin Park unit has shifted considerably on this record. With each of the band's albums, it seems it has always been the case that one member's role has gained priority over another's. In this instance, the role of turntablist/sampler Joe Hahn - aka Mr. Hahn - has staked out a far more central position in the music after being ignored almost entirely on Minutes to Midnight Back with a vengeance? Up to your interpretation, really - but the massive-sounding electronic beats that dominate the sound of the record are a major part of what makes A Thousand Suns
so enticing. From an industrial-rock thud to edgier takes on hip-hop conventions, Hahn reigns supreme – certainly an unexpected turn for the better.
In turn, Mike Shinoda – the “rap guy” in Layman's, but also guitarist, keyboardist and songwriter in the band – has also been given a clearer and more distinct voice within the group, making his presence felt far more often than what is the norm for the band. “When They Come For Me” sees both him and Hahn given the floor to deliver a track quite unlike anything in the group's discography, as if to prove their collective worth. Percussion is the driving force, similar to the production style of Timbaland, with layer upon layer of tribal drumming sandwiching some nasty, churning synthesizer and a suprisingly vibrant lyrical flow from Shinoda. Sure, maybe the “try to catch up, motherf
ucker!” hook could have gone without, but this is, at least, one solid reason to become excited about Linkin Park in 2010.
Of course, with so much going on up the front for Hahn and Shinoda, it's easy to miss what goes on with the rest of the band. For what seems like the first time ever, Linkin Park have not made a guitar-heavy – or even guitar-friendly - record. As a matter of fact, when guitars are heard on Suns
, guitarist Brad Delson is either adrift in the background or abusing the living hell out of his instrument by means of heavy feedback, pedals and droning overdrive. The latter is particularly noticeable in “Wretches and Kings,” as Delson lets the guitar radiate a scratching, relentless wail. A return to normality comes with the Edge-lite guitar of “Iridescent,” but it is all but a brief moment for what can be a record of quite ugly and unapologetic guitar sounds. This is not necessarily a bad move on the band's behalf, but it's certainly an intriguing one.
Vocalist Chester Bennington is still an omnipresence, but he interestingly seems somewhat distant from the bulk of proceedings. He still delivers on some stellar hooks – the single-ready “Burning in the Skies,” the slow-mo balladry of “Robot Boy” - but his highlights are considerably few and far between. Even more odd is that his two most involving and engaged numbers give A Thousand Suns
their simultaneous best and worst tracks. “Blackout” sees Bennington pierce through the Nine Inch Nails-esque booming with some of his harshest, edgiest vocals to date, certain to offset listeners first time around but almost guaranteed to keep them coming back. It's a questionable experiment in industrial rock from an act that are not exactly what you may call well-versed in the genre, but it seems safe to deem this one a success. Conversely, at the tail-end of the record, “The Messenger” is an attempt at a heartfelt acoustic track which unquestionably fails to work on any level, from its bland chord progression to its uninspired lyrics. Bennington sounds trite, exhausted and forcing out some kind of vulnerable emotion that just doesn't seem to want to emerge.
A Thousand Suns
is an album that has a particularly uncertain future. It's easy to pick who will dislike this record – Hybrid Theory
purists, indier-than-thou hipsters, the girls that wrote the lyrics to “Numb” all over their diary – but what of who will enjoy this record? At this stage, it's unclear – and, in a way, this seems like exactly what the band wanted. They have have thrown everything they had into the proverbial deep end, mostly ignoring what might sell and making the exact kind of record they wanted to. Yes, it's uneven, inconsistent and at times a quite frustrating listen – but when it comes down to it, they probably wouldn't have had it any other way.