For me, it was “In the End”. Hit play on that sampled piano riff and damn, I’m immediately lost inside a thousand memories; pretty much all of which consist of either trying (and failing) to rap the verses with my high school friends, or sitting in front of the MTV channel wide-eyed, annoying my parents while I waited for that one video with the awesome moving statues in it. Pretty much everyone will have a different jumping-on point, though: were you drawn in by “Faint”, and its hyper-cool video where we only saw the band’s silhouettes from behind? Or “Numb” with that absolute monster of a chorus, potentially even the Jay-Z-ified “Numb/Encore” remix for extra cred? Could be you’re an obsessive fan who trawls through the LPUnderground catalogue in their spare time and names “QWERTY” as their favourite Linkin Park song, or maybe you missed the train on them entirely and roll your eyes at the rest of us buying in on this cheesy rap-rock trend. Wherever inside that spectrum you land, it’s cool, because love them or hate them, it was pretty damn impossible to ignore Linkin Park at the beginning of the new millennium.
It started with Hybrid Theory in 2000, an album that somehow manages to sound fresh and vital despite coming from the heart of the most dated genre to ever exist. It’s all in the energy of the thing, of course – “By Myself” with those copper-wire metallic shrieks, “Papercut” showing the rest of rap rock how to it with effortless ease, and of course, “In the End”. Chester’s vocals took the low yarling of grunge and paired it with high, emo-like shrieks, dragging both genres forward into an electronica-fied, hip new millennium kicking and screaming. [Reanimation] followed soon after, introducing legions of unsuspecting nu-metal fans to both l33tspeak and the weird wide world of hip-hop/electronica with no apologies, and sometimes even improving on its parent album. Fifteen years on, maybe Meteora hasn’t aged as well as its predecessors, but despite an arguable dip in the freshness Chester’s melodies were cranked up another ten notches until his emotional wails seemed to scrape the sky. If nothing else, the singles alone prove that Meteora has to be one of the most fitting album titles of all time.
After that, Linkin Park seemed to enjoy pendulum swinging between sounds on their albums, breaking up the experimental chin-stroking of A Thousand Suns and The Hunting Party‘s balls-out metal with forays into pop rock and EDM on Living Things and Minutes to Midnight. Mike Shinoda’s rapping began to fade into the background, but he proved a very capable clean vocalist, with some powerful harmonies with Chester and even solo performances reinforcing how the two frontmen were always the core of the band, while styles and trends mutated and disintegrated all around them. Your mileage will vary on almost all of these albums, naturally: some dismiss everything after Meteora wholesale, while others look upon their experiments with a little more fondness. Personally, A Thousand Suns, being the only album of all time that can claim to sound like The Wall via electronica, faux-reggae and synthy pop rock is weirdly irresistible, while The Hunting Party is good for some really well-placed features and an invitation for some truly epic air drumming.
Chester’s final appearance on a record, this year’s One More Light, received negative feedback from many fronts, causing the young singer to lash out at fans in some interviews due to what he perceived as personal slights. The album’s soft pop/lite chopped-and-screwed sound is undoubtedly in blatant service of chasing a spot on the charts, but the introspective and personal lyrics may cause some re-appraisal in light of his suicide; at the least the genuinely beautiful title track, a tribute to a fan who passed from cancer and as good a farewell to Chester Bennington as any. One thing very few will argue is the genuine dedication and passion with which Linkin Park followed their muse down every single rabbit hole, good or bad: from Owl City pop to System of a Down freak metal to glitchy concept albums about the end of the world via nuclear warfare. Chester sings his goddamn heart out on every album (when he’s not screaming it), and the band managed to top charts and buck trends frequently long after nu metal had become a speck in the rearview mirror.
I’ll finish with a personal reflection, then, or I would feel I haven’t completed my work here. Last year I travelled to Thailand – my first time outside the sunny shores of Australia – and before engaging in a theatre exchange course I did touristy things; splashed water on elephants, ate lots of rice, saw temples in caves and so on. Staying with a host family as part of the exchange, the strangeness of the situation finally struck me with the force of a full-blown gale: I was lying on a floor in Thailand in an extremely poverty-stricken village, looking at a beautiful mountain and rice fields through the glassless window above me, two Aussie friends huddled near me in their sleeping bags. I woke up to the same sight of the mountain and the rice fields, now in daylight; the sounds of a small Thai village waking up gradually around me, lovely and calming; and… uh, and Linkin Park blaring on the speakers? Huh? Over the next twenty minutes as we got ready, our lovely host blasted through “Numb”, “Crawling”, “Faint” and several more while I sat there in a mixture of confusion and delight, wondering if this was the most surreal thing that had happened to me in my short lifespan. That memory will forever be tinged with sadness when I look back on it – sorry Linkin Park, I slacked on listening to The Hunting Party, I’m sure it’s good but I’m kinda over the metal thing, I’m in my OutKast phase now and I haven’t even really thought about you guys in a couple of years and… yeah, sorry. That unexpected early morning blast right back to my MTV high school days, in the middle of a foreign country in my final teenage year, was overwhelmingly beautiful and, after today, overwhelmingly sad. “In the End” was where it all started for me, ironically enough, and through years and years, and layers and layers of fancy new music tastes and life experiences and ups and down, there’s an inner highschool kid telling me with determination that my obsession never really ended.
R.I.P. Chester Bennington, 1976-2017