Review Summary: The essence of a 2000-year old sacred Hindu scripture...presented in nu-metal form.
Renowned Indian spiritual philosopher Eknath Easwaran writes that the main subject of the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu scripture from which A Thousand Suns draws considerable influence) is none other than “the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious”. With this in mind, it suddenly says a lot that Linkin Park’s last two albums have included with them a liner note that chronicles the band’s very personal and equally meaningful struggles against their perceived burden of commercial expectations.
However, where in 2007 they wrote that they “wanted to create something that maintained the integrity of the band’s personality, but pushed [their] boundaries”, in A Thousand Suns the six-piece now note that “the temptation to adjust our creative vision to fulfill expectations beyond our studio walls yielded to the audacious ambition of what we hoped to achieve as a band”. This suggests that in essence, Linkin Park have been writing their very own version of the Gita for the past four years; and by doing so they inadvertently find themselves facing themes and conflicts common to the infamous Kurukshetra conversation between Arnuja and Lord Krishna.
And now the time has come to see if that journey actually goes anywhere.
Perhaps the most disconcerting element about the build-up to the release of A Thousand Suns was the fact that all the hype being generated by the band was in many ways eerily similar to that of (the much-maligned) Minutes To Midnight, with the uncanniest observation of them all being that the general theme of the two albums essentially alluded to the same nightmarish visions – of Man someday fulfilling his promise of achieving mutually assured destruction en masse. Furthermore, the few songs that the band had released in the interbellum period (e.g: “Blackbirds”, “New Divide”, “Not Alone”) also showed no signs of ditching the greatly unpopular alt rock sound that characterized their 2007 studio effort. In short, it would not be completely out-of-place for one to preemptively label this album “Minutes To Midnight: Take Two“.
Fortunately, the similarities turn out to be nothing more than overtly-perceptive (and paranoid) inklings. Unlike its brother – which completely loses focus and starts warbling off aimlessly into the depths of radio silence once the record begins – A Thousand Suns gets it spot-on. The 2010 incarnation opens with the carefully paced “The Requiem”, a very haunting, and beseeching echo of loss backed by ominous trickling pianos and phasing synthesizers that very ably sets the tone for the subsequent recital of J.R. Oppenheimer’s infamous 1965 television interview (on the subject of the Trinity ordnance test).
The presence of titles for the different tracks on the album (altogether there are 15 of them) turns out to be bit beguiling, for almost immediately there is a sense that it would be wrong to attempt to affix labels onto the different tracks of A Thousand Suns. In fact, by the fifth “song”, it becomes startlingly clear that all of the 47 minutes and 48 seconds of airspace on the album were conceived as a single unified entity – indeed the tracks do segue cleanly into one another, sometimes even with the help of well-placed interludes (like “Jornada Del Muerto” and “Fallout”), and transparently attempt to run as a progressive suite of what the band calls “a personal cycle of pride, destruction, and regret”. Most tellingly however, is the fact that an appraisal of the album as a seamless whole yields an appreciation that is significantly greater than the alternative method of evaluating the severed individual parts.
That said, several “songs” on the album – like lead single “The Catalyst” - build on the very successful early rendering of the mood, and as a result end up being able to provide a stunning degree of depth to the overall tale. In this case, a reinforcement of the overarching theme of remorse and damnation is provided for by a scorching five minute and 40 seconds of intense adrenaline-spewing electronica, with what sounds like a cross between a set of keyboards and a buzz-saw going haywire in the background. Both Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda show that they can yet come together very well to deliver verses that are capable of sustaining their trademark interplay of rap-rock and abrasive screaming – an element sorely missed on Minutes To Midnight.
Similarly, “When They Come For Me” is another extremely well-crafted piece that features a rife – and even arrogant – Shinoda, who unashamedly belts out aggressive lines like “Far from a punk/Ya’ll ought to stop talking start trying to catch up motherf***er!!”. When taken in context alongside double entendres like, “I am not the fortune and the fame/Nor the same person telling you to forfeit the game” and “Once you got a theory (Get it" As in, “Hybrid THEORY”") of how the thing works/Everybody wants the next thing to be just like the first”, the track immediately becomes a clever and thinly-veiled attack on the detractors of the band’s new musical direction. This number is also constantly backed up by frantic tribal drums that make the shakuhachi pipes on “Nobody’s Listening” seem modern and glaringly civilized in comparison; this song deserves to be pumped through massive, reverberating speakers – anything less would be a travesty of justice.
In retrospect, the two vocalists have probably never sounded better together, or even as individual singers for that matter. On A Thousand Suns, Bennington is the complete rock vocalist: he sighs; he allows his voice to croak; he moans; he grunts; he screams; he allows his voice to crack audibly; he also uses timbre to great effect. Shinoda is equally as impressive, and absolutely ruthless in his pumping out of verse after verse that challenge the listener to stay rooted to his or her seat and not join in the fist-pumping action. The rest of the band is also in fine form: turntablist Joseph Hahn can be heard all over the record – it’s truly rare that he finds himself being given free reign like this and by no stretch does he sound as apathetic and uninterested as he did on Minutes To Midnight. Far in the background, drummer Rob Bourdon is also in his element, galloping and thundering all over the monochromatic palettes that Hahn perpetually lays down for him. Elsewhere, guitarist Brad Delson and bassist Phoenix – although somewhat muted – still come across as raw, stripped, and (most importantly) tight.
The album’s strongest phase is undoubtedly the triumvirate of movements just before the final third, which begins with a lurching entry into the anthemic “Waiting For The End” – the closest A Thousand Suns‘ comes to recapturing the vintage Linkin Park sound. The sequence then moves into “Blackout”, of which the highlight is undoubtedly Hahn’s heavy programming that creates a sprawling metropolis of industrial sounds behind Bennington’s constantly warping vocals. The three-part suite then closes with the rough-shod “Wretches and Kings” – which honestly comes off sounding like the resulting bastard child of an industrial conveyor belt trying to make it with an electric drum kit. And like anything clandestine, it feels ridiculously good.
Despite all these positive vibes, A Thousand Suns is not completely flawless – in fact it does have several glaring loopholes: for one, it takes quite a bit of time to get going. In fact, all of seven minutes and 30 seconds have passed before the first truly memorable number (“When They Come For Me”) arrives. Unfortunately for Linkin Park, it is painfully clear that it is on the faster numbers that they truly shine – which is a bit of a two-edged sword, as it leaves the album’s nuclear winter ballads (like “Burning In The Skies” and “Robot Boy”) with an almost “filler-like” feel to them. Indeed, “Iridescent” is perhaps the only “slow” number that escapes this rather unfortunate curse. Also as damaging to the band’s earnest pursuit of the honest art is the fact that the execution of A Thousand Suns is rather crude – at times it almost feels like Linkin Park is trying to hit their listeners over the head with their message that the future is bleak, and that Man needs pride and avarice like one needs a hole in the head; A Thousand Suns may be many things, but subtlety is definitely not one of them.
Aside from calling the Bhagavad Gita a struggle for self-mastery, Easwaran also writes that “the language of battle is often found in the scriptures, for it conveys the strenuous, long, drawn-out campaign we must wage to free ourselves from the tyranny of the ego, the cause of all our suffering and sorrow.” In Linkin Park’s latest studio effort, there is indeed a sense that such a battle has taken place; most damningly, it reveals a group of six fully-fledged musicians well-aware of all the (sometimes unjustified) hate and uncontrollable derision that their honest efforts have generated in recent times. To that end, the fifteen pennings within A Thousand Suns begin to function as a post-bellum of sorts, and in their own way mark a cessation of the band’s epic struggle against themselves and the rest of the world. Whether they have emerged victorious or not still remains to be seen – and this is quite obvious – for all around the world fans and critics alike are still debating whether this was the band’s death-knell, or indeed their finest hour.
Regardless of how that adjudication process ultimately turns out, in the end it probably won’t even matter. As the Gita suggests, the journey itself is as important (if not more crucial) than the end or the start. What truly matters here is the fact that the six-piece have attempted – and were actually successful in – breaking their shackles and loosing their bonds. It may have technically taken them two full tries to actually take that first meaningful step away from the enslavement of the self, but ultimately they succeeded – which is no mean feat, and one that only truly great bands ever do.
Author's Note: This review may also be found on my personal blog (at the address http://snuffleupagush.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/opposite-of-slack-synonym-of-heatsynonym-of-crack-closest-to-a-peak/)