Review Summary: "The hardest part of ending is starting again"
Many, if not all, of us have that one album or band that served as a gateway into the music world. Those who grew up during pop music’s pop punk phase will usually cite American Idiot
as their gateway; those who were caught in the midst of the grunge phase will usually cite Nevermind
, or even Antichrist Superstar
as their gateway. The pattern that seems most prevalent with these “gateway albums” is that they are usually relevant to what was the biggest hype of mainstream culture at that time. Of course, sometimes, when reflecting our music journey, there will be a fine line between “music that I grew up with” and “that gateway album that holds a special place in my heart.” However, when it comes down to it, that gateway album will one that will never get old and will always have that irrational importance that it sometimes may not deserve.
Personally, I grew up listening to the pop radio and James Blunt. When I wasn’t hearing that pop stuff, I was with my dad who would always have the classic rock radio on or some heavy music that he stashed away from my mom. However, the likes of Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and System of a Down were incapable of capturing my attention. It was The All American Rejects and good ol’ James Blunt that really caught my attention. Then came 6th grade. The transitional phase of my adolescence where I got expelled from public school and was forced to enter into a Catholic Private school to correct my angsty, erratic behavior. However, my gateway album enters long before my expulsion.
Anyway, one day, as I recall, my dad came home from work and was holding something in a plastic bag between the armpit of his left arm. My mom asked him what it was that he had and he quickly shoved the bag into his jacket and pretended that he had no idea what she was talking about. As I would come to find out, he had bought Linkin Park’s latest album, A Thousand Suns
Like with Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and System of a Down, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the unorthodox sound of the album, but the electronic sound wasn’t something that sounded too unfamiliar. Even then, this did not at all sound like something that would enjoy any kind of mainstream success. However, it was more than just the sound of the album that didn’t seem right to me:
Screaming can actually be considered music" Didn’t my mom say rap is horrible and satanic" Well she must be a stupid liar because it’s nowhere near as bad as she says it is… although it did sound stupid anyway. Wait, but where’s the guitars" I think this sounds like a guitar but how can it still be considered rock without a guitar" Why is there gaps where the bad words should be" (Come to find out, my dad had unwittingly bought the clean version of the album). Perhaps the “fondest” memory that I have concerning this band at this time was when one day at Sunday School, one of the teachers, who happened to be really hot, was wearing a Linkin Park t-shirt that would be reserved for those subscribed to the LP Underground club.
Despite my bewilderment, I had always come back to this album. Looking back, I wouldn’t say that I found any entertainment value while I listened to it; hell, my MP3 only consisted of the songs that I liked from the album. However, I kept coming back to it simply because I was trying to understand this oddity. Come the time that I get expelled, I had begun to apply this same curiosity to the three Tears for Fears albums that my dad was listening to at that time. This was the first time I had become interested in music.
After the expulsion, I became very big on literature. All my free time would consist of reading novels and listening to the music that I had at home. As my interest in literature peaked, so did my interest in music. Getting ahead of myself here, by the time I graduated 8th grade, all of my favorite albums were concept albums (my favorite of all of them being, of course, A Thousand Suns
I soon began to listen to Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, who sparked an interest in a genre called “industrial rock.” The fact that electronic music could still sound heavy and be reminiscent of rock helped me understand the rougher sounds of A Thousand Suns
’s aesthetics like on “Blackout” and “The Catalyst”. Coming to appreciate the more subtle facets of the electronic soundscapes, I developed an appetite for more industrial. Now enters KMFDM, Skinny Puppy, and Ministry.
Then I became more interested in alternative music. I developed a love-hate relationship with Nirvana (as one can tell by my 2nd review), but I sure as hell loved Arcade Fire, Muse, Killing Joke, and 30 Seconds to Mars. Around that time I discovered a Nelly CD in my dad’s record collection and I became incredibly interested in rap music. I became enthralled by The Marshall Mathers LP
and I became a fan of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
before my peers became obsessed with “Swimming Pools (Drank).” The scattered hip hop verses on A Thousand Suns
finally made sense and tracks like “When they Come for Me” and “Wretches and Kings” became hard jams.
While Pink Floyd and Tommy
were responsible for making me aware of prog rock, it wasn’t until I stumbled upon an album titled Fear of a Blank Planet
that sent me headlong into the world of progressive music. While the abstract nature of ATS’s concept remained unclear, the flow of the album hit me as utter genius and contributed further into my attempt to understand it.
Now, flash forward to where I am today, I’m a Junior in high school and I can define all my years of High School so far with what I was beginning to dig into, musically. But kind of like with The Catcher in the Rye
, I keep getting something new with every listen of A Thousand Suns
The concept of the album now makes sense and it makes me anxious about the world’s future. The opening track “The Requiem” serves as an overture of the album as it is mostly made up of samples from several of the songs on the album with an eerie voice reciting the second verse of the song “The Catalyst.” From “The Radiance” onward, the album becomes a timeline detailing America’s society and politics from the past to present with a speech from the appropriate era providing further specifications concerning the era each song is set in. The narrative, if it can be called that, starts with the creation of the atomic bomb (“The Requiem”/“The Radiance”) to the Vietnam War (“Wretches and Kings”/“Wisdom, Justice, and Love”) to modern day America, i.e. whenever the listener happens to be alive and able to listen to it (“Fallout”/“The Catalyst”).
As a matter of fact, understanding the album’s concept and its approach to it is essential to the listening experience. Mike said the album is “more abstract than most” and, indeed, it takes a lot of thinking to fully grasp it. “When they Come for Me” sounds less like Mike putting on his best Kanye impression and more like a drill sergeant prepping and training men to become merciless soldiers. "Robot Boy" sounds like a soldier coping with PTSD. “Waiting for the End” sounds less like typical, angsty Linkin Park and more like a corrupt politician on his/her death bed. The cryptic, bipolar lyrics of “Blackout” act as a transition from one era of warfare and corrupt politics to the next era of warfare, the Vietnam War.
What effectively ties the album together is how it acts as one big 45 minute song. While all the songs segue into one another, the collective sound isn’t necessarily cohesive. However, what keeps things fresh is how engaging it is (not to mention it being the best Linkin Park album lyrically). The motifs and clues dispersed throughout the album demand multiple listens and A Thousand Suns
tries its best to challenge the listeners to really think about what was heard on each listen (think of it as trying to analyze an especially odd e.e. Cummings poem).
Above all else, the music is essentially what makes the album as engaging as it is. The first two tracks/interludes set the scene before “Burning in the Skies” effectively sets the bleak, nuclear atmosphere of the album. “When they Come for Me” sets the story into overdrive and provides a beautiful contrast to the more human, emotional track that preceded it. This contrast continues with “Waiting for the End” and “Blackout” with elements of WFTE being reprised on “Wretches and Kings.”
As the setting of the Vietnam War ends, “Iridescent” acts as the human realization of a momentary lapse of reason. The song is emotional and uplifting as it leads to the dark resolution of the story. “Fallout” brings the story full circle as it features lyrics from “Burning in the Sky” and continues on the nuclear holocaust introduced on “The Catalyst.” “The Catalyst” is gut-wrenching in its catharsis while simultaneously uplifting as the “Lift me up/Let me go” chant provides compassion for those lucky enough to have died and not live through the nuclear apocalypse. The chant is reflected on the bittersweet closer “The Messenger” where mankind belatedly realize that provoking war with nuclear weapons was immoral and the only thing to do now is to love one another while mankind slowly dies off from the radiation.
What will strike the listener upon listening to the album is how human and emotional it is. Gone is the rebellious angst of their the three albums preceding ATS. The ballads are not meant for mass appeal or to come up with a new way to translate that angst. ATS is a raw, introspective look at the world at large. Instead of making music angry at themselves and unfaithful friends/lovers, the album is angry at the thought that a nuclear holocaust is imminent and mourns for the potential waste of life. This precisely what makes the closing track so emotional. Because it is unlike every other Linkin Park song as it encourages the listener to celebrate life instead of condemning it; it wants to remain optimistic even if the end is just around the corner.
But it's more than just "The Messenger." "Robot Boy" and "Iridescent" both take precious time out from the album's turbulence to remind the listener how precious life is when destruction is not made an option. Probably the best example of this are "Waiting for the End" and "Burning in the Skies" which are both filled with nothing but regret for damaging something that cannot reverted back to its original beauty. "The weight of the world will give you the strength to go" is repeated at the end of "Robot Boy," and as beautiful as the lyric is, it's a promise that is made unfulfilled as the Vietnam War comes into play. "Let it go!" is victoriously chanted towards the end of "Iridescent" and it becomes a depressingly haunting lyric when "The Catalyst" ends with the "Lift me up/Let me go" chant.
Another striking aspect of the album is how tight the musicianship is. Despite the fact that it lacks the traditional instrumental lineup found on previous Linkin Park albums, tracks like "Wretches and Kings" and "When they Come for Me" are ferocious. "Blackout" in particular is one hell of a climax to the album's story. Admittedly, "Iridescent" is probably the least impressive song in terms of creativity and its cohesive input to the album as it sounds more like a beefed up leftover from Minutes to Midnight. Not to mention Mr. Hahn's solos on "Wretches and Kings" and "Blackout" are very pleasant surprises being so unexpectedly reminiscent to their Nu metal days. Also, this album truly shows what Rob Bourdon is made of as a drummer (though it won't be until The Hunting Party
where he will truly be singled out as an astonishingly talented drummer).
Looking at A Thousand Suns
retrospectively, I can understand the polarized reaction this album received. However, I still don’t quite understand how it continues to receive massive hate other than the fact that it is an album made by a band named “Linkin Park.” Frankly, the closest thing I can compare this album to, in terms of its concept, aesthetics, ambition, and passion, is Radiohead’s Kid A
. Not that I care about the unnecessary hate anyway. A Thousand Suns
is more than just a “gateway album” for me. The importance it has had in my musical journey is far more profound than just that and from the looks of it now, I’ll have more thanks to give this album for the rest of my journey.