On The Soapbox: A Thousand Suns (An In-depth Album Review)

Rewind the clocks to about 10 years ago when a small band from California hit the airwaves of local rock stations. This band was fronted by Chester Bennington, a young man who liked to scream his lungs out. Chester also had a partner in crime by the name of Mike Shinoda who was a young African American male freshly out of college that liked to rap and make some beats. These two gentlemen were also complimented by the obligatory lead guitar player who focused on power chords plus a bassist and drummer that no one really cared about. Oh, you can’t forget the DJ who is in the background doing whatever he pleases. When you combine all these elements together you get the multi-million record selling act known as Linkin Park.

Since the released of Hybrid Theory a decade ago, Linkin Park has been relatively the same band. On Meteora they were writing songs in much of the same structure of a soft opening with either rapping or singing followed by a LOUD chorus. Then the song would return to the verse followed by the chorus which then led into a bridge followed by a slight breakdown into the chorus. The format worked for them and the record label loved it because they were earning millions of dollars for the record company and the members of Linkin Park were receiving gratuitous amounts of money. The product which was able to amount all this dough was an easy formulaic music structure with lyrics focused on teenage centered feelings of reconciliation, freedom, pride, regret, and fear. After Meteora the band took a bit of a break from their next album. They collaborated with a mashup album with Jay-Z, Mike started his own rap group, Chester ended up going through a divorce with his wife, and the other LP members ended up either helping other artists or directed music videos. During all these side projects there was also a dispute with their record company but LP ended up resigning with their label for a very nice sum of money. With everything finally settled on all fronts work began on their follow up to Meteora.

In late 2006-mid 2007 Minutes to Midnight began to form after the long break from the whirlwind of issues and projects all the band members had. During the production of the album they hired producer Rick Rubin who was responsible for Metallica’s return to form in 2008. Rubin came at the band and told them to completely tear apart what they have built from past albums in hopes of writing a completely original record. In essence that is what Minutes to Midnight became. Gone was the rap metal and in came a more stripped down version of what many have known Linkin Park from before. Chester kept singing and Mike still did rap but the nu-metal style was gone. The lyrics were still very typical of Linkin Park talking about going with the flow of things, not having anymore sorrow, abandonment, and being left in pieces. Their record label was apprehensive of their new direction and they asked the band to write a radio friendly single to help sell the album. The band obliged with the studio’s request and “What I’ve Done” was added to the record in hopes to blend their new sound and to appease the record label that gave them a new fat record contract. Minutes to Midnight was released to mixed reviews but ended up going 2x platinum. After the release of Minutes to Midnight one thing was sure apparent.The members of Linkin Park were now writing for themselves and were ready to make a new future in their musical growth.

Now fast forward to mid 2009 to where the band was now working on their fourth studio album. Something happened to the band during the writing process. They began to experiment with anything musical they could get their hands on. Whether it be from children’s electronic noise makers all the way to timpani’s, they were trying to make music out of anything. Somewhere along the lines the band decided they were going to make a “genre busting” concept album of sorts. With these ideas now implanted in the band’s head they were now primed to start work on A Thousand Suns.

Once the band started working on the ideas and concepts they imagined they knew there was no turning back.  The group knew they were headed down a road many bands don’t ever head down. Not many bands go off on their own grandiose ideas to try and make a coherent story on an album across 15 different tracks. They were about to once again change their sound which meant not only pressure from their record label but also the eventual praise/outcry of fans. The vision they had for this album was something much akin to the records they grew up with such as Tommy by The Who and Dark Side of The Moon by Pink Floyd. Did they plan on copying either of those bands sound? No, they were on a mission to make a new Linkin Park for the future. Out with the old format that was thrown on them for Minutes to Midnight and in came the most obscure but ambient music they’ve created to date. The label was less than enthused in this experimentation and clamored for more “What I’ve Done”, “In The End”, and “Faint” style tracks. The band almost did fold under pressure and abandon what A Thousand Suns became but they stuck it out and formed a master piece of an actual album.

The album starts off with “The Requiem” which begins the journey of A Thousand Suns with the ominous sounds of electronics and a distorted piano key. It all comes together with doomy sounding choir voices that prelude the distorted vocal of a young girl asking that “God save us everyone”. The journey continues to get darker as the track flows flawlessly into the next which is a speech from Oppenheimer as he tried to relate what he felt about the chaos he had unleashed with the atomic bomb. There is a definite mood of despair that has been set by these first couple of tracks which  lead us down the road of  black and gray spaces that is foretold in the next piece “Burning In The Skies”. The song is a mellow ballad with a soft guitar loop and a calm piano progression focusing on a message of losing what you don’t deserve to have due to the troubles that you have caused. At the conclusion of the song an interlude takes over. A riot begins and a war begins to rage on.

The counter attack from the war that has just begun comes with “When They Come For Me”. Mike begins to unleash bombs over a nice beat on those who have attacked the band in the past over their music, lyrics, and that they have sold out. The verses are split up by a interesting Mediterranean vocal wailing as Chester takes the break in the song to tell that when they come for him he’ll be gone. The song then powerfully ends with more Mediterranean wailing to end the track as the drums continue to beat under. The song is definitely an attack and a new style of rap that Shinoda pulls off. The war track is followed by “Robot Boy” which heads back to the piano style chord progression with layered vocals lightly belting over the track. Chester comes in and a Imogen Heap sort of affect is applied while his voice sings a mixture of words about compassion, fighting, and the pressure of needing to have emotional balance. The track ends in a “The Great Gig in The Sky” style with a layered synth riff as Chester wails calm but powerful yells as mike sings under the wailing. This track ends into an interlude with mike singing in Japanese followed by a synth riff which leads right into “Waiting For The End”.

“Waiting For The End” is where  A Thousand Suns begins really show it’s chops. Mike starts the track off with a reggaeton style vocal line while the guitar and drums play under the onslaught of his voice. Immediately as the barrage of Mike’s voice stops Chester comes in with delicate vocals with nothing but the drums going on under him. His voice begins slow and soft as it crescendos and quickens while he belts out about how everything seems to be slowly collapsing in the world around him. The track finishes up as it starts again with the reggae line but mixed in with Chester’s soaring vocals. Following “Waiting For The End” is “Blackout” which is the most obscure but still really effective track on the album. The first half of the track is an industrial style track with nothing but Chester belting out a rap style line about how he’s being dragged down by ignorance. After Chester’s vocal attack the song goes to an intense DJ mix which makes every attempt to end the song. Unexpectedly the track finds resolve at the end with soft and pure singing by Mike about being there for the ones that have been brought down to be able to raise them up. The vocals from Mike work great as they are the perfect contrast to the first half of the song. The end of “Blackout” ends with Mike and Chester singing a very impressive vocal melody that leads us into the next track.  After a brief speech clip about those that oppress “Wretches and Kings” begins it’s attack. The song is another heavy fueled call to arms rap track much as “When They Come For Me” is. Mike is rapping  to call everyone back to arms to overthrow the establishment while a brutal guitar loop and drum beat float under his flow. Chester joins in on the chorus in a melodic chant to lead the troops against the establishment. In the bridge Mike is on fire as he chants “From the front to the back and the side to side if you fear what I feel put ’em up real high” as his vocals fade out to the rest of the speech from the beginning. The track abruptly ends right after the speech and fades into another wise man and his voice.

The deafening resolve of A Thousand Suns begins on the interlude track of “Wisdom, Justice, and Love”. The voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is heard on the track giving a calm but forceful speech about the toils of war. Dr. King suggests in his stoic serenity that the only way war can be overcome is with wisdom, justice, and love. His speech ends with the lyric “wisdom, justice, and love” repeating over and over again driving the point home in a hauntingly eerie robotic voice. As the loop ends the quiet serenity continues as it leads into the piano track for “Iridescent”. Mike takes the verse to tell the story of those affected by pain that they cannot take anymore as Chester takes the chorus to offer the solution in pure and soaring vocals to “let it go”. A short guitar solo follows the second chorus and all the band members join in to sing the chorus. Chester ends up finishing up the song by himself on the chorus as the track ends with a synth riff that goes right into the final interlude. The final interlude is a very foggy track using slow and modulated vocals of the chorus from “Burning In The Skies” which transition into the second to last track of the album. “The Catalyst” is what many may argue is a pure dance track due to the beat and the beginning of it but the track combines all of the elements of the previous tracks. The moody instrumentation, eerie voice modulation, and uneven rhythms all come together here to show something has definitely happened by the time this track has hit. The beginning of the song begins with a moody organic chord progression with underlying drums and DJ scratching as Mike comes in melodically chanting asking that “God bless everyone we are a broken people living under a loaded gun”. The song has a brilliant structure to it with no discernible chorus to it after the first three and a half minutes as it flawlessly flows into the next section of the song which breaks down into a slowly rising vocal crescendo of “lift me up, let me go”. By the end of the track all of the different song elements come together as they layer into a cohesive piece of musical brilliance to end the track. With “The Catalyst” of a A Thousand Suns hitting at the second to last track of the album the last track makes even more sense. “The Messenger” comes out from all the gloom, fog, despair, and hopelessness to emerge in a stripped down ballad with just an acoustic guitar backing Chester as he belts out about love. Chester’s voice in the track is pure with no sort of modulation as he gives it his all after experiencing the journey of A Thousand Suns.

The album concludes after a 47 minute journey through despair, anger and ultimately a catharsis of hope and love to close out the journey. The musical adventure is filled with many crescendos of vocals, instruments, and just raw emotional feeling over a widely diverse musical landscape. Trying to compare this album to anything Linkin Park has done in the past is an absolute disservice to the band as every track on this album does not really fall into any sort of musical genre. This record is not just singles, this is an actual album which has put the past two Greenday “concept albums” to shame in scope of music, lyrics, and the overall journey. With all that said, many Linkin Park “fans” are going to really dislike this album. The best way to put the current situation in scope is the stylistic change Pink Floyd underwent from Meddle—>Dark Side of The Moon. Both bands are entirely different but comparing the style changes both bands underwent in Meddle and Minutes To Midnight up to the albums that followed both you can see where Linkin Park may be taking their future.

Just a final thought on A Thousand Suns. I personally did not care for Minutes To Midnight but I absolutely love the direction the band has taken with A Thousand Suns. Many of you are going to disagree with my comparisons and opinions but I implore you to give A Thousand Suns a full listen from beginning to end. Keep an open mind and the journey will take you to places you have never been.

Categories: Music.

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