A Thousand Suns
Best song: The Catalyst
Worst song: The Messenger
Overall grade: 4
Linkin Park are one of those bands from the 2000s that seems to get pretty much universal hatred from ‘serious’ music fans (other most famous example: Nickelback.) This seems to stem from their being pigeonholed into one of two genres.
1) Rap metal. To me, dislike of this is justified. I’ve yet to find a rap or hip-hop song I enjoy (although if you want to try…) and the addition of these elements to metal music seems to, more often than not, bring out the worst in both of them.
2) Nu metal. This is the part I have something of a problem with. According to Wikipedia, nu metal is “a fusion genre which combines sounds, influences and characteristics of heavy metal and its subgenres”. Now, I fail to understand how this is (necessarily) a bad thing, but to many people, as soon as they hear the term ‘nu metal’ they immediately dismiss the band.
With this in mind, I see Linkin Park as a band who started off uninspired, due to their imitation of a handful of late 90s alternative metal bands that never really had anything going for them themselves – but developed, somewhere between 2003 and 2007, into an interesting band with their own styles and ideas who were still hit and miss, but certainly worth listening to for the hits.
Their 2010 album, A Thousand Suns, is fifteen tracks long, but it’s also possible to find a version (“The Full Experience”) that is a single, forty-eight-minute track long. That’s probably the best way to listen to the album, but for ease of reviewing I’ll refer to the actual track names. As a whole, the album is more mature than their previous work, in many (good) ways simpler, less heavy, which allows the music to breathe and speak for itself. Oh, and it’s a concept album about ‘human fears’, which is quite vague but also believable.
The opener, ‘Requiem’, is very interesting. The wordless vocals carry the funeral mood implied by the title, yet the music is very cold-hearted and futuristic, and it all brings to mind the idea of a robotic funeral without any real emotion, which is a chilling thought. This is further explored by the extremely processed, emotionless vocals that come in around the 1.15 mark.
If that sets the electronic-based tone of the music, then ‘The Radiance’, which includes a recording of a speech by J. Robert Oppenheimer, certainly sets the political tone of the lyrics.
‘Burning in the Skies’ is the kind of catchy song that you’ll be singing along to before you’ve even finished listening to it once, and it pairs a smooth, sliding vocal with a lurching, jolting drumbeat, but it does give the impression of a song that hasn’t had that much work invested in it, with nothing to really make it stand out. Then, ‘Empty Spaces’ is a track that jumps out at you to yell ‘Look at me, I’m a serious concept album!’ because it’s far too short to exist as anything more than a bridge between two songs.
‘When They Come For Me’ is never going to be a favourite of mine due to its strong hip-hop influence, however, objectively I can see that the way the rapping of the verses blends with the soaring choruses is very natural, and I love the part at the end where these choruses descend into a kind of riot.
‘Robot Boy’ uses a lot of the same tricks as ‘Burning in the Skies’ but feels a lot more genuine, with better lyrics and more emotional weight. The catharsis of the end part that builds steadily and suddenly becomes quiet gives the impression of an album coming to a close, but no, it segues straight on into the ultimately forgettable ‘Jornada Del Muerto’ which doesn’t do anything not repeated elsewhere, and my attention is briefly lost.
Up until this point, the album has been very cohesive to the point of sounding a bit samey. ‘Waiting for the End’ presents a welcome change, with some much rougher vocals, a brief flirtation with a cappella, a backing that’s in a constant state of change and is impossible to predict, and a chorus that reminds me of the Smashing Pumpkins.
Moving past the halfway mark, the first part of ‘Blackout’ brings uncontrolled anger and nothing else of note, and seems to be a bit of a failed experiment with a kind of electronic hardcore. But partway through it suddenly stops (the blackout referenced by the title?) and starts up again as an entirely different, yet related song, and a very pretty one at that. It’s a cool trick but I’d much prefer it if the first part of the song was at all listenable.
On one level, ‘Wretches and Kings’ is a pretty awesome political rallying cry, and the crazy snarls of the chorus are shocking and effective. I feel like this song could have been really great if it weren’t for the obnoxious rap sections that obscure the idiosyncratic electronic squeals in large parts of it.
‘Wisdom, Justice and Love’ is another song that replaces vocals with an extract from a famous speech, and I love the contrast between the two speakers – first, a man who worked in the development of nuclear weapons, and then Martin Luther King, who always promoted nonviolence. It marks a sort of shift in themes to more positive, hopeful subject matter.
‘Iridescent’ is the most human moment on the album, an evocative piano ballad which speaks directly to the listener by using ‘you’ throughout, and tries to turn itself into an anthem as It builds, but falls short on account of being a little repetitive. ‘Fallout’ brings a return to electronics and darkness, and has the suffocating, claustrophobic feel of being recorded far underground, but this effect is spoilt somewhat by its being one of the weaker songs for lyrics.
The true anthem on this album for me is second-to-last track ‘The Catalyst’, a confident, self-assured cry that echoes the lyrics of ‘The Requiem’ with a hundred times as much conviction and emotion. It’s serious and important but not too serious, shown by the almost dance-like that characterises part of it. It’s the kind of set-closing song that brings a crowd of people together.
After this huge finale, ‘The Messenger’ was bound to be a quiet affair, and it’s a bit disappointing, with the kind of cliché lyrics like ‘Listen to your heart’ and ‘Love keeps us kind’ that just seem insincere, vocals that don’t suit the music, and an over-simplified acoustic guitar part. I’m partial to a perfectly crafted release of a song ending, and there are certainly a few of them on this album, which makes it all the more disappointing that the actual final song doesn’t bring anything new.
Overall, I like this album, because some of the songs are very well-crafted and because it’s really great to see a band like this stretch themselves and attempt to make the sort of ‘abstract concept album’ that great bands like Pink Floyd did. Linkin Park have succeeded in places. They didn’t make a masterpiece, but they definitely grew musically and it was a worthwhile effort.