Linkin Park began work on their fourth studio album back in 2008, a year after the release of their radio-pandering & painfully mediocre Minutes To Midnight. The band had returned to producer Rick Rubin, whose Midas Touch has given innumerable bands the highlight albums of their careers, in the hopes that they could plant a new flag, start a new musical movement, create something bigger than the formulaic sound they’ve boxed themselves into.
With A Thousand Suns, the LP has certainly moved beyond the mediocre, but this is no revitalization. The album is a slick, full-bodied leap in the direction of self-parodying melodrama and fashionable faux-revolution, rather than actual redemption through self-evolution. A grandly orchestrated mechanized mess of sentimentality and rage against the machine, the 15 track collection is entirely unconvincing as a call to action for uprising and activism. Not even Rubin can keep this from being a patronizingly flaccid mess.
MTV reviewer James Montgomery called the album Linkin Park’s very own “all grown up” version of Kid A – which is, thus far, the most hackish and misleading assessment the album’s been given. Kid A represented a tidal shift in the music scene, a complete stylistic leap away from what made Radiohead the guitar-rock superstars they had become in the mid-nineties. Dangerously experimental, awash with digital paranoia and completely unselfconscious, it was a musical turning point on such a grand scale that we’ll still be referencing it a full generation from now as the catalyst for the mainstreaming of the electro-indie explosion.
A Thousand Suns, on the other hand, is a high-reaching and fantastically produced melodramatic farce that once again finds the California sextet taking themselves far too seriously, trumpeting the urgency to stand up to The Man, the ever-shifting Great Oppressor that gives these young millionaires such rebellious, heavily-autotuned fire. Heavy-handed sound-byte touchstones ’round every bend remind us of the looming danger that we’ve lived with for time untold: Oppenheimer’s Bhagavad Gita quote after the first testing of the atomic bomb in 1945. Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech from 1964. Martin Luther King Jr’s declaration that our modern horrors “cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.”
That’s big stuff. Serious stuff. The kind of stuff that makes you want to hear a white guy rapping badly over a cheap Nine Inch Nails derivative riff.
A full three minutes of ominous atmospheric buildup pass before an actual song begins (ATS sports no less than 5 segue tracks), and when Burning In The Skies finally takes off, it’s an underwhelming radio-friendly journey through digitized beats that would find an easy home on Minutes To Midnight. In fact, it flows nearly seamlessly with What I’ve Done. Take that as you will.
The percussive introduction to When They Come For Me, rife with fuzz-buzz pulsing and Reznor apprenticeship, doesn’t change course until nearly three minutes into the track, at which point Chester Bennington drops a building, layered vocal bridge that shifts into an interesting Middle Eastern chant melody. Mike Shinoda, the track’s vocal frontman, is by all respectable accounts an abysmally terrible rapper – but a decade and a half into the game he’s still yet to realize how cheesy and damaging his “flow” is to the impression of his band. His peacocking and puffed-chest bravado on the track is laughably, pathetically juvenile.
The video for the piano-led call to arms of Robot Boy is likely being conceptualized in a Burbank warehouse right now: slow-motion shots of a young revolutionary fashionista ducking under cover amidst a blizzard of bullets, a wall of fire rising behind her as she looks on the faces of the downtrodden and suffering all around her (cue closeup shot of desperate woman clutching a ruddy-faced but hopeful toddler, who raises a tiny fist in solidarity). She is the only one left to fight, the only one able to stand and face the great danger bearing down. With the winds blowing hard on the black flag flying in the background, she utters a cry of defiance and climbs up to face the uniformed enemy, ready to fight. Cut to a solemn, downcast look of determination from Chester & Mike, fists clenched in the swirling dust as the camera pulls away to blackness.
Bennington’s search for meaning and clarity in Waiting For The End is as bald a display of color-by-numbers radio pandering as any ballad they’ve offered in the past (and that’s a shame, given the man’s highly formidable vocal skills), but the mind recoils in horror when Shinoda shits up the joint with his rasta-jam hook.
The new styling is touched on again with more potency and success on the considerably more promising Wretches And Kings, the group’s scratch-tastic indirect homage to Chuck D.
Meanwhile, Iridescent is inarguably My December 2.0, 80s romance dancepop drums with a blossom of full gang vocals that would make Chris Martin beam with pride. You’re not going to be able to escape it once it goes to radio.
The slow-burn intro to Blackout gives a pleasant impression, with plinking synth keys evoking the feeling that we’re still hanging on to the last tracers of a John Hughes film. Naturally, the moment dissolves into a hell of a lot of Chester half-rapping and screaming over an uplifting electric disco-dance midsection. Let’s hear it for Autotuned anger! Push it back down! Yeah! The track is badly hurting from the absence of a Ke$ha cameo, leaving us instead with yet another strange Coldplay-licking outro.
The production is pristine, and the depth of bells and whistles is to be respected. But strip these songs down to acoustic guitars and vocals, and you’re left with three songs to speak of, at best. The rest is so much tinsel on a fake Christmas tree, full of pretty flashing lights that serve absolutely no purpose but to invoke a gut feeling, to prep you for the payoff. But that payoff never comes, and if we’re being completely honest here, Rick Rubin hasn’t exactly been on his best game in recent years. He helps polish this turd, but his weight isn’t going to make it shapeshift entirely.
Linkin Park strike me far less as musicians than Pro-Tools-savvy art school kids who found a moneymaking formula after being let loose in the studio with a hell of a lot of expensive equipment. 14 years into their career, we’ve shifted from “Shut up when I’m talking to you” to a slick digital wannabe concept album that pounds the faux-revolutionary drum hard and makes us wonder where they’re hiding the silkscreen prints of Che Guevara holding a broken heart that’s bleeding oil.
This much anger so many years into the game immediately gives one the feeling that it’s time to call up the dads and the molesters, to finally break this long-running cycle of displaced rage against the…. the what? The establishment holding us down? To the untrained ear it’s a goddamned Tea Party rally at the Apple store after a night listening to U2 and Nine Inch Nails. Stop at Urban Outfitters on your way down, take a few serious-looking pics in the new duds and you’ve got yourself a surefire superseller.
But I call bullshit. This is anger for fashion’s sake. This is an uprising based on marketability, gluttonously self-indulgent and commercially ambitious.
This one drops a payload, fodder for the animals, living on an animal farm.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.