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Music Review: Linkin Park – A Thousand Suns

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If anyone has been paying attention to music the last few decades, they’ve had to notice the constant mixing of musical styles. The melding of hip hop and rock has been especially popular since the sub-genre of nu metal had its heyday in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Linkin Park emerged as one of the most popular acts of the nu metal era.

Their first two studio albums, Hybrid Theory and Meteora, were packed with mostly rock-focused tracks anchored by Chester Bennington’s screaming vocals, a dash of electronic music in the background, occasional scratching from the turntablist Joe Hahn, and rapping provided by co-lead frontman Mike Shinoda. 2007’s Minutes to Midnight was less nu metal and more like traditional rock with the hip hop elements kept to a minimum.

On the band’s fourth studio album, A Thousand Suns, their sound has been re-invented. The new sound is more of a true mix and melding of styles, no longer driven by rock only. There’s a surprising amount of hip hop, electronic music, and world music along with pop rock and some metal influences. The jarring departure from their earlier work has longtime fans diving off the bandwagon.

I can see why there’s been a firestorm of criticism on the Web. The band’s usual audience, which is a large swath of people who probably just enjoy rock music, just want more by-the-numbers cookie cutter nu metal or even Linkin Park’s own special brand of straightforward rock like we heard on Minutes to Midnight.

But fans have to remember that Linkin Park has always been a “hybrid.” They actually wanted to call their band Hybrid Theory, but it was already taken. This time out, the mix of styles has just been greatly altered. So, if you’re not a fan of hip hop, electronic music, or really interesting mixes of these and other styles, you may not like much of A Thousand Suns.

The songs on A Thousand Suns aren’t the blistering three-minute or less nu metal tracks of their previous work or the “grown up” rock tracks of Minutes to Midnight. This is like Linkin Park goes progressive. The diversity of the tracks is incredible. And like progressive music, as opposed to pop music, this album has ridiculous re-playability. There’s just so much going on and so much of a meshing of styles, sounds, and moods that it invites the listener to embark on a journey.

There are a few pop rock tracks like “Burning in the Skies,” “Iridescent”, and the exceptional “Robot Boy.” These songs sound recognizably like Linkin Park doing their version of mainstream rock. We’ve heard this sound before, but we’ve never heard anything like “When They Come For Me,” “Blackout,” or “Wretches and Kings.”

Instead of the rock-focused tracks of previous albums, “When They Come For Me” is nearly uncategorizable. I guess it’s a hip hop track with an Indian or Middle Eastern-influenced sound, a bouncy beat, and some of Mike Shinoda’s best rapping. Shinoda’s rhymes are sharper than ever and he comes off like a true emcee as his verses have more bite. He must have benefited from his Fort Minor side project and working with Jay-Z. It’s a shame that most of the rock music-loving Linkin Park fan base won’t appreciate this track and will dismiss it as a rap track. It’s got an expansive sound and couldn’t sound more unique. “When They Come From Me” blew me away on my first listen.

“Wretches and Kings” is another genre bender. It’s an industrial rock-meets-hip hop, psuedo dance track with booming bass and a screaming chorus from Bennington. The “Ay, Ay, Ay” vocals in the background are reminiscent of a Dirty South club banger. And the band’s resident DJ, Hahn, gets the spotlight for a bit as the track ends with some of his great scratching. “Wretches and Kings” is one of the album’s best tracks, in my opinion.

While Mike Shinoda’s done more and more singing over the years, on “Blackout” we find Bennington rapping or rap-singing verses and doing his signature screaming during the choruses. His aggressive delivery makes an interesting contrast with the track’s lighter electro pop melody. Midway through, it lightens up with some great harmonizing and a cool melody. It is another genre-bending track that I’m sure is being underrated and overlooked by some of the Linkin Park faithful. I’ll take interesting songs like this over more nu metal from 10 years ago any day. “Blackout” is another example of Linkin Park’s evolution.

Some listeners will find the interludes annoying and skip to the full length tracks, though they do add to the overall experience of the album. I didn’t find any of them especially interesting except for the mostly instrumental “Jornada del Muerto”. I just wish that particular interlude was a full length track. In today’s age of MP3 players, the interludes are really a non-issue. Fans can buy the tracks that they want or make playlists without them.

I have to give Linkin Park credit for doing something completely different at the risk of alienating some of their pure rock fans who long for their more straightforward nu metal sound of the past. I can appreciate how difficult it must have been to re-create their sound. A Thousand Suns is an adventurous album with incredible diversity and re-playability.

As a longtime Linkin Park fan, I loved the album once I got over the jarring shift in its sound. I highly recommend it for music lovers with a wide range of musical tastes, not just hard rock fans.

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