Sound — 9
Linkin Park have been called many things, good and bad, in their career: edgy, creative, whiny, musically simple, innovative, generic, single-minded, lyrical geniuses, and lowest-common-denominator label trash... but one thing that has never come up for them is the term "progressive". That's not to say that A Thousand Suns is going to give Porcupine Tree a run for its money, and I certainly wouldn't say that there are many prog vibes on it, but if there were one album Linkin Park has released that I could say had a progressive streak to it, it would be A Thousand Suns. The first things you're going to notice about this album are the relative lack of guitars, and the way almost all of the songs run together like one long track. The former, it's not as bad as you think it is. There are still guitars on most of the songs, but it's not presented in the same way Brad Delson has done in the past. There are very few Hybrid Theory-esque power chord riffs, and not many Minutes To Midnight-style clean arpeggiated guitars. What you hear of Brad all over this album is guitars pushed very deep into the background, as in "Waiting For The End" or "When They Come For Me" or "Jornada Del Muerto", or heavily effected and possibly re-sampled guitars like in "Wretches And Kings". Far be it for me to say whether this is objectively positive or negative, as I liked Brad Delson's guitar contributions to Minutes To Midnight, but here the guitar serves a purpose that's almost completely the opposite of what most guitarists would even consider using a guitar for. The only real guitar standout is the first "non-interlude" song, "Burning In The Skies", where Brad plays an octave solo with a few Edge-style high chords. But the latter, the songs flowing into one another, makes this album feel very different. Many of the shorter interlude tracks serve as intros or outros to many of the longer songs on the album, and sometimes you even have to check your CD player to make sure you're on a different track. In place of the guitars, many songs have an overabundance of synth sounds and electronic percussion. That doesn't mean the album is without acoustic elements, as "real" drums and guitar are heard on many songs on the album, but they're not as dominant. And here's a song-by-song track review: 01. The Requiem/The Radiance: I'm counting both as one track because they really do run together as if they're one song. You get a lot of synth effects, a girly vocoder voice that's actually Mike Shinoda, and an excerpt of a Robert Oppenheimer documentary, where the man himself reveals his feelings after witnessing the Trinity nuclear test, and recounting the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture. It sets the apocalyptic tone of the rest of the album quite well. 02. Burning In The Skies: this track might be the closest to a Minutes To Midnight song on the album, also recounting the feelings of post-apocalyptic isolation that seems to be a lyrical thread throughout the album. Musically, there are a few interesting diversions like a main verse in 6/4 time rather than 4/4, a pretty typical chorus, and a brief octave/chord guitar solo by Brad Delson. A pretty standard pop/rock tune, in the context of an album that is about as anti-commercial as it gets from LP. 03. Empty Spaces/When They Come For Me: the former is an 18-second track which means basically nothing on its own, but sets up the tone quite well for the latter, which is probably one of the more interesting LP songs ever released, with its tribal drumming, electronic underpinnings, almost synth-like heavy guitars, Shinoda's rapping taking on a dimension not heard in either Hybrid Theory or Minutes To Midnight, Chester singing a wordless melody not unlike a lot of Oriental music, and a break with a pretty interesting keyboard lead, right to the end of the song, where Chester also outlines some really nice vocal harmonies. 04. Robot Boy: opens with a piano part I almost confused with that of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed". The rest of the song is synth atmospherics with tons of vocal harmonies from Chester. That's one thing that's not lacking on this album: vocal harmonies. They're all over the place, even during a lot of the raps. The song ends with something strange for LP: A synth solo. Yes, a real synth solo not unlike those heard in many prog tunes. 05. Jornada Del Muerto: one of the few interludes worthy of a separate mention. The synth/guitar backing goes against another synth solo, which leads right into the next track: 06. Waiting For The End: starts with a really deceptive guitar part which makes you expect something heavier, but the track takes on a reggae style, and there are vocals that remind me quite a lot of The Beatles in Chester's verses. Yes, it's pop, but it feels to me more like Beatles-variety pop than Beiber-variety pop, which is a good thing in my eyes. The end of the song brings some much-welcomed guitar and acoustic drums into the mix, which is great for the song. 07. Blackout: the only real weak spot on the album in my eyes is the first half of this song, which is made of two elements that would sound absolutely brilliant on their own, but together create a jarring clash of feelings. One is Chester's vocals, which are like a half-rapped, half-sung, half-screamed part, while the other is a bubbly and joyous electronic beat and synth part. Alone, those two elements would sound great, but the way they clash on this track makes me cringe. Things pick up in the second half, when Chester's vocals are backed by a heavier guitar and manipulated by Joe Hahn, and the softer part is brought back in with Shinoda singing instead. 08. Wretches And Kings: the closest thing to a hark back to ancient LP times on this album, featuring a heavily effected guitar, hip-hop-style synth basses, and some really cool build-ups in the second half. It sounds like nothing they've done, and yet it feels vaguely familiar. Definitely the heaviest tune on the album. Joe Hahn's scratching is really cool in this song too. 09. Wisdom, Justice And Love: a piano interlude with a Martin Luther King speech over it, which progressively gets more and more vocoded to the end. Actually sounds quite eerie and disturbing, in a good way. Great build-up to the next song. 10. Iridescent: another song that could have fit easily on Minutes To Midnight. Not much in the way of heavy sounds, but a lot of atmosphere and texture, as well as some of Chester's more thought-provoking lyrics and vocals to date. It's been said that this song contained a guitar solo, and I'd like to clear up that it does have a couple of standout guitar parts, but don't expect any shredding. Most of it is in the same vein as Burning In The Skies, and I think they even share a basic chord progression. A great song, but it lacks the immediacy of some of the other songs. 11. Fallout: another interlude. Not much to say about it, as it doesn't really stand out to me at all. But it's kind of the opposite of Wisdom, Justice and Love in that the voice starts off with effects, and gradually becomes less and less effected until it sounds natural. 12. The Catalyst: this song seems to fit in much better when taken into the context of the album. Even though it was a fine enough single, hearing it within the album makes the whole progression make sense, and even adds to the experience of listening to this song. For those living under a rock who might not have heard it, it's got all the elements of this album: Much more electronics, a synth solo, Mike and Chester alternating on vocals quite a bit, guitars buried in the mix, and a breakdown on piano where the entire mood of the song changes from an electronic sound to a more natural rock band sound. The song sounds very climactic in the context of the album, and makes a pretty perfect second-to-last track. 13. The Messenger: in many ways, this is the album's denouement... the dessert after the meal... the cigarette after the lay. The rest of the album's tone has been one of post-apocalyptic horror and bleakness, but this song makes its message clear: there is hope. Instrumentally, the band is stripped down to acoustic guitar, piano, and Chester giving a pretty powerful performance that seems to be without any post-production trickery like Auto-Tune. It's really quite a nice track, though Chester may be over-singing a bit. Still, it's a really good closing to the album, and drives some of the point of the album home. My final rating on sound would be a 9 out of 10. There are only a few weak spots here and there, but nothing that really prevents this album from being good. It's a fresh and different sound for LP, though it may be nothing some of you haven't heard before. I can definitely understand how some fans will dislike this album, as it sounds nothing like any of the previous albums LP has released, but approached with an open mind, this album is a very satisfying listen.
Lyrics — 8
Lyrically, this album is also a huge leap for the band. There are fewer, if any, lyrics that sound anything like the pissed-off, depressed, and tormented Chester Bennington we all remember. Most of the lyrics seem to take on an apocalyptic bent, talking about isolation and fear, and while these threads run pretty much through the whole album, there are a couple of diversions along the way, like Mike's rap in "When They Come For Me", which almost seem like a thinly-veiled "f*** you" to fans who want the band to retread old ground. Some lyrics, like the chorus to Burning In The Skies and the main hook of The Catalyst, reappear in other parts of the album, also lending credibility to the idea that this is meant to be a concept album. And while the final track, The Messenger, carries a message of hope which should be seen in a pretty positive light, it does feel a little sappy and is maybe not as successful as it could have been. The vocals are almost all over the place on this record, with Mike doing a lot of melodic singing, reggae-ish rapping, and even more traditional rap styles, and using a lot of post-production effects like Vocoder. Chester also varies his performances a lot on this album, tackling everything from gentle crooning to screams to dramatic melodic vocals. And except for the song "Blackout", none of it really feels out of place. Definitely deserving an 8 for a combination of vocal performance and lyrical composition.
Overall Impression — 8
Overall, this is an album meant best to be taken with an open mind. I'd get the feeling, personally, that this album might see more positive reviews if it were any band besides Linkin Park releasing it, since this album really doesn't sound like any LP before it. Whether this is good or bad is up to you, but I believe this album to be the most creative and original thing LP have tried to date. But I can still see the flaws on this album for what they are, and believe they should iron those out on their next outing. And as cliche as it sounds, I kind of missed the guitars on this album, even though they're all over the album, I would have loved at least a couple of big stand-out guitar moments. But even without guitar heroics, A Thousand Suns manages to be a very engaging album that demands complete listens rather than sporadically listening to one song here and one song there. It might even be too much for the average LP fan, who probably doesn't want LP to make a Dark Side Of The Moon or Abbey Road. I'm going to give this album an overall 8.5 out of 10, but I'm rounding that down to 8 for the rating on the site as there are still a few things I'd like to see them accomplish next time around. But don't get me wrong, I found this album to be pretty great. I'm not quite ready to call it LP's "magnum opus" just yet, but it's a very rewarding listen.