When Linkin Park arrived on the scene in the fall of 2000 with “One Step Closer” and their debut LP Hybrid Theory, critics and serious music listeners shrugged them off. To them, Linkin Park brought nothing new to the table in terms of sound, their musicianship was weak and their songwriting — particularly their lyrics — weaker still. And although this take on the band was ultimately correct, the music-buying public had a decidedly different reaction — Hybrid Theory is the bestselling rock album of the 21st century, with over 10 million copies sold in the United States alone. I was there as this record was taking off — in fact, I received the CD as a present on my 13th birthday in early 2001 — and I can remember exactly why this band became so popular.
You see, as the late-’90s progressed, rock music got angrier, heavier, and trashier. This became known as the nü metal movement, and its peak was the release of Limp Bizkit’s embarrassingly titled Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, which sold over one million copies in its first week of release (October 17 to October 23). Hybrid Theory was released on October 24, and it marked a shift away from nü metal toward a more synthetic sound. The elements of nü metal were still there on Linkin Park‘s debut — metal-ish guitars lacking pronounced riffs, a high percentage of rapped vocals, an undercurrent of zippy electronics — but any threat of actual menace was removed. Though it still qualified as “angry” music, the anger was simply an aesthetic choice; it existed entirely on the surface, and never really got under your skin at all as a result.
But make no mistake, this is what people wanted at the time. After the release of Chocolate Starfish, there was a backlash against angry music as the new millennium progressed — it simply wasn’t cool anymore to listen to ugly, angry stuff like Korn or Limp Bizkit. (By the time Korn released 2002‘s Untouchables and Limp Bizkit released 2003‘s Results May Vary, the mainstream had definitely moved on.) And so a subtle shift occurred: the huge hits on alternative rock radio during this period were songs like Incubus‘ “Drive,” Fuel’s “Hemorrhage (In My Hands),” Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me,” 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite,” Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment,” etc. In other words, songs that weren’t violently angry.
Linkin Park‘s “In the End” — which reached #2 on the Hot 100, so it was a monster hit — is another song that fits this model, and, more so than “One Step Closer” and “Crawling,” helped propel Hybrid Theory deep into multi-platinum territory. A stopgap remix LP called Reanimation appeared in the summer of 2002 to hold fans over while the band worked on the follow-up to their successful debut. Surprisingly, many of the tracks on Reanimation actually better those on Hybrid Theory (the remix of “One Step Closer” blows the original out of the water), and that alone keeps me from revisiting Hybrid Theory years later — which itself is still surprisingly enjoyable, despite its derivative nature. 2003‘s sophomore set Meteora, though, is easily the band’s high-water mark.
It saw Linkin Park streamline their sound and polish it up somewhat, offering a less derivative experience, even if the music itself was not particularly original. As far as presentation goes, the album was actually pretty phenomenal, and musically, the band pulled a nifty trick of offering more hooks than their music explicitly articulated. (That’s a polite way of saying their guitarist can’t really come up with fully developed riffs. Forget soloing, of course — this was early-’00s alt-rock.) Even though I would never call Meteora great music, it’s undeniable that it’s still compulsively listenable more than a decade later, which is a hell of lot more than can be said about their subsequent work. Wisely determining that they had exhausted the sound of Hybrid Theory and Meteora, the band spent a long, long four years getting their 2007 follow-up Minutes to Midnight into the stores.
First came the 2004 mash-up EP Collision Course with Jay-Z, which was fun in parts but ultimately didn’t yield anything lasting. After that, Linkin Park did what many aging bands do: they hired the seemingly ubiquitous producer Rick Rubin to produce their next three albums, which are all of middling quality. The eternal problem with Linkin Park is the technically limited musicianship of the band members. This was an issue they got away with when they stuck to their strengths on their first two LPs. But when they began to pull apart their core sound, the band was left to flounder — all it did was expose how much of what worked about Linkin Park‘s original sound existed purely on the surface. That’s why Minutes to Midnight (2007), A Thousand Suns (2010), and Living Things (2012) are inherently uninteresting listens — it feels like only part of the band’s sound is in place, and the songs come across as severely underwritten as a result.
Though these albums are advertised as being “deeper,” they’re not. I stopped listening to Linkin Park shortly after Meteora came out; by the time Minutes to Midnight was released, I had just concluded my freshman year of college and was no longer interested. That being said, I did hear bits and pieces of Minutes to Midnight at the start of sophomore year — my roommate had bought the CD and hated it so much he wanted to throw it away. He played me some of it in his car one time, and it was difficult to disagree with his assessment. In an attempt to make a “relevant” album, they had fallen flat on their faces. I actually just listened to all three albums in quick succession a short while ago in preparation for this review and, well, I wasn’t impressed.
A Thousand Suns was especially bad, but Living Things showed promise. It still couldn’t touch Hybrid Theory or Meteora, but it was definitely a step in the right direction after the unpleasant electronic murk of A Thousand Suns. The band was actually working with some hooks again instead of smothering their music in “experimental” electronica (which they still did to some degree, anyway). 2014‘s The Hunting Party, on the other hand, is a “return” to hard rock, only it’s not really the kind of rock they played at the outset of their career at all — the undercurrent of electronics is gone, and not many of the vocals are rapped (though legendary rapper Rakim appears on “Guilty All the Same” for some reason). No, this is actually just a straight-up metal album, which suits the band decently well.
Similar issues persist, however, namely that the record is a tad too polished, so the band doesn’t really rock as hard as it thinks it does. That being said, though, The Hunting Party is still an adrenaline rush, and there are worse ways to while away the time. None of the songs possess the tight hooks present throughout Meteora, so there aren’t many tracks to recommend (“Wastelands” and “Until It’s Gone” are probably the best ones), but it’s the first Linkin Park album in a decade to be of any consequence, and that’s definitely something. Some guests — the aforementioned Rakim, System of a Down’s guitarist Daron Malakian, and Rage Against the Machine‘s guitarist Tom Morello — give the album some needed street cred, but ultimately do not lend The Hunting Party the desired heft since their appearances disappear into the music pretty much completely.
Finally, I have a bit of a bone to pick with rapper/producer Mike Shinoda. He was a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher recently and he said the inspiration for the making more of a rock album this time was the fact that his local rock station (KROQ in Los Angeles, for those keeping score at home), has basically just been playing pop music recently. Given Linkin Park‘s history of blatant commercialism, it was hard not to view the comment as a cynical gripe that rock radio doesn’t feel like playing Linkin Park‘s music anymore. Even though it raised my eyebrows, for sure, it was nothing compared to later comments Shinoda would make that actually singled out some poppier acts that are getting some airplay these days, which pissed me off. You see, music on alternative rock radio when I was growing up sucked, and Linkin Park basically became the dominant artist in the early ’00s. (Alternative rock radio got so bad when I was in high school that I eventually gave it up and switched to classic rock radio in 2004.)
So the fact that some indie artists are getting some airplay on a major station like KROQ is incredibly exciting because it’s something that literally hasn’t happened since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 resulted in the consolidation of ownership of American stations under huge umbrella corporations like CBS and Clear Channel. Music fans like me have been waiting for years for this. So for Mike Shinoda to basically shit on the fact that we’re actually achieving progress that was once thought impossible? Not cool. Every artist has a life cycle, and six albums in, Linkin Park has certainly progressed into the legacy act phase by now, whether Shinoda wants to admit it or not. It’s the nature of pop culture for the mainstream to eventually get over you, and that’s what has happened here.