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Remembering Chester Bennington: A Look Back At A Thousand Suns

Anyone familiar with my writing style may have noted that I refrain from being too personal. Observation and commentating objectively on what lays before me has been something I’ve held close as a crucial part of my writing for a long time. Yes, something can sound amazing – but why? What it is that evokes that reaction from me? Sure, I like it. Now I have to prove why.

But here’s the thing: today’s an important day, not only for me, but for a lot of people. For family, for friends, all of us across the world. And it’s on this particular day that I can’t help but remember hearing ‘The Catalyst’ for the very first time. I remember my younger self sitting in my room on a chilly August afternoon so vividly and hearing the exact representation of the ethos of a band exhausted with their own sound: “We were not making an album. For months, we’d been destroying and rebuilding our band.” Of course, this attitude polarized, as it was always going to. With cinematic, aggressive synthesizers, and being far more driven by the kind of electronic backbone only ‘Breaking The Habit’ had hinted at, ‘The Catalyst’ saw a completely restructured Linkin Park stepping forward with only one objective: to create something different.

A Thousand Suns will always be the album that polarized the most for the band. Sure, One More Light certainly drew its fair share of criticism after its May 2017 release, but compared to the “love-it or hate-it” reception of A Thousand Suns, One More Light’s criticism at times was unfortunately far more one-sided, with much of this being primarily attributed to the band’s decision to pursue an ultimately pop-driven direction. Whether or not that reception was valid remains entirely down to each and every individual listener, but it’s hard to ignore One More Light’s emphasis on being a personal and emotionally driven record, displaying vulnerability and lyricism that was well-suited to the album’s aesthetic direction and style. While A Thousand Suns shared some similar criticisms for a drastic change in direction, where A Thousand Suns managed to succeed was in portraying that very same vulnerability on a far grander scale.

Take for example the ambient and electronically distorted introductory ‘The Requiem’/’The Radiance’: a lonely, dissonant piano key distantly heard throughout the mix, while Mike Shinoda’s haunting and strangely manipulated vocals drift hazily forward: “God, save us – everyone. Will we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns?” Combined with a sampled J. Robert Oppenheimer uttering his famous reflection on the cataclysmic nature of nuclear destruction, the memory of what the band used to represent stylistically is completely and utterly decimated, with A Thousand Suns’ leading single being the appropriate catalyst, and its introductory tracks following suit. Gone are the far simpler structures and direction of the ever-controversial nu-metal era, with A Thousand Suns instead seeing the band embracing a sound far more akin to the likes of progressive and experimental rock.

Even the moments found throughout the album that share some resemblance to Linkin Park’s former material still retain the identity of what the album represents: ‘Burning In The Skies’ gentle instrumentation and blistering octave-heavy guitar solo easily compares to the likes of Minutes to Midnight’s ‘Shadow of the Day’. But while ‘Shadow of the Day’ lyrically revolves around the idea of accepting a certain situation, even retaining the slightest hint of optimism in moving forward from something broken, the solemn tone of ‘Burning In the Skies’ and the late Chester Bennington’s mournful delivery of “I’m swimming in the smoke, of bridges I have burned” sees only the perspective of a quiet realization that damage has been caused that can never be undone.

Now sure, Linkin Park have never been known to shy away from emotive, angst-driven lyrical content, but when considering the more meditative writings of “I filled my cup with the rising of the sea, and poured it out in an ocean of debris”, or the politically charged sampling of Mario Savio or Martin Luther King (on ‘Wretches and Kings’ and ‘Wisdom, Justice and Love’ respectively), ‘Somewhere I Belong’s far simpler statement of “I wanna heal, I wanna feel, what I thought was never real” almost seems trivial by comparison. Instead, much of A Thousand Suns delves into the deeply rooted (and entirely rational) societal fear of a world on the potential brink of nuclear devastation, something captured particularly poignantly through ‘Iridescent’: “And with the cataclysm raining down – insides crying, “Save me now!” You were there, impossibly alone.” For a band that began its journey with the likes of the iconic radio friendly hits ‘Crawling’ and ‘In The End’, the sheer scope of A Thousand Suns’ intended message is undeniably ambitious, and of course, those that disagreed with the band’s new direction needed look no further than Mike Shinoda’s wisely chosen words throughout the tribal and middle-eastern influenced ‘When They Come For Me’, or Bennington’s controversial comments following the release of One More Light years later.

In fact, on the subject of One More Light, it’s also well-worth noting exactly how much A Thousand Suns actually influenced the band’s later works: ‘Waiting For The End’s soaring vocals, up-tempo instrumentation, and even somewhat reggae influenced direction easily laid groundwork for the likes of One More Light’s ‘Good Goodbye’ and ‘Invisible’, while ballad ‘Iridescent’s glittering synthesizers and climactic arena rock bridge easily sees itself revisited in Living Things’ ‘Powerless’, or ‘Roads Untraveled’. Even The Hunting Party, an album nearly completely devoid of the band’s signature polished electronics, in favor of a raw, heavier rock sound, sees ‘Fallout’s ambiance and ‘The Catalyst’s iconic synthesizer lead very nearly recreated through the introductory sombre tones of ‘A Line In The Sand’.

At its heart, A Thousand Suns represented a band on the brink of complete and total creative self-destruction, except this happened to be exactly what the group was looking for, and in doing so stumbled upon some of the best material of their entire career. Take for example the sprawling, gorgeous sonic landscapes of ‘Jornada Del Muerto’, or the fact that the spectacular ‘Robot Boy’ synthesizer solo easily stands as one of the most competently written sections of a lead instrument of the band’s entire career. It may not be overly complex by nature, but it captures the track’s emotionally driven direction perfectly. As for the vocal side of things, alongside ‘Wretches and Kings’ snarling, industrial hip hop backbone, the track sees Mike Shinoda’s flow completely stepped up from the likes of ‘Points of Authority’, opting for a more aggressively delivered approach, and far more exhilarating lyricism as a result: “The front of the attack is exactly where I’m at – somewhere in between the kick and the hi hat. The pen and the contract, the pitch and the contact, so get with the combat.”

In a complete shift in direction, and focusing more directly on Chester Bennington, album finale ‘The Messenger’ stands as both the most optimistic track of A Thousand Suns, while also one of the band’s most stripped-back of their entire discography: featuring a simple acoustic chord progression and Shinoda’s gentle piano-work, Bennington desperately calls for those in need of help to remember to “listen to your heart, those angel voices – they’ll see you to you, they’ll be your guide, back home…” It’s a surprising, abrupt change of pace, seeing Bennington offer a genuinely beautiful vocal performance, and ending the album in extreme contrast to its entirety proves itself a hauntingly powerful final moment.

As a whole, A Thousand Suns is a standout representation of the ability of a band that many had written off as simplistic “same old, same old.” The negative stigma of nu-metal proves itself a tough one to crack, but where the band chose to tread throughout A Thousand Suns didn’t just surprise their audience: it completely shattered their expectations, for better or worse. As I mentioned previously, this was Linkin Park at their most polarizing, and this still stands true. By One More Light, fans were familiar with the band’s tendency to approach each post-Meteora album differently to the last, but the headstrong determination to completely disregard the sound that had ultimately granted them their success proved to be a fantastic example of putting creative integrity first over risk of alienating those that may actually purchase the material. Even the album’s leading single, a track noted through the Meeting of A Thousand Suns documentary as having been produced with the overbearing intent of being exactly that – a leading single – displays the band’s complete and unflinching resolve to ensure that this was something different. Something special. Sure, it was a case of being either critically acclaimed or receiving scathingly negative reception, but in truly embracing an ethos of music not being “a pattern to be followed”, A Thousand Suns will always be what I can’t help hearing on days like today. And for that, it will always have my respect.

For Chester Bennington, 1976-2017
“Love keeps us kind.”

Mark Stoneman

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