Linkin Park’s A Thousand Suns changed the way we think about concept albums

Linkin Park stretched boundaries by thinking big on their “multi-concept” epic that still continues to divide and bewilder today.

Linkin Park’s A Thousand Suns changed the way we think about concept albums
James Hickie

Perhaps the members of Linkin Park were simply being true to form when they told Kerrang! they didn’t want to say too much about their fourth album for fear of giving away its direction. This was, after all, a band still slow to warm to being interviewed, hesitant to explain the thoughts, feelings and meanings of their work because they believed they’d ultimately all be available to the listener via the words and music of whatever album they were working on.

This time around, however, this reluctance seemed to stem less from frostiness and more from a desire to blindside listeners with something so different it would make the leap between Meteora and Minutes To Midnight look like a mere pigeon step – an idea given credence as the band discussed their hopes for the album.

“We want to go to a psychedelic place where you can feel and see the sounds,” enthused Chester. “We want to be in a multi-sensual place, musically. We want to combine it all into a story that feels as though we’re taking you on a journey.”

In 2008, Linkin Park had released a standalone single called New Divide. A year earlier, What I’ve Done had been included on the soundtrack for Michael Bay’s Transformers. New Divide, however, was specifically penned for its sequel, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, and based around the themes explored in the blockbuster film. While similar to the band’s past work, given its verse-chorus-verse structure, the heavy use of synths and adherence to a concept hinted at intriguing possibilities.

It became clear these possibilities had been explored to a degree no-one could have predicted when their fourth album emerged. A Thousand Suns didn’t simply display Linkin Park’s unprecedented musical evolution, but also their intellectual growth. It was the sound of a band switching their mad-at-the-world-isms for an album mad at what was being done to the world. It dealt less with robots in disguise and more with “[putting] your bodies upon the gears,” a phrase from a legendary address by activist Mario Savio that was sampled on the track Wretches And Kings. The instrumental Wisdom, Justice, And Love would sample another prominent activist, Martin Luther King Jr.

The title A Thousand Suns was inspired by Hindu Sanskrit scripture. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist and the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ had used its words to describe the blinding blast unleashed by the U.S. army’s first successful test, codenamed ‘Trinity’, of the weapon on July 16, 1945. Oppenheimer would be directly sampled on the track The Radiance, while The Catalyst, the album’s first single and an early indicator of the confused reactions to come, would see Chester and Mike incorporate Oppenheimer’s words by asking, ‘Will we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns?’

Human fears about the nuclear age, and the war and destruction it would herald, would inform what Chester publicly announced would be a concept album. Except that it wasn’t really. Traditionally, concept albums have connotations of patience-testing running times and impenetrable narratives, but Linkin Park had used the term more as a way of describing the cohesion they would employ to get the listener to stay the course at a time when streaming had fundamentally changed the way people consumed music.

“It’s intended to flow from the start of the first track to the end of the last,” explained Mike. “That journey can only be experienced if you listen to it from start to finish.”

Mike would later go to great pains to clarify that, despite what had been said before, A Thousand Suns wasn’t actually a concept album, but instead a “multi-concept record”, given the many issues it dealt in.

“[The] term usually refers to things like [The Who’s] Tommy or… rock operas and stuff like that that has a narrative. And this doesn’t have a narrative; it’s more abstract than that,” explained Mike. “So if those albums are more of an Andy Warhol, this is more of a Jackson Pollock.”

Likening A Thousand Suns to the work of Pollock, the American artist who would frantically splash paint on his canvases, reflected the new-found sophistication of a band former co-vocalist Mark Wakefield had once described as sounding like “Helmet meets Deftones meets Rage Against The Machine”, and the abstract methods they were now pursuing. For an album so focused and reliant on its construction, their approach had been considerably looser than before, a process Mike would describe as “a weird mix of perfectionism and utter chaos”.

As on Minutes To Midnight, Rick Rubin would co-produce with Mike, but there was a nod to the band’s past with a return to NRG Recording Studios, the site where they recorded Hybrid Theory and Meteora. Unlike their first two albums, A Thousand Suns wasn’t born from the band’s usual method of labouring in pairs to assemble and deconstruct each other’s work, which probably had more in common with hip-hop than rock and metal, but instead found them indulging in lengthy jam sessions, in which no direction was off limits, and inspirations, however unusual, were pursued to their natural conclusions.

“There are times when it’s more productive to just wander into the ideas that start popping up without a real care for time or structure of reference point,” Mike would explain. “Sometimes going further down the rabbit hole is the best idea, but then there are other times when really getting scientific or mathematical about it, getting into grid mode on the computer and making sure every little edit is perfect, achieves the best results.”

Chester, who admitted to being daunted by the idea of doing a concept album when it had been mooted, nevertheless felt liberated by this new way of working. The release of Out Of Ashes, the debut album from side-project Dead By Sunrise, had proved to be a cathartic vacation away from his day job, and an effective outlet for the aggression and issues relating to his past that had overwhelmed him in recent years. In 2008, between the releases of Minutes To Midnight and A Thousand Suns, the singer had conducted an interview with Kerrang! in which he described the extent of the sexual abuse he’d suffered as a child but previously only hinted at.

“I started getting molested when I was about seven or eight,” he explained. “It was by a friend who was a few years older than me. It escalated from a touchy, curious, ‘what does thing do’ into full-on, crazy violations. I was getting beaten up and being forced to do things I didn’t want to do. It destroyed my self-confidence.”

Two years on from those painful admissions, Chester found himself in a place of personal peace and satisfaction. “For the first time in my life I’m actually comfortable being by myself,” he’d admit, during “a good, long, even streak” in which he embraced sobriety and the support of his family. The lyrics to second single Waiting For The End – ‘Sitting in an empty room trying to forget the past / This was never meant to last / I wish it wasn’t so’ – explored the struggles and fear Chester had experienced spending time in his own company. Meanwhile, musically, the song’s striding beat recalled 99 Problems by their Collision Course collaborator and friend Jay-Z.

Linkin Park had started discussing the album that would become A Thousand Suns at the end of 2008. The following year they worked on the songs Aubrey One and Froctagon, written on the road while the band toured in support of Minutes To Midnight, that suggested a return to heavier terrain. The tracks Malathion+Tritonus and Blanka would even be likened to their Summer Sanitarium touring mates Metallica.

Ultimately, none of them would end up being included on A Thousand Suns, appearing instead on 2014 fan club release LP Underground XIV, because the band had suddenly seized upon a new muse that had taken them in a drastically different direction.

By October 2009, Mike was enthusing about where things were heading. In a blog post at the time, he mentioned the likes of electronic new wave singer-songwriter Santigold and Seattle indie-popsters The Postal Service, as well as At The Drive-In, Peter Gabriel and Huey Lewis in relation to their new work. Understandably, by this point no-one knew quite what to expect.

The presence of Rick Rubin would help shepherd this voyage into the unknown, with the producer empowering the band to fill the gaps other artists weren’t occupying by playing to their own unique strengths.

“If me, Brad [Delson, guitarist] and Rick were listening to a song we were writing, one of the exercises would be [to ask], ‘What does this sound like?” recalled Brad. “And [we’d] name three or four or five artists, then ask, ‘What can those artists totally not do? What do they not have the personnel for, or the talent for, or is not their forte?’ and then add that in, because what’s nice is our band is really versatile so we can throw weird things into songs. That’s something we use all the time.”

The weirdness presented by A Thousand Suns resulted in a reversal of the usual reception for a Linkin Park album. This time around, the band’s efforts had polarised fans – despite becoming their fourth U.S. Number One album, it would take seven years to crack a million sales at home – while being overwhelmingly positively received by critics.

“We knew [it] wouldn’t fly with everyone,” Mike said of reactions from an audience they’d perhaps presented with a challenge too far. “Not just our fans, but music fans in general now just digest things more in a single song format. We knew that putting out a record like that, where all the songs tie together, would be a challenge.”

Even Chester, who’d flexed his acting muscles with a small role in that year’s Saw 3D and had started to worry more about reactions to more recent Linkin Park releases, was strangely taken with the wildly varying comments he read when he’d gone on to iTunes the day after A Thousand Suns came out.

“We really tried to make an album that took you out of your head a little bit,” he told Billboard. “It’s a musical drug type of thing.”

In his 4/5 evaluation, K!’s Ian Winwood commended that trippy quality and risk-taking ambition, suggesting the switch from the introspection of yore to an epic, socially conscious scope had resulted in an effort that “can only be described as a political album” – an appraisal Mike wouldn’t have agreed with.

“It tends to be more to do with the social than the political,” he clarified later. “I don’t view this record as political at all.”

K!’s review also noted similarities with Public Enemy’s 1990 classic Fear Of A Black Planet, an equally dense, sample-laden epic dealing with challenging issues at its heart – a comparison that surely pleased hip-hop devotee Mike, who’d paid homage to the rap heroes on Wretches And Kings. Their leader Chuck D would return the favour, adding his formidable vocals to a remix of the song by dubstep outfit HavocNdeeD.

Others, meanwhile, likened A Thousand Suns to Kid A, calling it a more optimistic variation of the 2000 record that saw Radiohead sideline guitars in favour of electronic music, bewildering many upon its release before attaining classic status. Whoever was right, everyone can agree that neither were points of reference anyone could have predicted for a Linkin Park album.

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