Thursday, July 5, 2012

album review: 'living things' by linkin park

Short version: in which I finally get a chance to vent about rap metal and nu-metal (yes, it's been long in coming), and I get the chance to explain completely why I hate those genres with a burning passion. Oh, and then I review some album called 'Living Things', which was only distinctive in its ability to disappoint me. Wonderful.

How many of you remember rock in the mid-to-late 90s? Because I can say this definitively - having briefly revisted that era to do a bit of research, you don't want to.

I should explain this. After Kurt Cobain's death and the collapse of Nirvana, grunge rock lost market share, and while alternative rock pushed by bands like R.E.M. continued to hold some sway, there was a rush to fill the void with a variance of musical styles. Punk received a mild mainstream revival thanks to bands like Green Day, weird psychedelic/prog rock began making headway in the underground (like with the Flaming Lips, Radiohead and Porcupine Tree), and even ska got a brief, painfully short time in the limelight. Sure, bands like Soundgarden and the Foo Fighters and the Smashing Pumpkins were continuing what Cobain started, but towards the end of the decade, they would find their mainstream spotlight usurped by an unholy, haphazard blend of genres that touched off some of the worst trends in rock at the turn of the millennium.

Yes, I'm talking about rap metal.

Let's make this clear, as much as I disliked Avenged Sevenfold in my last review, the band is essentially harmless. I personally can't imagine who can take that sort of music remotely seriously (well, I can, but I'm never going to associate with them in public), but I know enough to know that bands like Avenged Sevenfold would never have the mainstream prominence and push to shape culture or music trends.

Rap metal and its little cousin nu-metal, on the other hand, were far, far worse, because not only were they skin-crawlingly repulsive in most forms, they were also humungously popular. Translating the disaffection of Generation X and the worst parts of 90s culture into a misogynistic, hate-filled slurry of horrible music, rap metal and nu-metal were responsble for the worst trends in rock music in the late 90s. But then again, I can't say I don't understand its dominance. After the killings of Tupac and Biggie, hip-hop was trending lighter in the late 90s, and bubblegum pop courtesy of the boy and girl band explosions were dominant. Hell, even punk acts like Green Day were moving in a more acoustic, conscientious, adult-alternative direction. 

So what happens when you get a generation of shitheads fresh off of horrible Image comics, the 'Attitude Era' of professional wrestling, and early Mortal Kombat, angry and filled with bile but with no good targets in the relatively calm years of mid-to-late 90s? Well, you get rap metal and nu metal, a genre way too angry to be enjoyable and way too shitty to be insightful. 

And make no mistake here: I fucking hate this genre. This misogynistic piss masquarading for the voice of a generation is dumb and it always has been. Bands like Korn and Staind and Slipknot and fucking Limp Bizkit and motherfucking Evanescence are the results of this worthless wave of music, and I am so grateful that these acts lost all popularity in the mid-2000s. I don't what really triggers my rage at this genre most: how shamelessly derivative they were of real metal and rap acts, to the point where Eminem had no problem thrashing Limp Bizkit on albums; how utterly worthless their anger was when compared to the genuine hatred and danger present in acts like Marilyn Manson (mostly) and the gangsta rap revival (once again, mostly - 'dangerous' acts have shelf lives); or maybe it's just because they never,ever produced anything of fucking substance! They were just as plastic and fake and safe as the boy bands, just they refused to admit it to themselves - none of these acts would ever hope to approach the genuine darkness of acts like Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath or even Twisted Sister, let alone the thrash metal they were ripping off. 

But what was probably worst of all about them is that they wanted - nay, demanded - that they be taken seriously. There was no demented humour or hope of levity or even a hint of parody in their style - rap metal and nu metal was a constant avalance of unpleasant banality that never had anything to say, and was an absolute embarrassment to the metal genre. They were the one shot harder metal got at reaching mainstream, and they fucking pissed it away. I think that's probably the closest to the reason why I loathe, I despise, I hate this genre without question: it was a shot for modern metal to rise to the spotlight, and it was ruined by a bunch of terrible bands catering to terrible trends who left nothing but terrible fucking music behind them. And worst of all, they were the ones who got associated in the North American public consciousness as 'heavy metal' (Europe tends to be far better here), and thus when they were rightly dismissed as garbage, the rest of the genre got dumped on too. Metal could have been the additional strength to shove up the ailing mainstream rock genre in the recent years, and it's not, mainly because of the burnout of rap metal and nu metal. It's one of the reasons that metal is lumped with hard rock at the Grammys, why there is no metal charts on Billboard, and why metal still can't gain legitimacy in the public eye. Forget Skrillex and deadmau5 screaming for the acceptance of electronica and fucking dubstep (another genre I lump in with rap metal, by the way, and the associations between the two with the Korn/Skrillex combination  and Limp Bizkit's attempted revival, make it all too easy) at the Grammys - metal bands with volumes more instrumental sophistication and experimentation and sheer raw talent are left out, and that's fucking disgraceful

So that why I have nothing to say but bile towards to these aberrant shit piles, all of which will play in the music of my personal hell. I get why angry white boys listened to that shit in the late 90s and early 2000s, but if you're still unironically listening to that garbage, you should be ashamed of yourself.

However, I will give credit to the one band in that genre that managed to get out and not suck as much. And that band was Linkin Park.

I can't actually believe I'm going to be placed in the position of defending the band that wrote 'Crawling', but Linkin Park doesn't actually suck all that much, and fortunately, I've got a grasp of why. Instead of wallowing in turgid, overwrought shit like the rest of the genre, Linkin Park had bigger ideas than the rest of their compatriots, and I'd argue that they were generally a better band in all categories. Yeah, Hybrid Theory was overwrought and didn't always earn its attempted gravitas, but the songwriting (mostly structured around lead singer Chester Bennington's shitty childhood and adolescence) at least came from somewhere real, and it helped that there was genuine emotional complexity to compliment the intensity of the delivery. It also helped that the band had a skill for writing really fucking catchy songs, even despite how angry most of them were.

So Hybrid Theory was bleak and easy to lump in with the rest of the nu metal craze, but it was clear early on that Linkin Park were looking to do more than just stew in the slowly disintegrating shitpile that was rap metal and nu metal in the early 2000s. Their follow-up, Meteora, was surprisingly decent, and produced one of my favourite Linkin Park songs to date, 'Numb'. While several themes of teenage angst were communicated, the album at least had the presence of mind to expand on them in intriguing ways, and the added electronica wasn't unwelcome (although if I had been aware of what was coming... but I'll get into that a bit later).

Then came Minutes to Midnight, where the band completely shelved the nu-metal sound and tried greater experimentation with their sound, to characteristically mixed results. To be honest, I really dig parts of this album, namely 'Bleed It Out' and 'What I've Done' (despite the latter being associated with Transformers), and despite myself, I've liked 'Hands Held High' as well. But outside of the individual sound of the songs, I thought the album represented something positive - greater experimentation, bigger ideas outside of the same angst. It showed that Linkin Park was willing to grow up and try something new, something you really couldn't say for the genre they left behind, which by that point had imploded dramatically to the joy of pretty much everyone. I was almost looking forward to what Linkin Park was going to try.

And then A Thousand Suns happened.

Look, I relistened to that album before listening to Living Things, and I will say a few things about it. Firstly, there's a lot of good on that album, and there are a lot of interesting concepts, but there are also plenty of missteps (no matter how good of a band you are, sampling Martin Luther King and then reconstructing it so it sounds like a Transformer is borderline inexecusable). As a concept album about nuclear annihilation, it's unclear and unfocused, and doesn't really have anything new or special to say on the subject. Musically, while there are some interesting production and melodies, I can't help but note that it sounds like an unfinished collaboration project between Trent Reznor and Arjen Lucassen, filtered through Linkin Park's stylistic flourishes. Ultimately, I'm left dissatisfied. I also couldn't help but notice the faux-dubstep leanings on tracks like 'Wretches and Kings' - you know, one of the worst tracks on that album. But overall, it was decent, produced a couple great songs like 'The Catalyst' and 'Robot Boy', and probably my 'favourite' of any Linkin Park album.

But since A Thousand Suns was the worst selling of all of Linkin Park's records (fun fact, their sales have been going down consistently across the board since Hybrid Theory), so they decided to go 'back to basics' on their newest album,Living Things, according to press statements from the band. Immediately, combined with rumours that they had started drawing inspiration from mainstream dubstep, gave me a really bad feeling as I sat down and started to listening to the album.

And then I got up thirty-seven minutes later, because the album was over.

Now, granted, that's always been a trait of Linkin Park albums - short and to the point (for the most part), but immediately I was struck by something rather saddening: Linkin Park, the only band that was worth a damn coming out of rap metal and nu metal, had completely run out of ideas.

And believe me, this comes across everywhere on the album. The music - a turgid sludge of their rap metal blended with the slicker electronica from A Thousand Suns - manages to be loud and have a lot of noise, but it lacks the import and presence of their previous albums. Say what you want about how emo and grating 'Crawling' was, at least it was memorable! There was a hook there, there was something that stuck in your head. But here, with the heavy distortion overlays and the electronic beeps warring against dreary keyboards and the occasional blast of rock, I'm left completely unmoved. And for all the talk that this album was taking cues from modern dubstep, outside of some occasional squealing synths, there's hardly any wobbling bass or any common audio cues from that style! There's nothing worth hating here, at least in terms of instrumentation, but there's hardly anything worth liking either. Granted, it doesn't help matters that the heaviest songs 'Lies Greed Mistery' and 'Victimized' are both hopelessly crippled out of the gate, the former by opening synths stolen from Avril Lavigne's 'What The Hell', the latter with a chorus that consists of three words and a length of less than two minutes.

On the vocals side, I have to admit I've always liked Chester Bennington's fierce, furious delivery, but on this album is seems a little muted. Granted, there were periods where it is was muted on the last album, but A Thousand Suns was intended to be melancholy and bleak - here, the album is more sullen than angry, and it loses a lot of personality. The best song of the entire album is the last one, 'Powerless', because it at least gets close to rocking (and even then it feels like a B-side to 'What I've Done'), but outside of that, this is a dreary slog, without the dynamic energy that the vocals usually provided.

But I think the area where I'm most disappointed is the lyrics, because (and I will be fair here), I've always kind of liked Linkin Park's rapping/singing lyric dichotomies, and with A Thousand Suns, while they weren't within spitting distance of Trent Reznor's dystopian musings, they at least had some catchy hooks and some interesting musings on nuclear apocalypse (not even close to the Flaming Lips, but eh). 

But on Living Things, it feels like Linkin Park has fallen back to the old, simplistic lyrics of Hybrid Theory, made all the worse because the album is loaded with break-up songs that lack any force whatsoever. In fact, I'd argue they've regressed even further than that, because so many lyrics feel phoned in, amateurish and utterly token, and the raps lack the punchy symbolism they had on Minutes to Midnight. Here, instead of having presence or at least the obnoxiousness to be memorable, they're just sullen and shallow and painfully weak. They still have the same angst, but without the bombast and fury, the poetry lacks presence and any real significance.

After a second listen, I was fairly certain which album I could compare Living Things with, and much to my surprise, it wasn't anything by Linkin Park. No, this album reminds me of The Cure's Faith, an album designed to evoke feelings of dreariness and melancholy and sullen contemplation. Now granted, that album is fucking amazing, but here's the big problem with Living Things - Linkin Park weren't trying for that feeling. According to interviews, they wanted to create a new energetic sound and just go 'bonkers', but I don't hear it. 'Bleed It Out' was fucking nuts, but nothing on this album has the energy or songwriting strong enough to compete with that. They even made comments that they wanted to go for a 'wall of sound' with the heavy electronica - and fucking hell, that sure as hell didn't work, because the entire point behind a Wagnerian or Spector 'wall of sound' was that it could envelope the listener and have impact.

Living Things does not have impact, and I think that's what frustrating and infuriates me the most. I could be tempted to blame this on producer Rick Rubin, but I can't because he's not the one writing the songs that I can only describe as painfully weak. This album is worse than bad - it's boring. Nothing sticks with me, there's nothing on this album that makes me feel anything or connect with the band. It's such a huge step back from A Thousand Suns, an album that was flawed, but at least dared to have ambition and some balls. Even Hybrid Theory, for all of its problems, had more energy and spirit than this album, whcih just feels token, shallow, and weak.

All of these factors lead to my thesis: Linkin Park has completely run out of ideas. I'll give Korn this, as horrible as they are, at least they're trying to mix things up with new musical ideas, even if that idea is fucking dubstep. Linkin Park didn't do that - they tossed everything they already knew into a blender and turned it on high, hoping that something of substance would come out. Instead, all they got was a bland electronic slurry that isn't even obnoxious enough to be worth hating. It's thoroughly mediocre, and for a band that used to put out damn good music, it's a disappointment. 

Next review: something significantly quieter. Chris Brown will have to wait.


  1. "if you're still unironically listening to that garbage, you should be ashamed of yourself"

    That's a bit harsh isn't it? It's not a crime to like some bad music, everyone has their own personal reasons why certain songs might resonate with them regardless of their objective quality.

  2. Yikes this is definitely one of Mark's worst reviews, insulting people for liking music you hate is not a good look, but this was a very early review of his so i'd like to think he's grown up since then.