Wednesday, June 18, 2014

album review: 'the hunting party' by linkin park

Do I honestly have anything more to say about Linkin Park?

This is a band of whom I've covered twice before, first with Living Things in written form and then my video review of the remix album Recharged - and honestly, I wasn't a fan of either album, as they felt like regressions into stale subject matter they'd already covered more effectively elsewhere and a musical sound that alternated between being dreary and boring and atonal and insufferable. And this is coming from a critic who can admit that Linkin Park has never really been a terrible band, even in their earlier days with Hybrid Theory. Yes, it's material that hasn't exactly aged well in comparison with their mid-period work, but it does have a certain visceral pathos that can work if you're in the right demographic for it. And I will give Linkin Park for two points that aren't often noted: a knack for incredibly solid hooks and an ability to evolve with the times, culminating with the excellent, more conceptual album A Thousand Suns in 2010, which I'll place myself in the minority by saying is probably my 'favourite' Linkin Park record. And yeah, there are better records exploring nuclear holocaust, even in the electronic rock and metal veins, but I'll give Linkin Park credit for experimentation and mostly sticking the landing.

And honestly, that was one of the reasons Living Things was such a disappointment for me, in that it simply took much of the same electronic rock sound and fused it with lyrics that couldn't support it, and it felt like a regression. And when I heard about The Hunting Party this year... well, I had no idea what to expect. Not only did the band say they were putting aside electronic rock and going back to a harder edge, they were planning to show more maturity in their subject matter as well. That, if anything, got my curiosity raised enough to pick up the album - how did it turn out?

Well, this is a surprise, because The Hunting Party by Linkin Park... is actually pretty good! I'm not going to call it a great album or required listening or anything that'll convince you all those old Linkin Park records are worth your time, but it's a fair bit above average and shows Linkin Park returning to a sound that's a solid fit for them while still sounding modern. In fact, I'll say it: this is what Living Things should have sounded like - if it had, I'd probably have liked it a fair bit better!

So what makes this album work better than their previous release? Well, part of it is the instrumental shift in focus. There are still electronic elements that don't really contribute a huge amount - this is Linkin Park, though, so you're not losing them - but the increased focus on riffs and guitar-driven melodies proves to be a really solid choice for the band, producing a fair bit of distinctive heaviness that Living Things sorely lacked. Most notable are the shift in influences: more than ever, elements of thrash and even punk are visible in Linkin Park's guitar lines, which is really only a good thing, as it allows the band to get some rougher guitar tones and focus more on the melody-driven riffs that have always been the band's greatest strength, supported by Rob Bourdon's phenomenal energy and explosive technique on the drums. And there are a fair number of instrumentals I really liked: the propulsive raw menace of 'Guilty All The Same', the hardcore punk explosiveness of 'War', the chugging intensity of 'Rebellion' thanks to Daron Malakian's killer guitar work, the incredibly solid melody line of 'Until It's Gone', and hell, I could talk about 'Wastelands' for an hour. The staccato guitar leads, the textured noisy percussion, and yet how it all manages to come together with a cohesive rollicking vibe makes it one of the best and most unique songs that Linkin Park has ever written. And yet even stepping away from the rougher songs, I was surprised how much I really dug the slower tracks like 'Final Masquerade' and the instrumental 'Drawbar' - although I will agree with the common sentiment that Tom Morello could have done a little more here. 

On production, there are very few complaints if any - I might not be the biggest fan of every production choice Linkin Park has made, but you can count on them to deliver solid work, and that comes through here, with the guitars feeling visceral, the drums having texture, and the electronic elements feeling pretty damn cohesive. I can't say I liked all of the vocal production work, though - given the rougher sound, I wasn't much of a fan of the autotune occasionally placed over Bennington's voice, but I'll also say I didn't quite like the fuzz dropped onto his screams on 'Keys To The Kingdom', in my opinion the weakest track on the album. In both cases, they were trying to accentuate either his melodic singing or his screams, and only seemed to divert away from his personality instead of enhance it, and when he plainly doesn't need the help, it was just distracting.

Now this takes to lyrics - and let's make this clear, I wasn't expecting much. Let's be honest, Linkin Park are not stellar lyricists, but what has made their songwriting effective in the past is an uncanny knack for making very simple language connect with the visceral emotions they're trying to target. And even with the commentary suggesting that this album would have a bit more of a mature focus, I wasn't expecting much here - Linkin Park likely weren't going back to the big ideas of A Thousand Suns and I saw what happened when they tried to get political too late for it to matter. So what does this mean for the songwriting?

Well, not much, because honestly it isn't far removed from typical Linkin Park songwriting - Mike Shinoda's well-structured but pretty shallow aggression in his raps, and Chester Bennington screaming or singing vaguely threatening lines that don't really require or deserve deep analysis. But to be fair to Linkin Park, the focus has shifted, as most of the adolescent whinging has been thrown away in favour of straightforward hard-hitting anger, and it makes the band a fair bit less insufferable. Now that's not saying we're getting a lot of depth here - 'Guilty All The Same' is your standard middle finger to record executives and big business, 'Until It's Gone' stretches a very simple proverb to the absolute limit, and 'All For Nothing', 'War', 'Wastelands', and 'A Line In The Sand' work the 'war is hell' motif probably harder than they needed, although I will give them credit for framing themselves as more of the soldier, not the leaders, which only strengthens their populism. But that's not saying there isn't fragments of nuance between the lines either: 'The Final Masquerade' and 'Mark The Graves' trade the sullen whinging for a more mature approach and it actually lends the tracks a bit of gravitas. And then there's 'Rebellion', which might be the most self-aware track Linkin Park has ever written, a realization that much of the incoherent rage they spewed on early records feels a lot more paltry in comparison with real global issues, and how they are indeed 'the fortunate ones'. Now granted, I don't think the song quite works because it's still framed as a teenage rebellion anthem, and with a little more subtext, it could have been a lot more powerful, but it mostly works for what it is.

And that's really where I come down on The Hunting Party by Linkin Park: it works for what it is. In fact, it works pretty damn well, with some of the heaviest riffs and most potent melodies of their careers. Yeah, the lyrical conceits are simplistic, but they fit the borderline-punk aesthetic for which the band is going, and they never really come across as whiny or petulant or not capable of backing up the explosive force of their material. Simplicity is really a powerful tool in Linkin Park's arsenal at this point, and for what this album is - sheer, populist anger at those who have scorned them - it's a pretty solid fit. For me, it's a 7/10, and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of Linkin Park's earlier work and hoped that they grew up. And while it might not have the ambition of A Thousand Suns, Linkin Park stepping towards maturity is a step in the right direction.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this review. I am currently in the process of writing my own review of this album. You've inspired me to write more album reviews, man. Thanks :)