About a week ago former nu-metal godheads Linkin Park released a new song. It’s called ‘Heavy’ and it is not what people would expect from Linkin Park. If you have yet to hear it, please take a moment to give it a listen.
It is quite clear that this is not the ‘One Step Closer’ Linkin Park of old. For starters, its title is glaringly ironic. Put simply, ‘Heavy”s glossy pop electronica is indistinguishable from the current smog of mainstream radio hits, the swirling synths recalling The Chainsmokers’ recent giga-hit ‘Closer’. It seems that the band instead of remaining a force in rock music, have decided to be unidentifiable faces in the crowd of pop. If you were to do a blind-taste test no one would guess that they’d just heard Linkin Park. Traditional elements that make Linkin Park themselves are audibly missing, and new elements mask the band’s identity more so. LP have had their fair share of guest vocalists before but none as jarring as the admittedly angelic-voiced Kiiara. Jay Z, Rakim, Busta Rhymes, System of a Down’s Daron Malakian and Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello all made sense within the framework they had set-out for themselves – a metal band with hip-hop tendencies. And while they have always been popular, Linkin Park were never resolutely ‘pop’.
So what elements make up a traditional Linkin Park song? Chunky drop D-tuned metal guitars like those in the intro of ‘One Step Closer’? Mike Shinoda’s smooth competent flow such as in the verses of ‘In The End’? Chester Bennington’s throat-shredding roar like on ‘Crawling”s chorus? The turntable acrobatics of ‘Points of Authority’? These are the things that most people think of when they think Linkin Park. But all of those songs are off Hybrid Theory, their most commercially successful album but an album that was released seventeen years ago. Are you the same person you were almost two decades ago?
Since Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park have done a lot of experimentation with their sound. Their first release after this was the controversial, exploratory but not very good remix album Reanimation, which despite its quality was the first real signs that LP were prepping to become the genre-scientist band of today. While Meteora was a step-back experimentation-wise, choosing to revert to their Hybrid Theory-formula, every release since has added new elements to their music. Collision Course‘s crude mish-mashery, Minutes To Midnight‘s U2-aping widescreen scale, A Thousand Suns‘ further move away from nu-metal and into stuttering electronica, and Living Things‘ re-embrace of rap in a post-rock landscape. 2014’s The Hunting Party was a return to their roots, but every album they’ve released has an alternate form whether remixed, mashed-up, instrumental or acapella. As such there is now no one sound that is quintessentially Linkin Park – through their magpie-like genre-thievery they can be sound however they feel like.
But does ‘Heavy’ sound the way it does for self-satisfying exploratory reasons or is it to be commercially successful? Ever since Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park have been accused of bandwagoning. Compared to the grotesque abrasive Korn klones prevalent at the turn of the century, the slick rap-metal of their debut offering sounded positively N*Sync causing many a metalhead to cry “posers”. Was this Linkin Park a factory-produced metal boy band? LP managed to outlive the majority of the nu-metal crop, going some way to silence the naysayers. They also sold more albums in the 00s than just about everyone aside from Eminem, which also helped their credibility. Since 2007’s Minutes to Midnight (which sold 20 million units worldwide), Linkin Park’s commercial clout has slipped slightly.
A Thousand Suns didn’t even sell a million copies and, while this may have something to do with decrease of the public’s album-buying between 2007 and 2010, this is a shocking decrease. Living Things did better with 2.5 million sold but most recent album The Hunting Party has only just sold 900,000 copies worldwide. If you look at their Spotify listens the band’s all time classic ‘In The End’ is topping out at 200 million listens, while their biggest latter day single hasn’t even got half of that number (‘Burn It Down’, 97.5 million). Compared to Kiiara’s debut single ‘Gold’ (355 million listens) this gives some indication of why she was brought in to collaborate. Her style of slightly left-of-centre pop seems to be what the people want, like how back in 2000 they wanted rap-metal.
Is this selling out? No, not really. It’s just a way for Linkin Park to stretch themselves. You can’t be an angry teenager all your life, Mike Shinoda turned 40 a couple of weeks back. The blunt force of Chester’s iconic bellow is nowhere near as nuanced as his actual singing voice, not to mention a lot less ruinous to his vocal chords. There’s only so much a band can do within a certain sound before it seems in-genuine and repetitive. This has happened to rock bands before, switching up their sound and style, as a natural side-effect of becoming “more mature”. Avenged Sevenfold’s M Shadows’ abrasive staccato bark was toned down to an Axl Rose impression. Bring Me The Horizon’s inelegant deathcore became choral electro-pop. Fall Out Boy dropped the “punk” from their “pop-punk” label and started sound-tracking Disney films. It’s not selling out, it’s “maturity”. Hopefully LP’s loyal fanbase understand that.
‘Heavy’ is out now via Warner Bros.