It began with Korn. Now Linkin Park is the next to add to a growing list of nu-metal bands with guilty consciences. In fact, where did they even go? Between the period of following up their diamond-certified debut Hybrid Theory with 2003’s hit-loaded Meteora and 2007, they’ve been altogether muted, apart from a thoroughly uninspiring MTV mash-up with Jay-Z. Four years is a perilously long hiatus for a band established on little more than connecting with the rage of teenagers and experimenting with a rap-rock sound that has currently dwindled in popularity. What’s more, with the style of Minutes to Midnight, it’s as if they’re suddenly apologizing publicly for the album they made seven years ago in their early 20s.
If their previous output could, to use a cliché, be compared to a punch in the face, this third album, titled in reference to the world’s doomsday nuclear clock, works by far more subtle and prolonged measures, like a dose of poison snaking through your veins. Linkin Park, in effect, have become an ambient rock band. ‘DJ Hahn’, who once operated the turntables, has dropped his acronym with hopes of becoming a respected proper musician, and the unit’s guitarists, while they never did much before, are officially handed their redundancies here. Emcee Mike Shinoda, the most active member in the wait between releases (responsible for the above-average Fort Minor project), is silenced on all but two entries, putting aside the mic to co-produce the disc with none other than… Rick Rubin. That, in itself, is one of Midnight’s surprises; Rubin, usually known for rounding a band’s sound out and topping it off with a crisp edge, makes the Californian sextet sound instead smoother and oddly funereal.
Already hugely polarizing the band’s fans, it’s easy to be skeptical about Linkin Park’s attempt at evolution… from four years of silence, and out of a reported hundred tracks, the only really chilling thing about the select few that made the final cut is how little depth they have, how passionless they are. The music is agreeable but bland in most instances, and the splurging electronic waves try and fail to hide how thin and scratchy lead singer Chester Bennington’s voice is, now that he’s largely abandoned his agonized shrieks. Notice he isn’t heaping angst on his anguish any longer, but sounds rather tired and resigned, a sure sign that the group is maturing. Still, the songwriting is poor and repetitive on nearly all fronts; “I can’t be who you are”, he confesses on “Leave Out All The Rest” (very schoolbook), or “Valentine’s Day”, which is so embarrassingly worded that it distracts from the rest of the song, or the Shinoda-dominated track “Let It Bleed”, which drills its jangly guitar riff and chant of “Bleed it out digging deeper / Just to throw it away” into sheer monotony for two and a half minutes.
The best songs here are, in fact, the ones that possess a certain ponderous understatement to them. “Shadow of the Day”, despite taking a definite wrong turn in adding strings to the already slushy chorus — and, for that matter, you can actually hear the vocal correction working underneath Bennington — is touching, and we’re never quite sure if the tone is sad or hopeful. A filler slab of ambience at the end leads it neatly into oppressively bleak first single “What I’ve Done”, the best 30 Seconds to Mars song never written… utilizing an agitated piano trill, while it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before (hello “In the End”), is still effective in Linkin Park-dom, and the song more quietly introspective than any of the band’s previous singles. Finally, “Hands Held High” is the only real time Shinoda gets the limelight, an anti-Bush protest performed in the increasingly popular style of a ‘rap ballad’. Never mind the childish church choir repeating “Amen” or the organ; his flow has lost none of its rhythm and fluency, and the track has hands down the record’s best lyrics:
With hands held high
into a sky so blue
as the ocean opens up
to swallow you.
There’s a useful gift a band tangled up in the music industry can have: it’s called foresight, and Linkin Park have got it, keeping in mind that they are currently riding a back to back number one on both rock charts with “What I’ve Done” and have one of the biggest opening sales weeks of the year with this little caper. While more than half the album flounders and meanders uselessly to arrive at roughly four truly worthwhile numbers, parts of Minutes to Midnight set the foundations for a whole new array of sounds that the band can and hopefully will pursue in the future, while it also serves to let the public know that they will not be confined by the nu-metal stereotype for the rest of their careers. That might be enough to pull them through, if they don’t wait another four years before delivering on that tenuous opening.