SoCal hard-rock hybridists Linkin Park managed to confound cranky critics and loyal fans alike with 2010's A Thousand Suns. The ambitious concept album explored atomic Armageddon over music that drew comparisons to Radiohead and Pink Floyd, so it seemed a bit out of step to say the least. As it turns out, that record was part of a cycle initiated in 2007 when the six-piece first linked with producer Rick Rubin, who also helmed the band's as-yet-untitled fifth LP, due out in June.
"The very first question Rick asked when he met us was, 'What kind of record do you want to make?'" says singer Chester Bennington, 36, sitting at a diner-style booth in the spacious lounge at NRG Recording Studios in North Hollywood. "Our response was, 'Well, anything that doesn't sound like what we did before would be a good place to start.' And he was like, 'Great, because that's the only answer I would've accepted.' That sold us on working with him."
After creating the best-selling debut album of the aughts with 2001's Hybrid Theory, scoring a Grammy, and following that with the similarly sounding (and similarly successful) Meteora in 2003, Linkin Park were faced with a choice: Change it up at the risk of losing it all, or keep doing the same thing while potentially becoming a caricature of themselves — an irrelevant holdover from nü-metal's moment in the sun. Thankfully, they decided on the former.
"People would be surprised to learn how much of a sense of humor we have about ourselves," says rapper-producer Mike Shinoda. "There are things we've done in our career that we wouldn't do now, but they felt right at the time. It's like opening up a drawer and finding an old pair of bell bottoms, going, 'Oh my God, I can't believe I went to school wearing that.' " Without missing a beat, Bennington chimes in: "But it was the shit back then!"
For their upcoming release, Linkin Park are switching it up yet again, but not in the way you'd expect for a band that recently blew peoples' expectations wide open. They're celebrating the success of the experiment by embracing their strengths, and mixing what they learned on that sonic walkabout with what the rest of us already know they're good at: heaving guitars, walls of textured electronics, and emotive lyrics that feel both deeply personal and somehow universal.
"On the last two albums," says Bennington, "if someone brought in a song that felt very 'Linkin Park,' we were like, 'Mm, let's move on.' We now know we have the skills and the tools to take those ideas and make them into what we’re actually looking for, as opposed to getting into it and discovering that it just sounds really nü-metal. That's always going to be gross to us, but we can take elements of that and reinvent the vibe, make it now and fresh."
Shinoda and Bennington played five of the new songs for SPIN and sure enough, they felt like an improvement on an old family recipe (albeit one you'd most likely use to piss off the rest of your family). "Lost in the Echo" featured a staccato guitar attack, tribal drums, crystalline keys and some brutal screams, but it also interweaved contemporary sub-bass boom and clangy industrial effects. "In My Remains" is both dark and triumphant, built for an arena at the end of days.
The melancholic "Castle of Glass" offers a steam-engine chug and a mountain of sound while Bennington sings about being but a small crack in the titular edifice, illustrating belonging and futility in the same stroke. On "I'll Be Gone," his metallic vocals come from a character who's either forced or chooses to leave home before the sun comes up. Amidst the lo-bit glitch and seismic stomp comes an unlikely cameo: strings courtesy of Arcade Fire arranger Owen Pallett.
"He's incredible," says Bennington, leaning back against the wall of the studio. "You send him notes and he's immediately like, 'I just sent you the track. Like, five minutes ago. It's done.' "
Last but not least, they cue up their upcoming single, "Burn it Down," a seared but still high-sheen slab of cross-pollinated pop driven by four-on-the-floor pump and the pulse of guitars and synths irreparably fused together. Shinoda delivers his bars with force and finesse, and joins Bennington to sing: "We're building it up to break it back down / We're building it up to burn it back down / We can't wait to burn it to the ground." Are they talking about a relationship? Music? Society?
"Once we start hitting lyrical themes that can whack you from all these different perspectives, we know we’re onto something special," says Bennington. "That’s when the hair starts standing up. We don’t sit down and go, 'People are uneasy about the economy. Let's write about that.' We got a little more poetic, a little more colorful this time. A lot of the songs revolve around people — a drifter, or a soldier returning home, or a child finding his or her place in the family."
"Some of these songs started off really mellow," says Shinoda. "Some sounded very electro, and a few were folk, essentially. It's bizarre to remember that now, hearing what's so clearly a mix of all of our influences. Our tastes have gotten even broader since we started, if you can imagine that. It's like wrangling kittens." Bennington weighs in: "It's also what we've based our career on — that we have a little bit of something for everyone. That's been our little fountain of youth."