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Remembering Chester Bennington Through His Most Important Musical Moments

Linkin Park performs onstage at Webster Hall on May 11, 2007 in New York City.

From the beginning, Linkin Park were collagists. The title of their debut album, Hybrid Theory, not only described the synthesis of rap, funk, and metal at the heart of “nu-metal” but also depicted their own approach to composition, applying rap and rock to pop in a way that more closely resembled gene-splicing than songwriting. Where other nu-metal bands wrote riffs that were like enormous rocks they could sequentially pitch at the listener, Linkin Park’s conception of nu-metal was less geologic and more geometric. If the nu-metal incubated on the debut records by bands like Korn and Deftones tended to have a creaturely lurch, then Linkin Park were the same animal rearranged as a small origami sculpture. A fascination with artifice and formal harmony caused critics to initially interpret Linkin Park as more of a pop band than a rock one, though, in fairness, nu-metal’s ascent had propelled them to commercial heights arguably no rock band has achieved since. This was appropriate, since they had, in a way, commercially perfected the genre by simultaneously making it more sophisticated and accessible. “I think that’s really funny—just those words, ‘the integrity of metal’,” lead singer Chester Bennington—who was discovered dead in his home last Thursday at the age of 41—told Metal Hammer in 2016. “In my opinion we actually kept metal alive.”

Bennington was an essential fragment of the Linkin Park collage; his voice so often occupied the center of their music, a cloudless tenor that described and exhibited, in its capacity for both fury and frailty, someone vigorously pursued by vagaries of frustration and depression. Depression in particular seemed a recurring subplot in the Linkin Park discography. “It was like, ‘There’s a lot of songs about depression, fear, and paranoia. Are you just making it up?’ And I said no,” Bennington told Rolling Stone in 2002. He had suffered sexual abuse from an older friend when he was an adolescent, and in the initial years of Linkin Park’s success he wrestled with alcoholism.

“I think for a lot of people, they think if you’re successful, all of a sudden you get some card in the mail that says you’re gonna be totally satisfied and happy for the rest of your life… It doesn’t happen like that,” Bennington said in a more recent radio interview. “Life, for me, happens the way it always [has]… The only difference is I’m in Linkin Park. What goes on inside my head has always been this way for me.”

The abstraction that his lyrics often settled into—”I tried so hard / and got so far / but in the end it doesn’t even matter,” for one—seems in retrospect to be less a function of a writerly limitation than an indication of the utter imprecision of feeling that characterizes depression. He spent his entire career trying to give his feelings a useful, readymade shape, something through which listeners could recognize and alleviate their own struggles. The following songs are the best examples of this life’s work.

Linkin Park – “Crawling”

The second single from Linkin Park’s debut album
Hybrid Theory, “Crawling” distinguished itself from its predecessor “One Step Closer” not via its heaving guitar riffs, but instead through a crystalline arrangement of notes, tonally similar to the higher octaves of a piano but sounding as if they were issued by something sharper, more modern, and depthless. It’s the first single to feature Chester Bennington’s clean singing voice alongside the modulated scream he more frequently employed, and it’s the first time the insecurity of Bennington’s lyrics felt at odds with the total security of the band’s music. “There’s something inside me that pulls beneath the surface,” he sings against the song’s own glossy and unresponsive surface. It embodies the frustration of being unable to alter the external world with one’s expanding inner turmoil. “It’s easy to fall into that thing—’poor, poor me,’ that’s where songs like ’Crawling’ come from: I can’t take myself,” Bennington said in that 2002 Rolling Stone interview. “But that song is about taking responsibility for your actions. I don’t say ‘you’ at any point. It’s about how I’m the reason that I feel this way. There’s something inside me that pulls me down.”

Linkin Park – “My December”

A bonus track on
Hybrid Theory where the band is downsized to just Bennington, a looping piano figure and a sleepwalking percussion track contributed by the band’s DJ, Joe Hahn. It’s beautifully sung and its arrangement is dreamy and blurry and adrift in a way that Linkin Park rarely allowed themselves to be.

Chester Bennington – “System”

A song written by Jonathan Davis of Korn and film composer Richard Gibbs for a fake band called “The Vampire Lestat,” who figured into the 2002 Aaliyah-starring Anne Rice-adaptation
Queen of the Damned, “System” is remarkable not just for being an uncanny product of its time but also for being one of Bennington’s few actual solo tracks. It’s also his most explicit homage to Nine Inch Nails, his voice seeming to partly adhere to Davis’ original guide vocal while also approaching the harmonic range covered by Reznor’s shredded baritone.

Linkin Park – “Faint”

Most Linkin Park songs and albums rely on the fluid interplay between Bennington and rapper/singer Mike Shinoda. “Faint,” though, is most noteworthy for being the band’s finest production. From the way the drums and Shinoda’s rap syncopate, to the musical hostility in Bennington’s vocal, to the strings liquefying overhead—it practically announces itself as their best song.

Linkin Park – “Breaking the Habit”

After “My December,” this is the first real Linkin Park song that tries to build a consistent mood instead of ricocheting between emotional axes. It could almost be characterized as gentle if its central rhythm weren’t so anxious, the guitar riff twisting nervously through the atmosphere formed by the strings. Bennington’s singing is unusually composed and… almost
quiet, as if he’s threatening to dissolve into the string section.

Linkin Park & Jay-Z – “Numb/Encore”

The big hit from the Linkin Park/Jay-Z collaborative album, “Numb/Encore” mostly retains its power as a symbol for:

1. The brief and simultaneous mainstream emergence and commercial peak of the mashup.
2. The “mashup” itself as a looser incarnation of Linkin Park’s “hybrid theory,” with unrelated music overlapping and aligning in patterns that feel improvisational but are intentional.
3. The way it reconstitutes a power ballad into the form of a rap song, and lets a rap song express its inner power ballad, with Bennington carrying both the hook of “Encore” and the majority of “Numb.”
4. The early stages of the creeping resentment, exhaustion, and indifference that invade most of Jay-Z’s recorded projects after
The Black Album.

Young Buck – “Slow Ya Roll” (ft. Chester Bennington)

I wish Bennington had sung the hooks on more rap records. He does beautiful, understated work accenting Young Buck’s own crooned chorus, which makes it feel more related to “Breaking the Habit” than it does to any of his collaborations with Jay-Z. Bennington acts mostly as a melancholy echo of Young Buck’s bleak storytelling, though he eventually becomes the focus of the song’s bridge, singing, “This can’t be life we’re living / cuz I don’t wanna live no more.”

Linkin Park – “In Pieces”

For their third album,
Minutes to Midnight, Linkin Park hired Rick Rubin as a producer, and he pushed the band to expand the architecture of their sound, shifting from the compressed and inwardly-knotted design of nu-metal to something that resembled arena rock, all crisp lines and dense concrete beams giving shape and meaning to a vastness. On “In Pieces,” Bennington’s voice floats over only a few instrumental flourishes; an earlier version of this band would’ve wrapped each chorus in a membrane of overdriven guitars.

Dead By Sunrise – “Fire”

Side projects and supergroups are traditionally developed to answer questions no one asked. What if Bennington fronted a more traditional rock group, one less beholden to Linkin Park’s ultramodern curves and gleams? What if he formed this group with members of adjacent ultramodern nu-metal band Orgy? Why does the musical output of this group mostly resemble a more emotionally intelligent Puddle of Mudd? Only “Fire,” the opening track from the group’s sole album,
Out of Ashes, manages to answer a question I would’ve asked: What if Chester Bennington sang for an emo band? That they accidentally access emo by trying and failing to resemble U2 is a feature, not a flaw.

Linkin Park – “Waiting For the End”

This song, from the band’s best but least linear album, 2010’s
A Thousand Suns, features what might be Bennington’s finest vocal performance; the note he hits at the end of the chorus is exquisite, and all the clattering, Bomb Squad-adjacent noise that climbs around it gives his vocal the aspect of a beacon of light penetrating a complex darkness.

Linkin Park – “Iridescent”

Linkin Park contributed so many songs to Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise that it might be helpful to think of their songs as Transformers themselves, great muscular collages of steel that have been shrunken into sleek and vehicular pop. “I think our attention spans are like the newer age of kids who need a video and an interview and what’s coming up next, all on the same screen,” Bennington told
Q all the way back in 2003. “We want something that hits you and leaves you wanting more. That’s why I think a lot of people get pumped up when they hear our albums. It’s not something they have to sit down and invest time in.”

So it’s odd that their third Transformers theme, this one for 2011’s Dark of the Moon, is driven mostly by a piano and a skipping pulse, and features one of Bennington’s most emotionally stirring choruses, the lyrics for which can almost function as a thesis statement for the band: “Remember all the sadness and frustration, and let it go.”

Linkin Park – “A Castle of Glass”

A Thousand Suns
split their fanbase, so instead of pushing their sound forward, Linkin Park drifted around laterally for 2012’s Living Things, their only album where the guitars and the synths have an identical physical impact. But, as with “Iridescent” and “Breaking the Habit,” “Castle of Glass” reminds us that their most emotionally precise music, and Bennington’s most emotionally precise singing, tends to be their most remote, as it conveys the experience of dislocation and depression with a kind of formal verisimilitude. That each song is composed largely of soft electronic pulses just contributes to the feeling that they’re being telegraphed across a vast distance.

Stone Temple Pilots – “Cry Cry”

Bennington had been a lifelong fan of the Stone Temple Pilots; he joined them officially in 2013 as a replacement for Scott Weiland, who was fired from the band for having considerably strained his vocal flexibility. Weiland’s voice itself had been hard to pin down, migrating between a thick Vedderish burr and an almost frail Cobainish tenor. Bennington moved through these regions so faithfully that his singing in the band could feel uncanny; he was successfully imitating a consummate imitator.

Linkin Park – “Mark the Graves”

Billed as their return-to-roots record, 2014’s
The Hunting Party is more remarkable in Linkin Park’s discography for being their least disciplined effort. They placed studio banter in between the songs in order to give the album a looser, more improvisational feel; the individual songs, of course, still sound bolted together in an airless vacuum, but they’re longer, more distracted and asymmetrical. So “Mark the Graves” just kind of wanders from heavy riff to heavier riff to expressive shimmer, hoping to acquire the sense of having covered a meaningful distance by the time it reaches its end. It does, but it’s largely a product of Bennington’s vocal, which meets the vast, confused, free-floating composition with clarity and gravity.

Linkin Park – “Talking to Myself”

Their final single, the video for which was released on the day of Bennington’s death, is taken from
One More Light, an album that signaled their most dramatic conversion into pop music. It’s the only album they’ve released that can comfortably coexist on a radio playlist with the narcotic vibrations of, say, the Chainsmokers. Critics and fans considered the new direction cynical and driven by greater commercial motives. (In a way, their criticisms were beside the point; Linkin Park had always produced a kind of electronic pop music.) Bennington responded angrily to the criticism, saying in an interview that “if you’re saying we’re doing what we’re doing for a commercial or monetary reason, trying to make success out of some formula… then stab yourself in the face!” Still, there’s an awkward and unfinished aspect to the album. So much of it is Bennington’s or Shinoda’s voice surrounded by anonymous glimmerings. This song at least sounds like a band playing in a room together, and it acts as a curious final chapter, as so few of Linkin Park’s previous songs sounded like a band playing in a room together.