Hybrid Evolution: A Linkin Park Style-ography

Chapter One: Introduction

By the turn of the millennium, nu-metal was already a well-defined and culturally recognized genre. Bands like KoRn, Deftones, Incubus and Limp Bizkit were household names, having sold millions of albums and dominating rock (and in some cases mainstream) radio. It’s understandable that a popular movement will attract acolytes, but it’s not all that common that those acolytes become the most popular, most successful act in that genre. Linkin Park, however, did just that, appearing in the public’s eye over two years after the reign nu-metal had begun and wresting the spotlight from the forefathers. To this day they remain the poster children for nu-metal, and continue to remain relevant while their peers, contemporaries, and mentors have retreated from the limelight. This coup-d’etat can be attributed to one thing: the band’s fluid and dynamic style, which has allowed them to navigate the changing musical environment over the years.

Chapter Two: An Already Established Party

Nu-metal’s popularity was already huge in 1999. The rap-rock titans at the time were some of the biggest names in music. KoRn were big enough to debut a single on South Park, while Limp Bizkit’s breakthrough album reached the number one spot on the Billboard 200. Both bands were purists, albeit in two totally different, distinct ways.

KoRn preferred to draw heavily from the well of metal, incorporating many aspects of the sound into their music- even the less commercial ones. Frontman Jonathan Davis often sang dark, occasionally incomprehensible lyrics, while the rest of the band members backed him up with typical metal signifiers like sludgy, corroded guitar tone and instrumental breakdowns. It’s not surprising that it took three albums before they became accessible enough for the public at large.

Limp Bizkit, on the other hand, preferred to forage in the realm of hip-hop. The heavy guitars were still there, but they took a backseat to the rap aspects of the band’s sound. Sampled beats, turntables, funk-driven bass, and Fred Durst’s emcee aspirations took precedence over the rock influence of the band. Limp Bizkit were the yin to KoRn’s yang, complementing them with a completely inverse focus on which side of rap/rock they preferred.

Yet it would still be another whole year before Linkin Park were on the public radar. They had just solidified their new (and current) line-up with singer Chester Bennington and were working on what would become their Diamond-certified debut album Hybrid Theory.

Chapter Three: The Electronic Touch

From the beginning Linkin Park were outliers in their own field, set apart from their nu-metal siblings due to their magpie’s approach to genre fusion. First and foremost, they were selective about which aspects of rap and rock they would use, eschewing breakdowns, guitar solos, and excessive wordplay. It was an economic, streamlined method that focused on substance rather than style, a pop-oriented focus on melody and concise songwriting. Of course, this wasn’t the sole reason Linkin Park became the top dogs of nu-metal. After all, bands like Papa Roach, Crazy Town, P.O.D, and Saliva all experienced some degree of success using a similar method. Former frontrunners Limp Bizkit weren’t strangers to catchy hooks either. Linkin Park’s monolithic fame and longevity can be attributed to their willingness to dabble in other genres as well, creating a perfect storm of crossover appeal. One of these genres was electronica.

Electronica had experienced its moment in mainstream a few years prior (approximately 1996- 1999), but faded quickly and hadn’t left much of a legacy stateside. Industrial metal, nu-metal’s elder cousin, had flirted with electronic textures; bands like Orgy, Stabbing Westward, and Static-X all used keyboards in varying degrees. However even in this sphere the vast majority of electronica’s ideas were unexplored. The keyboards were just another instrument in the band, and were only one of many available electronic elements used.

Nu-metal almost universally ignored the sound; one would be hard-pressed to find any trace of it in the genre up to that point. Fortunately one of Linkin Park’s members is their resident DJ Joseph Hahn, an avid fan of the sound and all its facets. Incorporating keyboard patches, stuttering rhythms, and glitchy trip-hop, Hahn was able to create a soundscape unlike any that had been heard before. Hybrid Theory’s penultimate track is a warped instrumental interlude more indebted to Massive Attack than it is to Metallica. Listeners were immediately drawn in to Hybrid Theory’s second single “Crawling”. The opening synth hook and the moody swaths of ambience in the verses, paired with the alt-rock songwriting and heavy guitars were something new and different; the public’s interest was piqued. This is where another one of Linkin Park’s unique tendencies comes into play- their unabashed penchant for straight-up pop music.

Chapter Four: The Pop of Hybrid Theory

Any band with career ambitions will attempt to hone their sound into something memorable, but Linkin Park went beyond hook-filled songwriting and really delved into what makes pop music accessible. They tinkered with the fine details of the craft and augmented nu-metal to fit their own template, applying pop sensibilities onto the genre’s core conceit. One of these sensibilities was the sonic contrast between the two frontmen. Mike Shinoda’s rapping and Chester Bennington’s singing were evenly matched, creating an appealing interplay between the two vocalists. This became a Linkin Park “trademark”, rendering their sound unmistakably their own. What the two vocalists were speaking about was also of great benefit to the band.

Nu-metal’s lyrical content up until that point had been full of anger and machismo, a trend Linkin Park seemed to be following with their first major single “One Step Closer”. That however proved to be a false flag; “Crawling” was a song more in the tradition of grunge and alt-rock than metal. It dealt with image issues, self-harm, and anxiety- material that wasn’t nu-metal’s forte. Limp Bizkit was content telling listeners to break stuff when they were angry, and while KoRn did touch on some of these issues (heck, their 1999 album was called Issues), their approach was dark and at times discomforting. These bands had appealed to disenfranchised youth, but mostly those on the fringes. Linkin Park put personal issues out on display in a relevant, heartfelt way that appealed to a much wider audience- particularly teenagers whom had just grown out of boy bands and were in the throes of hormonal angst. All without any expletives, in fact. Hybrid Theory was one of the very few nu-metal records without any swearing, allowing for the band to be aggressive without being threatening. Linkin Park was a band that spoke to millions on an intensely personal level without alienating those who didn’t enjoy hard rock. Quite the opposite- their next single, “In the End”, was their most popular and became the quintessential example of a Linkin Park song.

“One Step Closer” had been a straightforward rocker, while “Crawling” was a dark alternative cut that proved they were different from their peers. “In the End” however, was the song that launched them into the stratosphere. Released in November 2001, it combined all of their idiosyncrasies and tied them up in a neat package for public consumption. Shinoda rapped the verses, Bennington sang the chorus and the bridge. Hahn threw on the instantly recognizable piano hook, along with vocal manipulation and a syncopated drum machine alongside the real drums. The crunchy, overdriven guitar blasted heavy power chords. The distraught, personal lyrics appealed not only to angst-ridden youth but to a lot of confused people living in a post-9/11 world. It didn’t hurt that Bennington was a legitimately good singer, a fact that hadn’t been evident on the previous singles. All these qualities made “In the End” simultaneously a pop standard and the platonic ideal of a nu-metal song.

Chapter Five: Remixes and Follow-Ups

   Metal as a genre is not exactly conducive to the practice of remixing, but since Linkin Park had dipped their toe into so many genres, their material was ripe for alternate takes and permutations by various artists from those different genres. As a stopgap release in 2002, the songs from Hybrid Theory were remixed by rappers like Motion Man, electronic producers like the Humble Brothers, and fellow nu-metal musicians like Staind’s Aaron Lewis and compiled onto the Re-Animation album.

Following “In the End” wouldn’t be easy, but in early 2003 the band released Meteora and didn’t just avoid the sophomore slump; they cleared it with miles to spare. Meteora was a direct sequel to Hybrid Theory, with first single “Somewhere I Belong” being a spiritual successor to “In the End” in every respect. Second single “Faint” bumped up the tempo and made use of a catchy string sample. “Numb” followed soon after, becoming a more commercially successful “Crawling” (#11 on the Billboard Hot 100). Everything from 100). Everything from Hybrid Theory remained intact on Meteora– DJ Hahn’s use of keyboards and studio tricks, the balanced rapping/singing dynamic, and the personal themes were all present. The smooth-sailing technique worked incredibly well- Meteora has sold 20 million copies worldwide and kept Linkin Park as the world’s most popular rock band for several more years. It spawned five singles, including the sleek electronic “Breaking the Habit”, something completely different from all their work up to that point and a showcase for Hahn’s talents. A year later the band’s popularity was reaffirmed when they teamed up with superstar rapper Jay-Z for a collaborative effort called Collision Course, which put his rhymes over their tracks.

Chapter Six: Change of Course

The next few years were quiet for Linkin Park. Mike Shinoda released a pure hip-hop record under the name Fort Minor, but other than that 2005- 2006 was a period of downtime for the group. It was during these years that the music world changed drastically. Emo and post-punk were now the rock music of choice, and nu-metal was all but gone. Meteora may have very well been the last huge nu-metal album. It would have been a huge mistake for the band to try and repeat themselves again, so it was time for a re-invention.

Minutes to Midnight came in 2007 and was a marked departure from the first two records. It was raw and rough, with an immediate noticeable difference in tone. Linkin Park had adapted to the new musical climate and given their image and sound a complete overhaul. The distorted guitars were scrubbed down, and nearly every convention and formula from previous outings had been scrapped. The album found the band going from post-punk/new wave (“In Pieces”, “Shadow of the Day”) to six-minute rock operas (“The Little Things Give You Away”) to solemn, quiet interludes (“In Between”, where Mike Shinoda takes over lead singing duties). The singles “Bleed it Out” and “Given Up” were furious and bristled with a live energy the band hadn’t shown before. “Hands Held High” was a repurposed Fort Minor track, fronted entirely by Shinoda. It was alternative in every sense of the word, and opened many doors for the band. No longer were they restricted to their origins- something that would be necessary for their next step.

Chapter Seven: The Concept Album

After Chester Bennington released the first album from his side project Dead By Sunrise, Linkin Park suddenly became very active for the next few years. They released singles for movie soundtracks, a song hidden within their own game, charity tracks, as well as other previously unreleased material. All these tracks, however, gave no clue as to what was about to be released. A Thousand Suns was the band’s concept album, and was both divisive and polarizing. The first single was “The Catalyst”, a nearly six-minute, multi-part techno track, didn’t adhere to pop structure, and didn’t feature guitars until the last minute or so. The album was just as loosely structured, featuring several interludes, and very little in the way of typical rock. “When They Come For Me” featured Middle Eastern influenced chanting and rhythm, while second single had Shinoda employing some reggae-style singing and Bennington harmonizing with himself over a pure pop instrumental. The whole album came out of left field and bewildered nearly everyone. It was also the smartest thing they could have done at that point.

Minutes to Midnight showed the world that Linkin Park had adapted and moved on from their roots, easing the transition and basically allowing the band to do whatever they wanted moving forward. No longer bound by expectations, they put out A Thousand Suns as an example of boundary-pushing experimentation. Also working in their favour was the fact that popular music was between genres. 2010 was a directionless year for mainstream, with the post-punk revival in the rearview mirror and indie pop not on the radar until 2011. It was essentially the perfect time for the band to release absolutely anything they wanted. A concept album about nuclear war that sampled public speeches by American political figures? Perfect.

Chapter Eight: Another About-Face

2012 found the band releasing Living Things, which was completely different from A Thousand Suns yet just as controversial. Taking cues from the unfolding electro-pop scene, Linkin Park released the synth-heavy first single “Burn it Down”. The rest of the album was in a similar vein, although the guitars were not as dialed down as critics would have one believe. The songs all had the sheen of modern production, but there was still plenty of rock present. “Victimized” is a ferocious minute and forty-seven seconds of screaming and heavy drums. “I’ll Be Gone” and “In My Remains” are still blasts of alternative rock, just dressed up with electronic flourishes. “Lost in the Echo” finds the band testing out dubstep, which fits them to a T. The track is essentially everything that made the band popular, repackaged in a more contemporary style. Living Things was essentially Linkin Park returning to their old style of songwriting with updated production.

To drive this point home, they released Recharged in 2013. Just as Re-Animation proved their versatility after Hybrid Theory, Recharged saw them going full EDM, remixing tracks from Living Things and collaborating with electronic music vanguard Steve Aoki. Having proved their sound translates to the modern musical landscape, Linkin Park once again had a clean slate.

Chapter Nine: Future Evolution

The Hunting Party was the 2014 release from the band, and was heralded as a return to basics, a renewal after their foray into electro-pop. First single “Guilty All the Same” was a throwback to classic hard-rock and features a verse from rapper Rakim. Other songs on the album featured guest spots from Page Hamilton, Tom Morello, and Daron Malakian. The production on the album was raw and dry, a far cry from the sleek sheen of the rest of their discography. After 14 years of mainstream success, the band remained forward-thinking and relevant, constantly adapting to new trends by spiting them. The summer of 2014 found the band embarking on the Carnivores tour- an appropriate name, signifying the band is still vital, vigorous, and hungry for more. We’ll see what 2017 brings.