Chester Bennington (Picture from Billboard)
There are records that sell well; there are records that sell better than well, and enter the national consciousness to widespread acclaim; there are records that find international success, and are enjoyed and referenced for decades, and then there are records that swallow the world. By any measure, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory is firmly in the latter category, a diamond-certified album that became a classic almost instantaneously. Its singles were inescapable and its impact crosses multiple genres to resonate with listeners the world over nearly two decades later, and now more than ever, following the suicide of Linkin Park’s co-vocalist and frontman, Chester Bennington.
It’s difficult to overstate the tragedy of his death. Bennington was by and large the voice of rock music for the generation of which all of us here at Metal Lifestyle are a part, and it’s no exaggeration to say that that voice and the person behind it, heard by literally hundreds of millions, shaped the music of the new millennium. We aren’t necessarily looking to examine the circumstances of his passing or speculate on his motivations, but to recognize Chester Bennington’s direct contributions to the music we love and celebrate his life through a celebration of his talents. This retrospective will not be critical, or at least not entirely, but a space for all of us who were affected by his death and touched by his legacy to share our memories, opinions, and thoughts on the body of work Chester Bennington left to us, with an emphasis on the band that brought him to global prominence.
Before we go further, we must address the elephant in the room. It is not speculation to say that Chester Bennington was a victim of mental illness, and of course, we do not intend that statement to be derogatory, belittling, or insulting in any way: depression is a mental illness that requires treatment like any other ailment or disease, but because the conversation around it still blinkered by stigma and myth, it is difficult to address it at all without polarizing opinion. We leave you with the following, a personal message from one of our staff, Alex Brown, to anyone with depression, or to anyone who knows someone struggling with it, in light of Chester Bennington’s passing:
Whether you like them or not, Linkin Park is undeniably a staple band for our current generation. Most people were introduced to rock music for the first time through songs such as “Numb” and “In the End.” Just being the music lover I am, it’s really upsetting to see someone who had such a huge impact on the industry pass away in a truly tragic way, and it only comes to show how terrible mental illness, and more specifically depression, truly is. You can have seemingly everything in the world and still battle serious demons--demons that Chester, as well as millions of people worldwide, thought he could defeat only by taking his own life. Nobody should live with that feeling.
I have been fighting my own battle with depression for some time now. There is honestly no way to understand it, even when you’re going through it. What I can say is that it’s more than just being “sad.” It’s more like having to deal with creeping thoughts of self-depreciation, wrestling with the belief that the world would be better if you just disappeared. It’s more like knowing that you have people who love and support you, yet constantly feeling alone; that you’re a nuisance when you bring up your issues. It’s more of a constant state of fear; that when you do see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s actually just an oncoming train. It’s unreasonable, unbearable pain that makes ending your life look like a good decision.
If you know anyone fighting depression, please help them out as much as you can. Everyone has a completely different set of symptoms and coping mechanisms, so you may not understand why they act a certain way. Please, don’t lose your temper on them. They’re going to take it the wrong way. It can, in some twisted way, justify their self-deprecation, no matter how well-intentioned the act. If you really don’t know what to do, reminding someone that they are loved and cared for really goes a long way. Encourage them to go to therapy and seek help. Just be as good a person as you can be to them, because they will need it more than anything.
If you are battling depression, please keep fighting. I know it doesn’t seem it, but life is worth it. I know how rocky the road gets, and I know how dark the night gets, but the dawn is always coming. Do whatever it takes to find your happiness again, because it is worth it. I’ll be fighting with you.
Rest in peace.
-The Metal Lifestyle Team
Hybrid Theory - Hybrid Theory EP
Before Linkin Park, Chester Bennington fronted Arizona alternative/grunge outfit Grey Daze. Their discography is probably best regarded as a stepping stone toward Bennington’s career with LP, but that’s not to say it’s bad so much as it is unremarkable in the midst of a then-oversaturated market. Although they were doing well for themselves, Chester jumped at the opportunity to audition for Xero when original co-vocalist Mark Wakefield decided to part ways with Mike Shinoda, Brad Delson, Rob Bourdon, and Joe Hahn to pursue other interests. Legend has it that the band brought Chester aboard on the spot, blown away by his performance after a long line of duds; and rechristening themselves Hybrid Theory, the band set to work writing and recording their first EP (Xero only ever had a demo to their name).
With the help of a street team that would balloon into the LP Underground once the band took off, Hybrid Theory EP gained tract even amid the nu-metal explosion of the mid-nineties, streamlining the rap and rock influences to their essentials. It gave them an edge over the juvenility of Limp Bizkit and the darkness of Korn, but on Hybrid Theory EP, they’re still not quite radio-ready. Chester is raspier and more aggressive than on later recordings, and truer to his live performances (which you can hear on Live In Texas), but the boyish clarity that defined his voice for the majority of his career also intact. “And One” is the only song on which he takes the lead over Mike, offering an emotional performance that secured it as a fan-favorite of LP diehards since release. It features one of the first examples of his trademark scream, as well as one of his best, and the interplay between the two vocalists during the bridge of the song is natural and smooth. Most of his contributions to the EP, however, are in the form of wordless vocalizations (and he’s totally absent from “Technique,” a forty-second trial run for “Cure for the Itch” and “Session”). It’s frankly impossible not to find Chester’s presence on this album ghostlike, and in the wake of his suicide, harrowing. His pain feels all too real. He haunts these songs.
Chester’s death casts this unfortunate shadow over Linkin Park’s discography, and though the next three to four albums are their best-known, it looms largest over Hybrid Theory EP. “Carousel” is a song about drug addiction, with which Chester was known to struggle, and the single line he repeats as a taunt for the chorus--“I never know / just why you run / so far away / from me”--is told from the perspective of the addiction. The malaise of “And One” is a darker take on the themes of heartbreak and dejection that run through Hybrid Theory and Meteora. “Part of Me” is the closest the band ever came to addressing suicide head-on, and it’s lines like “Cut myself free / willingly, stop just what’s killing me” and “I feel it every day / I feel I’m in my way / I feel it swell up inside / swallowing me” that hit the hardest. “High Voltage” brings some levity, but on the whole, this release will be one of the most difficult to listen to as the reality of Bennington’s death sinks in over time.
This is not to say that it is ruined. Far from it. Although it’s an embryonic take on the sound they would grow into on Hybrid Theory and Meteora, Chester’s talent is undeniable. He embodies all the qualities of a good rock vocalist throughout, all the more impressive for his age at the time, and there are even flashes of greatness on “And One” and “Part of Me.” Hybrid Theory EP was the record that got the band noticed, making it both an indispensable piece of Linkin Park’s history and a touchstone in the band’s, and Chester’s, musical development.
I think, like most people my age, my first encounter with Linkin Park (“Lincoln Park” in my mind) was under the assumption that I was listening to a singer, not a band; a single dude who sang and rapped and probably danced with an ear microphone, backlit by strobe lights. Both of my parents were Hispanic immigrants and didn’t care for rock, and I had no interest in music except as something that passed time on long car rides, so that was my understanding of how musicians looked and what they did. “In the End” was the first Linkin Park song I heard, and I heard it everywhere--on the radio, in restaurants and supermarkets, blasting from parked and passing cars--but always in snippets, never in full. CDs were frowned upon as a needless expense in my home, so out of desperation, I asked my friend, who I knew owned the CD and loved them to death, to burn me a copy.
“In the End” was the greatest piece of music in the world to me at the time, radically antithetical to the Latin pop that filled my home, more than half of which was devoted to insufferable balladry. While I recognized the balladic qualities of the song, it had a guitar and loud drums that cut straight through an upbringing lacking in these sounds, and the rapping was digitally muffled, which was cool as hell. The song stole my heart. Over the phone a night or two later, my friend gave me my very first tastes of the other songs that would dominate my life, and I spent the night and most of the next day trying to remember those few seconds of each in preparation. I don’t remember that first playthrough, but I do remember that I didn’t see the disc again until nearly a year and a half later, when my CD player finally broke and needed replacing. In all that time, my burned copy of Hybrid Theory never left the tray. It was all I listened to. I knew every word by heart, could hum every riff (and often did), and began writing my own fledgling imitations of Mike and Chester’s lyrics.
I was everything the reviews described of the demographic to which Hybrid Theory appealed (lonely, disenfranchised, misunderstood) or I thought I was; but whether I connected with the music or vice versa, these twelve songs defined my adolescence and are still capable of wrenching me out of the present and plunking me back into the mindset of an uncomfortable youth. Its effect is even more far-reaching than that: as I listen to it for the umpteenth time, I can hear how the chopped-up riffing of “Papercut,” “Points of Authority,” and “Forgotten” bloomed into a love for angular riffs and unconventional time signatures; how the vitriol of “One Step Closer,” “By Myself,” and “A Place for My Head” nourished a love of dissonance; how the moodiness of “With You,” “Crawling,” and “Pushing Me Away” opened me up to introspection; how even “Cure For the Itch” taught me the value of composition and, of course, rhythm management.
Silly as it might seem to say, I owe a large part of my worldview, then and now, to Hybrid Theory, to Linkin Park, and to Chester Bennington. I saw the world as a hard and unfriendly place through the lens of my parents’ struggle as immigrants, as well as personal struggles with bullying and self-worth, so my connection to the lyrics and the sentiments they express was natural and fierce, and the noisiness of the music was a shield against the world. Though vocal duties are split, it was Chester to whom I was drawn; to the sincerity of his vibrato, the resonantly boyish timbre of his voice, the rebellion of his scream. At the time, these qualities were a refuge, and though I knew Linkin Park was one of the most popular groups in the world, it wasn’t until later that I grasped that this refuge wasn’t solely mine. I know how I felt listening to Hybrid Theory. I’d like to make sure, to whatever extent I can, that others don’t have to feel the same way.
To echo the sentiments that began this tribute (surely not for the last time), no one should be defined by their anger, their disenfranchisement, their despair, or their isolation, but to pretend that no one will be is naive, and to pretend that these things can be overcome by sheer will borders on dangerous. It hurts the one in pain. Hybrid Theory and albums like it are not therapy and are not a cure, but there is value in finding your pain reflected in the words of others, and a form of nobility in producing art that, even if only temporarily, provides relief.
I bought Meteora from Target at full-price with the money my parents gave me for lunch, skimping on food in anticipation of more Linkin Park. I’d worn Hybrid Theory to death and started venturing out in search of other, similar music, but it was hard. For as “generic” as they’re accused of being, it was hard to find a band that could be mistaken for Linkin Park, and very little scratched that particular itch. I remember running back out into the parking lot, climbing into the backseat of my father’s car, and peeling the CD out of its wrapper to stick into my CD player. I had read up a little about the album and knew that “Foreword” wasn’t a proper song but a thirteen-second recording of what was rumored to be a band member destroying a CD player. It was a little meta, and although I didn’t know the word at the time, I appreciated it.
“Don’t Stay” sated the itch I’d had for two years immediately. It was at once brand new and entirely familiar, which is perhaps the most succinct way of describing what it is to listen to Meteora, an album doesn’t stray from the sound mapped by Hybrid Theory and the EP before it, but digs its heels in and gives us more. They learned some tricks in the interim and grew tighter as a unit, evidenced by the way each song bleeds into the next, and even by the more elaborate packaging of the disc which features exclusive artwork, photographs, and little blurbs--containing production trivia, lyrical inspirations, and insights--wrapped up in Linkin Park’s Korean-chic visual aesthetic. It’s also a chillier album than Hybrid Theory: the guitar tone, and the production quality itself, is processed and digital-sounding. The Japanese flute (a “sakuhachi”) on “Nobody’s Listening” is eerie and thin. The phasing that opens “Somewhere I Belong” is abstract and lonesome. There’s the icy keyboard riff on “Numb”; the frosty synth on “Faint” and in the background of “Lying From You”; and of course, the hit “Breaking the Habit” is an electronica banger that confronts Chester’s history of drug use more directly than the EP’s “Carousel,” and for the last time in Linkin Park’s discography (at least head-on). According to a friend of mine, Chester wasn’t able to perform this song live the first time they played it.
I gravitated to the vengefulness of “Hit the Floor,” the grittiness of “Lying From You,” and “Don’t Stay,” but quickly glommed onto “Figure .09” and especially “From the Inside.” I still consider “From the Inside” one of my favorite Linkin Park songs, and although “Easier to Run” is the album’s proper ballad and a personal piece for Chester, it remains the Linkin Park ballad for me, ousting even “In the End” from the spot. Chester is at his most vulnerable through the verses, but the chorus draws out the sheer power of his voice for a performance that pairs universal sentiments with personal investment: “I take everything from the inside / and throw it all away / ’cause I swear, for the last time / I won’t trust myself with you.” This becomes “I won’t waste myself on you,” a change that, for me, signaled that it’s not just a song to be sad to, but a song to find resolve in, which is where Meteora one-ups Hybrid Theory. Although less immediately engaging than their breakout record, it’s a more mature piece in the way it looks for solutions rather than dwelling interminably on the problems Hybrid Theory is mostly content to do nothing about; and if it occasionally leads to something like the cheesy bridge of “Somewhere I Belong” (“I will break away / I’ll find myself today”), at least the intention is there.
As we’ve said before, Chester’s death has altered the experience of listening to Linkin Park, and it’s truly unsettling on “Nobody’s Listening.” Always my least favorite experiment on the first few Linkin Park records, the chorus I found so irritating now has an unpleasant, taunting edge: “Called to you so clearly / but you don’t want to hear me / Told you everything loud and clear / but nobody’s listening.” The way “Figure .09” ends with Chester in defeat (“I’ve let myself become / lost inside these thoughts of you / Giving up a part of me / I’ve let myself become you”) is hard to stomach in light of the circumstances of his death and the context of his childhood, and “Easier to Run” is even more difficult given its plaintive admission that it’s easier to “replace this pain with something numb” and “to go / than face all this pain here all alone.” There is subtext in these passages and others that will be hard to divest from whatever was originally intended, but it’s something each listener will have to decide whether to bear through or push aside.
However you decide to reconcile what you hear with what you think you hear, it’s important to remember that the music itself is not lessened by connotations it’s acquired years after the fact. That’s a tricky argument to make, but I think it holds water with Meteora. Like Hybrid Theory, it sold massively, even eclipsing the first-week sales of their breakthrough album. It didn’t tap into the zeitgeist quite like Hybrid Theory, but that doesn’t preclude its impact on just as wide an audience. Chester’s death may cast a shadow, but the album and the meaning it accumulated for individual listeners isn’t ruined. There’s more cause than ever now to acknowledge Meteora as both the last and probably finest example of Linkin Park’s original sound; as arguably the last great commercial nu-metal/rap-rock album; and as a monument to Chester, who at only twenty-seven had managed to front arguably the most popular band in the world, and was already one of the most well-known voices in rock. These are the things worth remembering.