Singer Chester Bennington remembers his 10 years of musical obscurity and near-poverty in Phoenix, which explains why he's so hungry now to enjoy Linkin Park's rocky ride.
"There were a lot of great bands in Phoenix I watched disappear," says Bennington, 27, a former Maricopa County map-making employee who moved to Los Angeles after industry contacts put him in a position to pursue his current stardom. "My band [Grey Daze] at its peak was a top 10 selling local act . . . but we couldn't even make enough money to make a decent demo. If we were in L.A., there's no way we'd have gone unnoticed."
That's not a problem now, as Linkin Park works to rise above rampant criticism and build on its superstar mediocrity. Rapper Mike Shinoda and DJ Joseph Hahn win the pinup status, but Bennington is fast becoming the band's real gem. Bennington dominates Meteora, the second real album from the biggest rock band in the world. Linkin Park's debut, Hybrid Theory, was the top-selling album of 2001, and a remix record called Reanimation went platinum last year. Shinoda's lyrics and monotone delivery reflect the album's (and the band's) paranoia, dread and defensiveness (the 40-page liner notes tell you in detail just how hard they work to sound this average). Bennington, though, brings the only real emotion you'll ever get from the calculated sextet.
On Meteora, which was released last week, he makes "Somewhere I Belong" an engaging radio hit all by himself. The song, like other Linkin Park singles, is technically impressive, with a cut-up acoustic guitar sample and turntable manipulations reconfigured mysteriously to sound like warped keyboard. But otherwise, the backdrop is lifeless, with boring guitar changes and drum fills for by-the-numbers modern rock. Nothing transcends until Bennington hits the chorus. His voice, which in its pathos can sound like nails in a meat grinder, booms into the mix with a sadness, allowing him to actually sell these lyrics: "I want to heal/I want to feel/What I thought was never real." His melody and hurt-sounding feelings add a needed layer.
That's how Bennington saves the charisma-starved hip-hop rock messes, over and over again. He says he's more comfortable now than on the previous record, when he was the newbie among a group of longtime bandmates.
"When I was doing Hybrid Theory, I was not really in the mode of performing a lot of shows," he says. "I was in the mode of recording parts here and there. When it came time to perform live, I went, Whoa! How am I gonna perform these songs?' It took me a while to capture that high energy."
Toward the end of the new album, the band as a whole shows signs of maturing, choosing to steer away from the anvil-heavy riffs toward balladry and industrial New Wave. And that really gives Bennington room to show off. Our homeboy can indeed sing. "Numb," after a crashing metal intro, makes fey '80s Brits like Ultravox proud, using lonely piano notes and echoing drum samples for -- no lie -- ambiance, which frees Bennington to sing from his heart: "Every step I take is another mistake to you." When he sounds numb on the chorus, he's earned the right.
The singer's efforts easily make Meteora the best Linkin Park album to date. Yet there's an irony there. The band, it seems to me, shot to fame on everything except songs, which by themselves mostly suck. Linkin Park knows marketing and how to position itself in a trend, namely the whole "my life sucks but my DJ smiles through it all" strand of modern rock. The band's knowledge of hip-hop, studio techniques and sound engineering gets it props from the industry, casual hip-hop fans and gearheads. The requisite shout-out to instrument makers on the liner notes begins "Linkin Park uses: Pro Tools . . ." Its work ethic may become legendary. According to the notes, Shinoda obsessed over the lyrical theme of one song for five years before he got it right, and some songs went through dozens of gestations or weren't completed until the final mixdown.
Take all of that out of the picture, and what you're left with are compositions whose crux has been played out for more than a decade now. There's nothing new, nothing wholly admirable. If Linkin Park continues to become more experimental, and Bennington's melodies grow in complexity as well, the band may run the risk of being perceived as another real band, not a roving IPO populated by likable guys who happen to play instruments. Bennington's obvious artistic growth may come for naught.
But hey, with royalties from sales of 10 million records in the U.S. and several lucrative tours, I'm sure he'll be sanguine about whatever fading fame lies down the road.
Ever wonder why more big hip-hop shows don't roll through Phoenix? Perhaps this may explain it.
Cody Roberts, a local hip-hop head, was so incensed over his perceived mistreatment at a Common/Talib Kweli/Gang Starr show on March 21 at the Cajun House in Scottsdale that he wrote Cajun House management to protest -- and carbon-copied New Times. According to Roberts, after spending a ridiculous $45 per ticket for advance tickets for himself and a friend, he watched as others paying at the door were let in ahead of the long line of folks, like him, who'd shelled out cash ahead of time. When Roberts finally did get inside, he was treated to a lousy view and to disappointing sets by Gang Starr and Kweli. And when it came time to prepare Common's set, the wait was so excruciating he decided to jet without even seeing the guy he came to see in the first place.
"This is a terrible way to have your first experience at the Cajun House," Roberts writes in his note. "I will never see a show at your venue again. Don't care if Bob Marley or Jimi Hendrix shows up."
Tracy Lesko, who books shows for the venue, put the blame for the door fiasco described by Roberts squarely on the promoter, Big Diehl Entertainment. "I wasn't there that night, and the promoter sometimes changes the way we do things," says Lesko, explaining that the Cajun House usually has an orderly system to help the will-call folks. "That's not something we normally do."
She says she also has no control over the price, another prohibitive element -- who the hell wants to pay $33.40 plus a $12 service charge for Common, save for the true believers? But Lesko's dismissive attitude -- she says she's starting to shy away from hip-hop shows to cut down on the "thuggish" factor -- certainly doesn't help, especially when most of the notable hip-hop shows in town have been held there in recent months.
The promoter, for its part, blames the Cajun House, a shocking position to be sure. Wendy Ashwell of Big Diehl insists that both lines moved simultaneously and that poor door management caused Roberts' line to crawl as it did. "This and all other concerns and complaints will be noted, and may play a big part in our decision if we ever do business there again," Ashwell says.
Either way, whoever's telling the truth, it's all just straight-up wack.-- By Christopher O'Connor
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