Few genres – aside from perhaps ska-punk and psytrance – get as much opprobrium from music critics as nu-metal, the slick, bombastic blend of hard rock and hip-hop that rose in the late 1990s. But the sheer pop smarts of Linkin Park – whose singer Chester Bennington has died of a suspected suicide at the age of 41 – had even the sniffiest of muso air-guitaring in their mind.
The band’s rise was ionospheric, with their debut album Hybrid Theory becoming the best-selling debut album of the 21st century – and Bennington was their emotional core. His soulfully indignant cries spoke not just to generically disaffected teenagers, but to those worldwide who didn’t feel their own voices could be heard.
On debut single One Step Closer, it was clear that this was a new voice in metal, Bennington brilliantly converting the earnestness of boyband singing into the stuff of headbanging. With rapper Mike Shinoda as a vocal foil, Bennington’s genius was to use singsong melodies ironically – he seemingly mocked their shallow catchiness while nevertheless embracing them, winning over both pop kids and old-school metal fans. There is something malevolent and taunting in his voice, a feeling amplified by his supernatural puppet-mastery of pop songcraft.
That album’s other major single, Papercut, may go down as their masterpiece. The melody now sits in the overdriven bassline, with Shinoda’s rapping subtly glitched – these fidgety verses give way into a chorus from Bennington of pure release. Borne partly out of the similarly solipsistic emo style, nu-metal was criticised for being inward-looking – but songs like Papercut are powerful for turning the gaze outward again. Bennington’s chorus – and the even more striking middle eight – acknowledges internal strife, but his defiant and anthemic delivery announces that these feelings can be voiced, understood, and tamed. Those lyrics – “It’s like I can’t stop what I’m hearing within’” – are of course now extremely poignant.
Moving into second album Meteora, Bennington’s vocals became stronger. The impassioned roar of his choruses was more pointed, his crooning verses more rounded; his self-affirmations became pithier too, like Numb’s “all I want to do is become more like me and be less like you”, a koan for isolated American teens. Individualistic, yes, but tempered by the innate communality of stadium rock.
It would have been easy for Linkin Park to churn out a formula with diminishing creative returns but expanding mansions. But they chose to take risks, teaming with Jay-Z for the Collision Course EP, which mashed up their tracks with the rapper’s in a surprisingly neat and innovative way, and teasing out the band’s latent affinity with rap. More recently they collaborated with British MC Stormzy, as they pushed their sound out of the world of metal and more emphatically into pop. “It’s admirable that these middle-aged men no longer wish to be a mere conduit for teen angst,” said the Guardian’s Ian Gittins in a four star review of a London gig just two weeks ago.
Metal’s standard vocal style is to express anger and disaffection through a deliberately obscure roar, mangling diction as a way of setting yourself apart from conventional society. Bennington’s decision to sing clearly and openly was therefore more radical than he is given credit for, and indeed more socially valuable. His cleanly articulated tales of emotional struggle gave millions the sense that someone understood them, and the huge sound of his band around him magnified that sense, moving listeners from the psychic space of their bedrooms into an arena of thousands of people who shared their pain.