Minutes to Midnight, by Linkin Park

98-minutestomidnight

Released May 14, 2007

43 min, 23 sec

There’s a small selection of albums that hold a very strong personal significance to me. They tend to be albums released around the time of a significant event in my life, or they were the first album I heard of what became one of my favorite artists. Sometimes it’s both. Occasionally, it’s something else.

Christmas 2005 is when I generally consider my true love of music to have begun. Before then, my radio was permanently tuned to AM 1600 – Radio Disney. My knowledge of the popular songs of the day were dictated entirely by what Disney wanted to hear, and what happened to be playing in commercials, or in my dad’s truck. But something – I’m not particularly sure what, I don’t really remember any more – compelled me to change stations, and I started delving into the world of rock music. With that, I asked my parents for two CDs that Christmas – Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, and Green Day’s American Idiot.

No, neither of those are the album we’re focusing on today. I’m getting to it.

Nowadays, I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that Linkin Park was my favorite band for six years, long after Hybrid Theory shot them into the spotlight far faster than anyone could have expected. But back then, after getting Hybrid Theory and quickly filling out much of the rest of my collection, picking up everything else they’d done through the beginning of 2006 in rapid succession, I was unabashedly in love with the band. They were the first band that widened my musical taste, and though it wasn’t particularly compelling or good at the time (top 5: Linkin Park, Green Day, Audioslave, Metallica, and 3 Doors Down. I know, I know, I’m sorry), it was growing, and that was the important thing. And I think that the variety in Linkin Park’s music after Meteora – and even before that, with Reanimation and Collision Course – went a long way in crafting the eclectic taste that I have now.

So, as 2006 rolled on, Linkin Park had been more or less dormant for over a year. 2005 saw the Music for Relief concert, Live 8, and nothing else. Behind the scenes, the band was locked in an ugly battle with Warner Bros., attempting to either break out of their recording contract or get a better contract signed. While Linkin Park was on the shelf, Mike Shinoda released Fort Minor’s debut album The Rising Tied and toured behind it, while Chester Bennington tried and failed to do the same with his own side-project, Snow White Tan (which would resurface in 2009 as Dead by Sunrise – more on that some other time). So, while I slowly became more and more passionate about the music I listened to, the band I loved the most was trying to figure out their next step. And, by 2006, they’d sorted out their label issues, and were able to move forward with an album that, for the first time, would truly challenge their fans and the perception of the band they’d cultivated since 2000.

Minutes to Midnight is not a nu-metal album. It’s not a metal album, though a couple songs have twinges of metal embedded in them. It’s not a “rap-rock” album, either. What it could be categorized as, loosely, is an alternative rock album. Hybrid Theory and Meteora were cut from the same cloth, using the same template – power chords, rapped verses, screamed choruses. Bridges that had one or both of those elements. Short songs with a basic lyrical structure that tackled nebulous topics that cut right to the heart of issues that teenagers held near and dear. If you mixed and matched songs from the two albums and played them to someone who had never heard Linkin Park before, and challenged them to determine which songs were from which album, they couldn’t do it with even one song. It’s like Metallica’s Load and ReLoad, except they were recorded three years apart.

By contrast, Minutes to Midnight is a wild departure. “Given Up” is comfortably in the territory of typical Linkin Park, but that wasn’t the song fans first heard. That honor instead went to “What I’ve Done,” which is firmly in the alternative rock realm, something Linkin Park had never even come close to touching before. Chester wasn’t screaming. Mike wasn’t rapping at all. The vinyl scratches were few and far between. The power chords weren’t quite as basic and overpowering. We’d heard stories of the album being a departure, but I don’t think anyone quite expected it to be so significant. And that wasn’t even the beginning.

The Minutes to Midnight album cycle was the first one that I’d ever followed as a music fan. I remember when the band said that the title was “T____ and T_____”, with the blanks to be filled in. Fake albums filled torrent websites, usually under the title Trials and Tribulations to match the supposed album name. Snippets of “What I’ve Done” came out slowly, either as brief previews, or as ringtones, or radio snippets. I had all of them on my iPod, and it combined to be about a third of the song, missing most of the significant sections – the verses and the guitar solo (another innovation that was alien to Linkin Park before this album). I remember the debates about if QWERTY – a song debuted at the band’s comeback shows in Japan in August 2006 – would make the album (it didn’t). I remember more snippets leaking out as the release approached, and people being baffled by them – why were they so light (comparatively)? Why was it so different?

What were they doing?

Here’s another fun aside about “What I’ve Done” – myself and a friend of mine had created a rock music forum around the time that “What I’ve Done” leaked, a day ahead of its planned release date. Because I was obsessed with Linkin Park at the time, I knew exactly where to find it, and in order to drive traffic to the forum, I approached my friend with an idea – what if we hosted the leak? He was into it, so we did it, thinking that the people who came for the track would stick around to talk about it.

They didn’t, and the forum closed three months later. Worth a shot.

When Minutes to Midnight dropped, leaked four days in advance because it was 2007 and every single album that mattered was guaranteed to leak in those days, fans were shocked by the songs on the album. By my count, four of the album’s twelve tracks are outright ballads – soft and quiet, slower, songs that you would never have imagined Linkin Park was capable of making. “Leave Out All the Rest” was the most accessible of these tracks by far, and ended up being the album’s final single, featuring Chester singing about a dream of being an ethereal being, hoping that he’d left enough of an impact on the world to not be forgotten. It was a far cry from songs like “One Step Closer,” where Chester implored the listener to shut up because he was being pushed to the edge of his sanity. Songs like “Valentine’s Day” and “In Between” were in a similar vein, being some of the softest songs Linkin Park had ever made, splitting time with harder, more conventional songs like the aforementioned “Given Up” and “No More Sorrow”.

Political commentary found its way into the Linkin Park catalogue with this album, as well. The title itself is vaguely political in nature, a reference to the Doomsday Clock, a visual conception of how close the Earth is to destruction by way of nuclear war. The “clock” ticks closer to midnight when the state of the world worsens, and resets when things get better, usually determined by major geopolitical events related to nuclear weaponry. “Hands Held High,” Mike Shinoda’s only rap showcase on the album, is far more overt, lambasting leaders that can’t get through a speech without stuttering, and condemning the destruction and terror that war brings, bankrolled by people who will never feel the effects. It’s transparent and basic, but the song’s delivery makes it a biting commentary, the likes of which the band had never even come close to touching before.

The album’s centerpiece is undoubtedly closing track “The Little Things Give You Away,” a 6-minute epic that describes the effects of Hurricane Katrina and indicts the late, unorganized relief response. The song is a slow burn that, once again, Linkin Park had never done before; the entire first minute simply introduces the underlying drumbeat, slowly adding instruments on top of it until finally building to the first verse, layered on top like just another instrument. Chester’s delivery is airy and haunting, commanding attention in a far different manner compared to his usual guttural, shouting vocals. The track continues to build in instrumentation, finally breaking open after the second chorus into a simple, but soaring, beautiful guitar solo, which itself leads into a wonderful three-vocal outro that creates an incredibly powerful closing moment for the album. Perhaps more than anything else on Minutes to Midnight, this song is a statement, announcing that Linkin Park had a lot more in the tank than anyone could have expected.

Because of course the band was aware of the perception of them in the eyes of the general public. Linkin Park was the soundtrack of angsty teens who overemphasized the problems they thought they had, and critics treated them accordingly, lambasting everything they did even as their albums soared to the top of the charts and sold like hotcakes in the early 2000s. (Hybrid Theory went diamond several years ago, despite inexplicably peaking at #2 on the Billboard charts during its initial run, and every album they made from 2000 to 2008 went platinum.) Minutes to Midnight, despite the massive shift in sound, did the same, selling a mind-numbing 625,000 copies in its first week, going gold faster than nearly any other Linkin Park album before or since (Meteora, I recently discovered, somehow sold 810,000 copies in its first week). This album represented the peak of their commercial success at the same time that it represented the death of the style that had gotten them to this point in the first place.

Interviews around the time of the album’s recording point to a specific desire to shift away from the nu-metal style that defined Linkin Park. Don Gilmore was out as producer, replaced by the legendary Rick Rubin, who undoubtedly had a large hand in crafting Linkin Park’s new sound. They wanted to knock down the walls surrounding their music, and keep them down forever. Their stated goal was to never again stay within the confines of a single genre, and instead simply make the music that sounded interesting and engaging to them. And true to their word, they’ve never gone back, evolving their sound and branching out in fascinating – sometimes bizarre – directions with each subsequent album. And none of it would have been possible if they hadn’t decided to take the first step with Minutes to Midnight.

I don’t listen to Linkin Park very much any more. Their time in the spotlight of popular music is long gone, and they’ve settled into having a static fanbase without feeling the need to ever cater specifically to that fanbase. That obviously doesn’t affect my own fandom, but my interest waned as I got older and I felt separated from the music that had crafted the soundtrack of my high school years. Very rarely does a person ever stay the same, or even remotely similar, as they go through high school and college, and that’s reflected in their interests and the things they enjoy, as well as how they feel about those things. When I think of Linkin Park, I think of specific memories of my high school years instead of how I felt back then. I still listen to every album, and I buy the studio albums when they come out, but a Linkin Park album is no longer the event it used to be in my life. Instead, I use that energy on more eclectic albums and pursuits, like, for instance, staying up until midnight to watch a live stream of a guy cutting wood, that abruptly stops for two full weeks because the New York Times ruined the surprise of the album being released.

Yes, that’s about Frank Ocean. Thank fucking god he dropped the album.

But I still listen to Linkin Park on occasion, both the new material and the songs and albums I grew up with. It reminds me of going to shady fansites trying to get bootleg recordings of new songs being performed live, or finding the “rare” tracks that they’d never released officially, long before streaming and online stores made those songs easily accessible. A Linkin Park song nowadays feels like a time machine, turning back time to when my musical passion was in its infancy, and I still thought 3 Doors Down was a great rock band.

We all grow up some day, I guess.

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