Linkin Park – One More Light

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Anyone who was born when Hybrid Theory first came out is 17-years-old now. If they’re lucky, they have experienced heartbreak, romance, sex, drugs, fighting with parents, have a solid group of friends and are thinking of what to do with their lives. I say this so you’ll realized how long these guys exist. We still live in the fallout of their first two albums which captured the anxiety of youth so well. So now we’re listening to Mike’s half-apology to his kids and wonder what the hell happened.

It’s the same question a parent will ask themselves when they realize their baby is now as big as them and discovered sexuality. These guys are old. Moreover, they always hopped from genre to genre, each album a clear response to what was before. Minutes to Midnight was their attempt to break away from Nu Metal, experimenting with different kinds of structures and isolating the Hip-Hop elements so they’ll become their own. On A Thousand Suns they said goodbye to everything and to every audience, jumping headfirst to experimental electronica, themes of nuclear warfare, emphasizing their Hip-Hop elements and producing such a wide-eyed vision that nobody could keep up with them.

After that, things made a bit more sense – but only a little more. Just when you thought they went full artistic, they dropped Living Things, a simple punchy albums that combine all their previous elements. Yet that album wasn’t a regression, since it had “Victimized” and “Until It Breaks”, the band refusing to settle to a genre and to a single structue. After everyone got used to blippy electronics and with a new fanbase, The Hunting Party threw it all away for huge, angry Rock that still included their experimental elements – see “A Line in the Sand”.

So how is the direction they took on this album a surprise? This album is the complete opposite of The Hunting Party without going ambient, not just in sound but in vibe. Linkin Park have always been quite angry. One More Light isn’t just a move to a new sound – you heard some of these ideas back in “Breaking The Habit” but to a whole new emotional dimension. 3 years ago they were angry adults, now they’re content adults.

It’s amazing people still react to this band with the surprise. As an attempt to go commercial, this is the complete opposite of their essence. When it does sound like ‘what’s on the radio’, it’s a drastic improvement. For the first time Linkin Park are allowed to be happy. The main shock behind “Battle Symphony” was how joyous it was, how it was so full of hope it didn’t have to to be bombastic but ride a glitchy, funny riff. Chester sounds content, not stretching his vocals but keeping the fun, careless spirit. This, along with “Nobody Can Save Me” are songs for an easy summer and we all could use such a summer.

Even when the songs are more serious, there’s a grown-up attitude of contentment, of looking back at your past and coming to terms with it. So you get “Halfway Right”, where Chester pours out his troubled with past with the happiness that it’s all behind him. Or there’s “Sharp Edges”, a move to Country which would’ve been cliched – and is – but check the ending. It’s been so long since the “What doesn’t kill you…” line sounded good, but the song explodes with life-affirming energy.

There’s a problem in music where artists ‘grow up’ and lose vitality. Many artists don’t know how to grow up, and what passes for lack of restraint is actually losing the energy and desire to make music. Linkin Park doesn’t fall into that. They enjoy keeping the songs low-key. It’s the kind of happiness where you don’t have to prove anything, and that’s why the ending to “Sharp Edges” or the ‘na na na’ thing in “Halfway Right” works. The band isn’t a spent force and their adulthood didn’t drain them of energy. Instead, they found joy. Nothing in “Sharp Edges” is particularly new if you listened to Mumford & Sons, but with such a joyous ending there’s no need to get lost in the dictionary in search of profound words.

The most important tracks are the title-track and “Sorry For Now”. They’re so good that they deserve their own paragraphs. Why “Sorry For Now” wasn’t released as a lead single is mystifying. No song grabs the listener and is full of surprises like that one. First off, we hear Mike directly addressing his kids and nothing shows us how old these guys are like this. Then there’s the chorus, which is beautiful and odd in its dismissal of angry children – a ‘someday you’ll understand’ that’s almost flippant but not too much. Right before the final chorus Chester comes to sing-rap, and it makes a happy song already more happier. At this point, they believe they can do anything – so they combine personal lyrics, a bass drop, a happy melody along with switching roles. By far it’s one of the most joyous song I heard, a band sounding so happy where they are so they just go with whatever.

Then there’s the title-track, which is harrowing. Linkin Park made few ballads, but this is the best of them. It’s not just about losing someone. The driving line – “Who cares if one more light goes out/in a sky of a million stars?” expresses how small we are in the face of death. It’s a song that should change the world. We hear about people dying everyday, and we can’t care about it all but goddamn it matters. It’s a hushed, warm ballad that, again, never explodes to vocal acrobatics. Brad’s guitar in the background is just as fragile as any of us. This is a song we all need to take in, to affirm our importance and our fragility at the same. No surprise they decided the song was so important they should title the album after it.

Releasing “Heavy” as the first single was such a stupid move. It remains the worst song here, although it’s only bad for the first minute where Chester sounds too whiny. As soon as Kiiara joins it becomes a decent ballad, updating the existential angst to adulthood. The album sounds nothing like that song. Actually, this album doesn’t sound like anything. Glitch is a big element, but just when you think you captured the sound of the album something slips. “Good Goodbye” is an aggressive Trap song. “Sorry For Now” is too big. The last two tracks drop the electronica for acoustic guitars. Comparisons to Twenty One Pilots are a good idea, but that’s because Twenty One Pilots are another band who refuses to stay in one place. So everyone calls them ‘unoriginal’.

Some have said this is a good Pop album but a bad Linkin Park album. Actually, when you look at it in the context of the band’s discography it becomes better. It’s another adventure, another evidence of how creative this band is. It’s not just the exploration of sound – there’s plenty of beautiful melodies and song progression. Add “Sorry For Now” and “One More Light” which are masterpieces, and this is another success. Of course, people who grew up on guitars will hate this. That’s less fun for you.

4 battle symphonies out of 5

Coldplay – X&Y

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This must have been a disappointed to people to who loved Rush of Blood. They must be disappointed by a lot of records, because failures like Rush of Blood aren’t that common. If I first heard of Coldplay through that album, I’d be really surprised. They didn’t pull a Minutes to Midnight – that’s another predictable step. They just made an album that doesn’t hint how huge you are. I guess that explains why it took me a long time to understand why this little soft rock band sells out stadiums.

X&Y discards the previous album’s experimental approach. Instead, it tries to fix Coldplay’s biggest flaw – their weak songwriting. Even the decent Parachutes relied more on sound and atmosphere rather than melodies. This might make the album sound tame and ‘uninspired’, but it’s a wise decision by a band who’s awful at pushing limits. In fact, making a tame album is exactly what this Piano Rock genre thing is all about. Why would you want to hear these supposedly gentle songs over Def Leppard production values?

They didn’t completely get rid of this production style. This album is clearly made by a band with a huge audience and enough money to make a rap song about it. “Square One” and “A Message” got walls of guitar noise that Reznor loved using in The Fragile (Only not that aggressive). The difference is that this production is pushed to the back. The huge sounds in “A Message” are there to lift the melody a little, but Chris Martin and what he’s singing are always at the center.

Speaking of the devil, Martin’s approach also changed. Since melody is now what drives the song, he puts a lot of effort on not ruining the songs. He uses the falsetto a lot less often. His normal voice isn’t exceptional, but it suits the music much better. It’s slightly muscular, but not completely. It becomes a perfect fit for music which uses a lot of guitar noise but has no aggression.

Maybe “White Shadows” and “Talk” would have been better with the production of Parachutes. There’s an attempt here at making something intimate and warm. Martin sings calmly about trying to talk to someone. That wall of guitars in “Talk” is out of place, and removes some of the emotional punch the song could have had. Still, when the album’s at its best it offers some of Coldplay’s best hooks in “White Shadows”, “Swallowed in the Sea”, “A Message” and “Talk”. There’s nothing here that deserves to be a global hit – only “Talk” does, and I’m completley fine with borrowing the melody from Kraftwerk – but it’s all good enough.

It’s bad less often than their previous album, but when it’s bad it’s the worse. “What If?” can be tossed aside. It’s cliched, insincere and the falsetto is very unconvincing. It’s no match for “Fix You” though. At least “What If?” has some humility. “Fix You” is a terrible song that should appear in every discussion of bad music. Martin sings it all in falsetto, and what better way to convince us you really feel what you’re singing by showing off how much you practiced? The lyrics are nonsense. Somehow, ignition of the bones is supposed to be uplifting. Then it ends with another Reznor-esque wall of guitars fit for a stadium. It was supposed to be a ballad. This loss of control can only means it’s a B-Side from Rush of Blood.

X&Y is perhaps the best album Coldplay will ever make. They’re a big band, and every album they will make will be a grand statement. X&Y sees them just kicking good melodies and not more than that. Even at that they’re not great. Only “Talk” rises above, but if you need an hour of soft rock it’s a nice option. There must be better options. Keane had 3 brilliant singles in Under the Iron Sea, and all Coldplay could come up with is a great song with a melody they haven’t written.

post script: The sequel to this is pretty fantastic. It turned out they can make a huge album.

 

3 x’s out of 5 y’s

Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

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Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5

Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head

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“The Scientist” towers above everything else here. It’s the one song that doesn’t try to fit a stadium. It’s the one song that sounds like it could be on Parachutes. This is not a co-incidence. It’s also one of the few songs that Chris Martin improves, instead of dragging down.

Coldplay became a pretty big band after the release of Parachutes. Here, they decide to live up to the their popularity by sounding big. It’s a miracle they’re still around. Nothing here works in the same way “Yellow” or “Shiver” did. Nothing here, aside from “The Scientist”, tries to achieve what these songs did. Songs like “Don’t Panic” don’t really translate well to a live performance, but is this a good reason enough to wreck the beautiful melody of “In My Place”?

That’s the problem with Rush of Blood. It tries to take the basic sound of Parachutes and make it fit for a stadium. That’s a misunderstanding of both what made Parachutes great and what makes stadium music great. Music for stadium needs to be loud, catchy and also energetic. The best stadium rock has an aggressive edge. You don’t go to a Nickelback or Def Leppard show to contemplate the meaning of life. Even stadium ballads don’t work in the same way Coldplay think they do.

As for Parachutes, it was a minimalist and intimate album. These two qualities are what stadium bands try to avoid. Since Coldplay are not talented or versatile enough, they can’t merge these qualities. Instead, we have a compromise that sucks the life out of everything.

“In My Place” and “Clocks” best illustrate this. The former has a beautiful guitar melody, but the production tries to make it an anthem. Chris Martin sings like that, too, as if the song is so profound it will be played in a climatic scene. It doesn’t mesh well. “Clocks” is just bad. It’s admirable to have a pop song with an instrumental chorus, but it’s hard to get over how hard it tries to big.

Who thought that putting a lot of guitar noise behind Chris Martin is a good idea? It was the scarcity of sounds that made “Sparks” beautiful. “In My Place”, “Warning Sign” and “A Whisper” all have that guitar noise that Oasis love so much. The production team forgot that Oasis is muscular and tough, and even when they wrote ballads where they toned down the noise. “A Whisper” is especially bad. What exactly they were trying to achieve is unclear. Perhaps all that noise was a borrowed idea from Ride, but the execution is too incompetent. You don’t produce such a mess of noise when you have an example to follow.

There are some other sonic experiments, and most of them fail too. They offer more than just size, though, so they’re far more interesting and may worth a couple of listens, “Daylight” has a nice orchestral backing, but Chris Martin sings a non-existant melody and the song remains awful until the end. “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” is a more aggressive track that should’ve been played by Oasis. You can feel how uncomfortable they are in it. “Politik” is another Space Rock-influenced track, but unlike “Yellow” it also wants to be big. It’s still interesting to see Coldplay attempt these things though. These songs at least have ideas behind them, and most of them fail because Martin’s melodies are bad. If “Politik” was instrumental, it would be pretty good.

Only the title-track, “The Scientist” and “Amsterdam” are worth listening to. That’s not an exaggeration. There only three worthwhile tracks here, and two of them could fit on Parachutes. The title-track is a little different. It’s the first time they actually sound like Radiohead, not just sonically but the emotions are the same. It sees Coldplay truly departing from Parachutes, because the what they are trying to achieve is different. It doesn’t have anything special that makes it good. The chorus and the lyrics are all good, and Martin doesn’t sing with a falsetto.

It’s sad that a song as brilliant as “The Scientist” and the pretty great title-track are here. The former could have slotted in Parachutes, and the latter would have made a nice closer in X&Y. It’s a wonder how Coldplay stayed relevant when everything they do here is a career-killing move. It’s easy to see X&Y as a disappointment when you consider how hard Coldplay tried here, but the regression was improvement. I wonder how Viva La Vida will fare. It’s supposed to be even bolder.

2 scientists out of 5

Coldplay – Parachutes

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“Yellow” has plenty of loud, crunchy guitars. There’s no Coldplay song that rocks this hard. Its existence is puzzling.

The two things that first come to mind about Parachutes are both misleading. Parachutes can sound like just the beginning of a band who became the biggest. It also can also sound like someone erased the subtitle Songs Inspired By Radiohead’s the Bends. Both of these views are misleading, and miss the point of what Parachutes is trying achieve.

It has the same sound as The Bends on the surface, including flirting with Space Rock on “Yellow” and “High Speed”. The atmosphere and the emotional core though, are different. Radiohead, as soft as they are, belong more with Nine Inch Nails and Industrial music in terms of emotions. The music is always cold, scared and paranoid. The difference between Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails is that Radiohead is the sound of not even trying to fight. In Radiohead’s world, there’s an antagonist. There’s no such thing in Coldplay’s Parachutes.

Parachutes is warm. It’s all about achieving an emotional intimacy with the listener. It turns down the distortion and hard drumming because this isn’t music to performed in a stadium. It’s meant to be listened late at night when you’re not sure if you’re feeling that bad. That’s where you get the slow bass in “Sparks” or the twinkling guitars in “Shiver”. The guitar playing also owes more to Midwest Emo than Radiohead. It creates twinkling sounds that engulfe the listener to create warmth. They’re not trying to create a texture as cold as modern life.

That’s why viewing this as a small debut album is doing it an injustice. It reveals exactly why Coldplay failed often after this. They’re not suited for making big music for big stadiums. The minimalism is not because of a lack of ideas, or because of fear of trying. Coldplay had a clear idea what Parachutes is. If they broke up after making this, it’d make sense.

It’s an album that gets its idea for most of its length. “Sparks” is the best example of the sound, with a bassline that makes the whole song. “Yellow”, despite being the loudest thing the band has ever done, has a Space Rock edge to it that brings it back to the concept. Warm Space Rock sounds impossible after “Planet Caravan”, but it exists. “Shiver” is the obvious highlight. It does sound a bit like Jeff Buckley, but it’s good in the same way Jeff Buckley was good.

It does sound like a classic in those great moments, especially in “Sparks” and “Shiver”. The problem is, while the band is excellent, Chris Martin brings everything down. He’s less the problem than what he sings. Plenty of times, he’s just given good enough when melodies. “We Never Change”, “Trouble” and “Spies” are all beautiful in instrumental department, but the melody Martin sings has none of the inspiration the band has. Remove the vocals, and it’s brilliant. Add them, and you’re getting a lot of noise preventing you from enjoying the song.

Chris Martin is also a fan of the falsetto, which is a problem. I’m sure the falsetto is hard to achieve, but it’s not a good defense of the technique. In fact, it makes it seem worse. Singing in this kind of album needs to sound natural, no matter how hard you practiced for it. Coldplay are trying to get an intimate atmosphere, after all. You can’t achieve that by making yourself seem different. Whenever Martin breaks into the falsetto, all it does is tells us Martin spent some time practicing. That’s great, but it sucks the emotions out the songs. Just listen to “High Speed” or “Shiver” and how well the choruses work without the falsetto.

Trying to understand why Coldplay are now the biggest band is fruitless. The band just appealed to a lot of people. They don’t have anything unique in them, and that’s okay. Parachutes is successful at what it does most of the time, even if the falsetto is too much sometimes. It doesn’t to seem to be going anywhere, so we’ll make do with what we have. “High Speed”, “Shiver” and “Sparks” are all very good songs anyway. Be prepared to be let down by the next installment.

3 Parachutes out of 5