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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"The Catalyst" describes how I feel given current events in Ukraine



I chose tonight's song five days ago, not realizing just how fitting it would be given today's events. Now that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is on, I hear this song from the perspective of someone caught in the crossfire — not too far from how I thought of Keane's "Dirt" last week.

Now, I don't currently expect the invasion and conflict to result in an all-out war, 1) because Ukraine isn't a NATO member, and 2) because I don't think even Russia is brazen enough to take that step because of the human consequences — especially resulting from nuclear attacks — but my anxious brain immediately took me to visions of mutually assured destruction, etc.

Given the above, there's no album more fitting for the occasion than Linkin Park's A Thousand Suns (2010). Linkin Park have a reputation from their earlier and more well-known albums of being a true nu metal outfit, but starting with 2007's Minutes to Midnight they began to really explore other sounds. A Thousand Suns continues that exploration and then some, pushing into more electronic and experimental aspects of rock while still remaining pop- and radio-friendly... all while making a concept album about nuclear warfare and fears surrounding technology. Heck, the album's title comes from a portion of the Bhagavad Gita which J. Robert Oppenheimer referenced in relation to the atomic bomb. The album's lead single, "The Catalyst," tackles these concepts and more while Linkin Park look heavenward for relief they seem extremely unlikely to get.

From its onset, "The Catalyst" is ominously apocalyptic. The first sounds ring out as if they are playing over a barren landscape in nuclear winter, before the song's defining organ synth enters. The organ sound has always intrigued me — it has this slight grit to it that makes it sound both clearly electronic and slightly degraded at the same time. It's as if it's trying to replicate a real organ, but its machinery can't fully allow it to do so. I'm not sure what exactly that means in relation to the rest of the song, but the result is nothing short of foreboding.

The electronic aspect to the track is additionally emphasized by its percussive elements. The various drums are largely from electronic drum machines up to the final section. Meanwhile, Joe Hahn's record scratches ground "The Catalyst" in Linkin Park's rap rock and nu metal roots, while also standing out as being separate from the various drum samples. There's also an additional synthesizer that plays the main instrumental melody starting after the first chorus, which evokes feelings of a rave at the edge of a crumbling world.

However, the most interesting electronic feature has nothing to do with the drums — it's the very fast cyclical panning effect applied to Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington's vocals for most of the track. Panning is nothing new in music production, and it's a very useful tool for adding dimensions to tracks. It allows the producer to change the level with which a sound is heard on left and ride sides of a stereo setup (speakers or headphones). A rock band, for example, could pan the bass slightly to one side and the guitar to another to separate the sound sources and really get a sense of the performing space. However, what Linkin Park do on this track's vocals is cycle the panning from left to right extremely quickly. The result is a tremolo-like effect that leaves the vocals sounding somewhat submerged. It's a fascinating use of an effect that alters the lyrics in such a way that the recording feels... damaged, like a relic of a former society.

Everything the instrumental evokes corresponds to the message of Shinoda and Bennington's lyrics. Hear or look at the opening lyrics to both verses, and you understand the pure terror of the threat of war and nuclear annihilation:

God bless us, everyone

We're a broken people living under loaded gun

God save us, everyone

Will we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns?

Within "The Catalyst," this destruction appears impossible to escape, even if the narrators have nothing to do with the conflict's cause. The "loaded gun" "can't be outfought... outdone... outmatched... outrun," while the second verse highlights that whole nations can be blamed for the actions or identity of a small group: "the sins of our father, the sins of our young." Regardless of the motive or the blame, though, the destruction is all the same, and it permanently leaves a mark on the lives of those affected and the world at large. All the innocent victims can do when the conflict begins, trapped in the war zone, is pray, while the weapons of war — symbolized musically by layers of percussion, synths, and guitar — rage on.

Apart from the verse openings, the lyrical phrase that sticks with me the most from the song's core is:

And when I close my eyes tonight

To symphonies of blinding light

The two lines, belted out by the late Bennington, emphasize war's engulfing of life in the conflict zone. This is not an age of nighttime truces or civilized military conflict; war is all-hours, often undeclared, and as dirty as the participating parties deem necessary to achieve the desired level of destruction.

The past several paragraphs describe all of "The Catalyst"... up to around 60 percent of the way through. The subsequent ending is a stark departure from everything that came before it. Gone are the vocal effects, the drum machine percussion, the dense electronic array; instead, the main synth is backed by a solemn piano, playing a new, faster chord progression. Shinoda soon begins a six-word refrain that will persist for a minute and a half:

Lift me up

Let me go

It's all one can ask for when hope seems out of reach — to somehow be relieved of the burden they face in simply existing in such a moment. Oddly, in a musical climate defined by fear and war, there's a serenity in such a simple plea and the pared-back instrumental behind it. Then the music swells, bringing in (real) drums and (synth) strings, before exploding with a full drum beat, electric guitar, and Bennington's unmistakable tenor, replacing the short-lived serenity with pure desperation to be saved. The eventual return of the opening lyrics, "God bless us" and all, reinforces the desperation and the dream that is the idea of escape.

The five-and-a-half minutes that is "The Catalyst" is an emotional snapshot of the pure existential fear that arises from living amid a grave crisis. Its placement as the penultimate track of A Thousand Suns only accents its emotional backdrop further; I hear "The Catalyst" as one last plea for assistance from those still living before they get swallowed up by the fallout of war. My mind can't help but think of those suffering in Ukraine as it relates to this song in particular... Alas, all we can presently do is sit on the sidelines.


Postscript: Pendulum cover / remix: I normally wouldn't be enthused, let alone enthralled by a remix of a track so central to a concept album, but I love the approach Australian drum and bass / metal / ...whatever they want to be band Pendulum took to their remix (or is it a cover?) of "The Catalyst" in BBC's Radio Live Lounge back in 2010. They don't make any radical changes to the various melodies or sections; rather, they adapt it to their signature style. It leaves a similar impression on me as Linkin Park's original does, while also being unmistakably Pendulum.


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