A square-jawed security man was posted at NRG Studios in North Hollywood this summer, acting as a friendly if imposing presence to stand guard over the recording sessions of Linkin Park. Inside on most days was rapper-producer Mike Shinoda, working at the big soundboard or bent over a computer monitor, tinkering obsessively into the night with new sounds and mixes, and determined that nothing leak out to the world.
"We've had to take some extra precautions," explained Shinoda, bearded and casual in a dark blue work shirt, speaking in July of the extra protection. And while each member of Linkin Park had an important creative role, it's Shinoda who steers the ship inside the studio. "It's my favorite thing to do, and I get a little carried away. I get obsessed and I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week and completely burn out."
As he spoke, the band was in its final days of work on the newest Linkin Park album, "A Thousand Suns," set for release Tuesday from Machine Shop Recordings/Warner Bros. The collection's 15 tracks mark the band's accelerating drift away from its original, hit-making collision of metal and hip-hop to a sound more amorphous, layered and provocative.
"You do it in the hopes that people who are casual listeners somehow get the incentive to get more into it, to snap out of the zombie state that regular reactive music creates," explained Shinoda, 33. "I'm not saying we've never been part of that reactive pop thing. Admittedly, we've sold a bunch of records."
Work on the new album began in late 2008 at Shinoda's home studio, and then among the musical gadgets at DJ Joe Hahn's house, before moving to North Hollywood. Inside NRG's Studio A, a human skull coated in silver rested on the console as Shinoda dialed up a new song called "The Radiance," easing the album into focus amid haunted, melodic waves of electronics and whispery vocals. Then from deep within the track rose the voice of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer reflecting on the first nuclear explosion: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
The album's first single is "The Catalyst," a noisy, catchy track of intersecting sounds and the crisscrossing voices of Shinoda and singer Chester Bennington, but other songs are more restrained, replacing throat-shredding rage with something more vulnerable.
"Some great bands and great artists have made a switch because they felt like they needed something new," said Shinoda. "Maybe there's a sense that this could be a moment for us to unlock a potential future of the band that didn't exist before this album."
To Linkin Park, it's no less dramatic than when Dylan went electric, or Radiohead turned electronic, catching fans and critics off-balance. The group's transition represents a shift away from the intense nu-metal/rapcore sound from the band's first albums — 2000's "Hybrid Theory" and 2003's "Meteora" — no small risk for a band accustomed to multiplatinum sales and infinite rotation on modern rock radio.
That evolution began with 2007's "Minutes to Midnight," their first collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, who returned to co-produce "A Thousand Suns" with Shinoda. The writing became more song-based, and band members reached beyond their traditional roles: Hahn traded turntables for samplers, drummer Rob Bourdon revealed his chops on piano, and bassist David "Phoenix" Farrell stretched out on guitar and keyboards.
"The last album opened up their fans to knowing that this band wasn't going to make the same album over and over again," said Rubin in a phone interview. "When it came out, the last album really divided the audience, as was expected. We knew they were making a very, very different album … They're going to experiment. They're going to make music that excites them."
They arrived late to the nu-metal scene, rising from the suburbs of Agoura Hills just as the '90s ended to release "Hybrid Theory" to massive international success, while escaping the backlash confronting their rap/rock contemporaries. Linkin Park songs were equally fueled by rage, anxiety, frustration, but also a bit of youthful hope and expectation that kept the band's cross-cultural sound free of sludge, depression or surrender.
"I made my mind up three years ago: I don't want to scream anymore," said Bennington, 34, stepping into the studio after a drive up from home in Orange County, his hair cut close to the scalp. "I think all of us at that point were going, 'If I keep doing this, this is just what I'm going to keep doing for the rest of my life.'"
He attributes his willingness to step into new emotional territory to his experience raising four boys (ages 4, 8, 13 and 14 years), along with a widening of his musical tastes: "I'm a father now. I'm inspired to sing that way."
"When I was 20 years old, I would have told you 'I hate the Beatles. There is no way I will listen to that,'" added Bennington, whose personal model then was the roaring creep show punk-rock of the Misfits. "Now, I would tell you that I love the Beatles, and I didn't figure it out until I was 27: 'Oh. This is what everybody … talks about.' It was weird. It was like all of a sudden I like broccoli. Now I love broccoli."
Last week, Linkin Park faced some of its most devoted fans at a Hollywood listening party at the Henry Fonda Theatre, previewing the album for 1,200 listeners as a Laserium show conjured up images of raging suns and nuclear explosions, soaring spaceships and a robot DJ at the turntables.
There were cheers for some songs, and contemplative silence and applause for others. During a Q&A session afterward, all six band members listened closely to reactions, joking easily with the crowd, as when DJ Hahn deadpanned, "Negative feedback is like emotional rotten tomatoes."
Sitting together on stage, the band took in all the mixed emotions, both the praise and the uncertainty. Shinoda insisted the new sound didn't mean Linkin Park regretted its earlier music. And Bennington lifted his microphone to explain the simple desire to grow, to surprise listeners and themselves, and to "make music that is inspirational to us and makes us happy."