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How Chester Bennington's voice single-handedly won me over to nu-metal

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I have to get one thing straight, first up: I was not a nu-metal fan.

I didn’t hate my parents, I had a happy childhood, and any teenage angst that I urgently needed addressing was fully satiated by the dulcet tones of Stephen Patrick Morrissey and Thom Yorke.

I adored Rage Against The Machine, the band that kicked nu-metal off. They were intense, angry and a band to utterly believe in – but I did not care for the slew of bands that followed in their wake, fusing hip hop and metal together with lyrics that often seemed like the whining of over-privileged middle-class kids. So much of it, at the time, felt so cynical and so forced. And, quite simply, it didn’t speak to me at all.

Nonetheless, nu-metal dominated for those last few years of the ‘90s, and the first couple of the ‘00s, right up until The Strokes came along and led a indie revival which never looked back. In time, the world seemed to come round to my way of thinking – nu-metal was a bit of an embarrassment; a time that was best forgotten about.

Linkin Park

Linkin Park, pictured in 2001 (Bennington third from the left)

Fast forward to 2011, when I made my yearly pilgrimage to Download Festival; a festival I love as it gives me – a part-time metal fan – a chance to wallow in a full weekend of it, a chance to see as many new and legendary acts as possible. Acts that I would never seek out to go and see at their own show, but ones that I would be very keen to check out as part of a bigger bill. A band like Linkin Park, for example.

Linkin Park had always seemed to stand out a little from the nu-metal crowd. Granted, I could never get on board with Mike Shinoda’s white-boy rapping, but I whiled away my student days with MTV2, Kerrang! and Scuzz always on the TV in the background, and Linkin Park were to Kerrang! what Lionel Richie is to Magic. Slowly, I was forced to admit that their songs were really well written, they sounded great, and this guy Chester could really belt out a vocal. I remember hearing ‘Breaking The Habit’ – the fifth single from their second massive-selling album Meteora – and being genuinely surprised. This was a completely different sort of track to what we’d heard from them before, and it grabbed me, particularly Bennington’s plaintive, honest vocals.

Despite this track piquing my interest, I’d never been to see them live. But at Download, in 2011, they were the Sunday night headliners. Hey, I may as well stick around for them – a band that had sold that many records and been around that long must be worth checking out – plus, they might play ‘Breaking the Habit’. I took my place in front of the main stage.

To a band like Linkin Park, a band constantly on the road, playing to tens of thousands of people every night, it must, despite everything, get a bit samey. Sure, headlining Download might seem like a massive deal to us, but to them – especially seeing as they’d done it twice before – it was probably just another gig.

Frankly, the other five members of Linkin Park looked like they were phoning it in. It was efficient, but it was getting the job done.

But Chester? Bloody hell. He was amazing.

Chester Bennington

Chester Bennington, performing at Download Festival, Donington Park, 2011

He sang every word like his life depended on it. While the rest of the band remained static, he marauded around the stage, trying to reach every member of the crowd, the veins nigh-on bursting out of his neck as he gave it absolutely everything, on every single song.

He sang like it could be the last gig he’d ever play, showing off the full range of his vocal ability – and when it came to the big, screamy parts, he just unleashed it. It was an utter tour de force. It was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest vocal performances I’ve ever seen. I would say it was effortless, but it wasn’t – you could see the effort he was pouring in to every note. You could tell that this was a guy that really meant it. That didn’t take it for granted.

They did play ‘Breaking the Habit’ – and it was magical – but the big songs off those first two records suddenly made more sense to me, as tens of thousands of people screamed the words of ‘Numb’, ‘In the End’ and ‘Crawling’ back at Chester. Big, big songs of introspection, of pain, that clearly meant so much to their fans in the audience, and he was not about to let them down by giving anything less than everything.

The band were fine – but Bennington was phenomenal. It’s a performance that’s stuck with me ever since.

And, while we’re here, the last few years have seen something of a reappraisal of nu-metal, and I’m down with that. There were some brilliantly written songs in there – who, in the cold light of day, can really argue that ‘Last Resort’, ‘Freak on a Leash’, ‘Bring Me To Life’ and, yes, alright, ‘Break Stuff’ – aren’t great, dumb, fun tracks. And you can’t argue with the vast majority of the output of bands who dipped a toe into the nu-metal pool like System, Deftones and Slipknot.

Bennington always came across well in interviews, and even provided a fantastic Ultimate Playlist for this very website, and it’s truly tragic that such a talent has gone so young.

So fair play Chester, your adoring fans will miss you hugely, and it might not mean much, but you even earned the undying respect of a doubting Thomas like me.

(Images: Rex)

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