Cridlin: Linkin Park's Chester Bennington had a wail that stood apart

Chester Bennington of Linkin Park  performs at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa for the 2014 Carnivores Tour. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Chester Bennington of Linkin Park performs at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa for the 2014 Carnivores Tour. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
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For all the old-timers' talk about how they don't make singers like they used to, about how rock vocalists of the 21st century can't hold a candle to the frontmen of yesteryear, here's a fact no hater could deny:

Chester Bennington could flat-out wail.

Didn't matter how you felt about Linkin Park, rap-rock, nu-metal or modern music in general. When Bennington sang — screamed, really, veins exploding from his neck and forehead, a look of fury in his eyes — you felt it at your core. Like Bon Scott or Kurt Cobain or Chris Cornell, Bennington had a voice that blazed through the speakers like napalm, searing everything in its path.

As with those other rock icons, Bennington's voice has now fallen silent too soon.

The Linkin Park singer was found dead Thursday morning of an apparent suicide by hanging, news first reported by TMZ and confirmed by the Los Angeles County coroner and bandmate Mike Shinoda on Twitter. Bennington was 41.

That his life ended this way is shocking for so many reasons: His relative youth, his six children, the fact that Linkin Park was still active and wildly successful — 70 million albums sold, including this year's No. 1 One More Light — all the usual tragic circumstances of any sudden, unexpected death. But with Bennington, a recovering drug and alcohol addict, it all cut deeper, including in some ways he couldn't control.

Bennington was a close friend of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, who also died by hanging in May. At Cornell's funeral, Bennington captivated some of the biggest rock stars on the planet with a chilling version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Thursday would have been Cornell's 53rd birthday.

And in 2013, Bennington replaced another grunge god, Scott Weiland, as the frontman for Stone Temple Pilots. He was one of the few singers who could match (and in some cases surpass) Weiland's tortured wail. Bennington announced he would be stepping down from STP in November 2015 — less than a month before Weiland was found dead of a drug overdose.

The ironic thing is that, for all the angst and anger in their music, Linkin Park genuinely seemed like nice, well-adjusted guys. I've spoken to a few members of the group over the years, and all were polite, charming, thoughtful and engaged — including Bennington on a conference call in 2011.

INTERVIEW: Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington talk touring, technology and 'A Thousand Suns'

"When you're young and you start a band and you kind of get to that point where you think this is something you can do — of course, to you, the dream is to be huge and successful and have songs people love — how realistic is that goal in the real world?" Bennington said then. Whenever another project of their succeeds, he added, "We're like: This isn't happening."

It happened for Linkin Park, and it happened straight out of the gate. Shortly after Bennington joined in 1999, Linkin Park sold 11 million copies of its 2000 debut Hybrid Theory, which featured the hits One Step Closer, Crawling and In the End. The combination of Bennington's razor-wire howl, Shinoda's focused rapping, and the band's blend of turntables, crunching guitars and electronic influences earned them multiple Grammy nominations, including one for Best New Artist and a win for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Each new album brought more hit singles: From 2003's Meteora, Numb, Faint and Breaking the Habit; from 2007's Minutes to Midnight, What I've Done and Bleed It Out. They produced a Grammy-winning mash-up album with Jay-Z, 2004's Collision Course; founded their own Projekt Revolution festival tour; and, with a consistent forward focus on the integration of art and technology, thrived in the industry's digital era. Linkin Park was the first band to rack up 1 billion YouTube views, and, with more than 57 million followers, justifiably called themselves "the biggest band on Facebook."

Linkin Park's trump card, the one thing they had that other bands wanted, was Bennington. He was more than just a flame-throated heavy brought in to wail the choruses; his voice was an instrument in itself. The band eventually built softer, more tender songs around Bennington's pipes to give him an even brighter spotlight, including the indelible, acoustic The Messenger, from 2010's A Thousand Suns; and Heavy, this year's contemplative duet with pop singer Kiiara.

One More Light was a divisive album that left some longtime fans feeling betrayed by their softer, poppier direction, yet nonetheless struck a chord with many others — Heavy spent 17 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100. Next week, Linkin Park was to launch a huge tour that would've taken them across America, including Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Aug. 19.

Now, the group's future is up in the air. Because how do you replace a voice like Chester Bennington's? He was the guy other rock bands turned to when they needed a singer as good as, well, Chester Bennington. The guy was that irreplaceable. He was only 41, but they don't make singers like him anymore.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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