Holy crap, this new 30 Seconds to Mars record is, like, so epic. And not epic in the way Tom Delonge thinks Angels & Airwaves is epic.
Let’s get one thing straight before you read the rest of this review: I fully acknowledge that 30 Seconds to Mars does NOT know how to tone things down. Singer/actor/guyliner-wearing focal point Jared Leto sure knows how to do the “breathy-vocals-exploding-into-a-powerful-yell” thing, as he’s done it that way for the majority of the band’s career. And yes, pretty much every song on This is War has a chorus of (what sounds like) children’s voices in the background swooning and echoing amidst all the percussion or chanting monk choirs (L490) and, well, emotional, “epic”-sounding songs. 30STM just doesn’t know how strip things down and go simple…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
30 Seconds to Mars is pompous. I’d say they’re in the same league as Muse and Angels & Airwaves as far as being self-important and having to make each and every song as epic and sprawling as possible. Yet somehow, someway, This is War impresses me the way Muse’s most recent album did not. (I know I gave that record a positive review, but it hasn’t held up as well through repeat listens).
I like this album, however, because everything sounds so big and fleshed out. There aren’t really any songs on This is War that are anything close to The Kill or I’ll Attack, from the band’s 2005 album A Beautiful Lie (the album that made the Hot Topic kids take notice). The only tunes on This is War that have that hard-rocking edge would be Night of the Hunter and the title track, which both have strong hooks and Leto crooning in varying pitches, using words like ‘messiah’ ‘war’, ‘we will fight to the death’ and so on. Just as the lyrics of Muse’s album were ridiculous and about some vague ‘uprising’, the songs on This is War are of the same lyrical themes, often having that silly choir accentuating Leto’s calls to action. I was corrected by a commenter that the choir is in fact a large group of the band's fans, rather than a choir of children, for what it's worth.
Yet the lyrics don’t bother me as much with this album as they did with Muse’s. Leto isn’t really saying anything substantial, and using a children’s choir doesn’t really help make things seem any more violent or irreverent (which would be characteristic of a war or uprising), but the music holds up well enough for me to overlook the nonsense. Every song has cool electronic percussion twinges and lush atmospheric arrangements. There are times I forget that the band has a guitarist, as everything gets thrown together and overwhelmed by the overall sound rather than a particular guitar riff.
I read an interview that stated that the band intended this record to sound more like their debut album than A Beautiful Lie, and I can see how that is the case. The shortest real song on This is War is 4:26 long, which means you have to really invest your time to listening to the whole record.
One of the disc’s highlights is Hurricane, which starts with a stirring piano melody. This is the song that was to have Kanye West do guest vocals, but for whatever reason (probably because everyone laughs at Kanye now??) the band cut his verse from the final version of the album. I prefer the version WITH Kanye instead, as he doesn’t overwhelm the song with his Auto-Tune robot voice, but whatever. You can find the Kanye version on YouTube or some other such site, if you’re interested to compare. The final version replaced Kanye with a vocal bridge by Leto, which works, but in my mind it was a more complete song with Kanye. Oh, and Brandon Flowers (ugh) of the Killers (double ugh) plays keyboard on this song. Despite all that, the song is a gem, and Leto does more passionate yell-screaming.
Another key track is Stranger in a Strange Land, which opens with some industrial sounding noises for a minute and a half, when Leto delivers the romantic line ‘Enemy of mine…I’ll fuck you like the devil’, which makes no sense but sounds creepy. The song plods on for a few minutes and has some of the coolest effects of any song on the album. It’s pretty effective in sounding like a Nine Inch Nails-inspired industrial techno jam.
This is War demonstrates that 30 Seconds to Mars is THE FARTHEST thing from an ‘organic’ band. Everything is syncopated beats, computer noises and studio effects, but they’re all done so well that it doesn’t matter. I’m not sure which songs on here will be big hit singles…the first single Kings and Queens is a fitting choice, but everything else is a bit more challenging than From Yesterday or The Kill. This album is also one that works as one piece of work much better than as individual songs.
Take a listen to This is War if you’re in the mood for something highly studio-effect-laden, melodic, and atmospheric. It’s not your average actor-turned musician album. It’s actually music, and it’s pretty good.