They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger...
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and 30 Seconds To Mars should know. In 2008, the band began a draining legal battle with their parent record label, EMI, over an alleged breach of contract. For a minute there, it seemed like their much-anticipated third album might never emerge, but as frontman Jared Leto has stated in interviews, it isn’t in the trio’s nature to bow out quietly; they were ready to fight all the way. Luckily, the issue was eventually resolved and they remain part of the Virgin / EMI family. Yet these events have a way of leaving their mark, and while it might just be by coincidence (these guys have always been fiercely determined, after all), it seems that 30 Seconds To Mars’s real-life battle has only emboldened them in their creative one.
‘This Is War’ is passionate, rousing and astonishingly focused. Much like Muse, 30 Seconds To Mars take the approach that nothing is too big or too outlandish to try, and also like Muse, they always pull off their grand ideas. Accordingly, while their previous album ‘A Beautiful Lie’ featured its share of over-dramatic moments, this time the band have blasted them into the stratosphere. The massive-sounding ‘Vox Populi’ is a prime example. A self-proclaimed call-to-arms, its feeling of all-conquering optimism is boosted by the backing vocals of hordes of chanting fans specially recorded at various “summits” around the world. ‘Kings And Queens’ is equally epic and euphoric, and is also one of several tracks (see also ‘Closer To The Edge’) to give Bono and U2 a much-needed kick up the arse.
Of course, rallying cries and gargantuan choruses are all well and good, but they can become relentless. Fortunately, 30 Seconds To Mars recognise that fact. ‘Night Of The Hunter’ is one of the album’s most dramatic efforts, but it avoids becoming just another full-on anthem by channelling dark 80s pop to brilliant effect. The title track, meanwhile, counteracts the OTT sing-along at its centre by evoking the raw, blistering energy of a live performance. As fans will know, however, true subtlety isn’t beyond 30 Seconds To Mars, and there’s plenty of it to be found on ‘This Is War’, despite what the name suggests. ‘Hurricane’ revels in moody space-pop, although there’s little sign of cited collaborators Brandon Flowers and Kanye West. Elsewhere, ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ unexpectedly meanders into low-key industrial territory, while the hushed vocals and piano on ‘Alibi’ provide a mesmerising respite – both showing 30 Seconds To Mars for the multi-talented bunch they are.
As guitarist Tomo Milicevic told Rock Sound, 30 Seconds To Mars don’t make songs you can easily sing-along to in your car. That, surely, is only a good thing. Pushing boundaries and challenging perceptions is a huge part of what this band is about, and that should be celebrated. Occasionally, their unbridled ambition pushes them to do things the rest of us won’t immediately understand, like going to crazy lengths to find the order of Tibetan monks whose chant closes the album, or having 2,000 different album covers, each featuring a different fan. Such behaviour, however, is the mark of real musical visionaries. And those don’t come along often enough.