Here is the best way I can describe 30 Seconds To Mars’ This Is War, an album born out of rather intense struggles and big ideas , one loaded with icy synths and screaming falcons, epic chorales and windswept sonic expanses (and the occasional Tibetan Monk): Listening to it is like being inside a gigantic silver weather balloon, one ascending into the upper reaches of the stratosphere. It is massive and shiny and beautiful, but also cold and empty.
That’s not meant to be a slight — actually the opposite. War is a shimmering epic of an album, to be certain, but as is often the case when big rock bands strive to go even bigger with their sound (the most obvious example I can think of here is Angels & Airwaves), they often create these kinds of shiny balloons: big, lustrous things filled with oddly chilly space.
In 30 Seconds to Mars’ case, they up the empty by coating every song in icy, mercury-slick synthesizers. Sure, there’s the occasional guitar line lifted from the U2 songbook, too (the Edge is quickly becoming the patron saint of these kinds of projects, it would seem), but War is, on the whole, a very icy listen, which seems odd considering that more than half its tracks also feature group vocals, a sundry of chants and “Whoa-Oh-Oh”s and “Fight! Fight! Fight!”s recorded at various fan-only “summits” the band held around the globe.
It’s an idea that would seem to invigorate the album, instilled it with a beating heart and pumping blood — but, strangely, it doesn’t. For all the humans and emotions involved in its creation, War remains an alien-feeling thing, like its veins are filled with liquid nitrogen.
And it’s quite possible bandleader Jared Leto wanted the album to feel this way. After all, he went to hell and back to get it made — staring down a $30 million lawsuit from Virgin Records , shouldering the load (and the majority of the recording expenses ) himself. One can imagine that there were stretches where he felt totally, completely alone in his struggle, like he was living life in lunar solitude.
And that’s what comes across in the album. A feeling of isolation is certainly present in War’s finest moments — the bleak, ominous “Hurricane,” on which Leto screams “Where is your God?” and asks the listener “Do you really love me?” or “Alibi,” which starts with a somber piano line and builds on a constantly twisting guitar helix or, most notably, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a dark, sadistic song that stretches to seven minutes, pulses along on churning beats and chiming tubular bells, and features Leto breathing “Enemy of mine/ I’ll f— you like the devil.”
On “100 Suns,” he proclaims “I believe in nothing/ Not the earth and not the stars,” while on “Search and Destroy” he rasps “Found my faith/ Living in sin/ I’m not Jesus/ Neither are you my friend.”
So yeah, it sounds like Leto was going through some things, which is why talking about This Is War’s empty feeling is more of a compliment than a slight. Working alongside noted space-maker Flood (U2, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins), Leto has created a sonic void to match the songs’ lyrics — which makes the feel of album even more admirable, especially if you like challenging, fearless art.
And that’s really what War is — a conceptual piece, a great open expanse where Leto can bury his deepest secrets, can scream his fears into the void. That he’s chosen to include his massive fanbase in his isolation was bold, brave, potentially crazy and potentially disastrous (there’s a lot riding on this album, after all). You can debate that point endlessly, but here’s one you can’t: it’s also an incredibly human thing to do. Because we’re all alone, even if we don’t realize it just yet — it’s our most unifying trait, really.
Which is what makes This Is War a rather brilliant, bracing listen. It’s the soundtrack to cold, empty hearts, to the lunar landscapes inside us all. Is it the work of a sadist? A genius? A lonely man? Possibly all of the above. If only all big rock albums had this much nerve.
Questions? Concerns? BTTS@MTVStaff.com