30 Seconds to Mars: A Cinematic Call to Arms
By Anthony Kuzminski
Writer's Note: Special thanks to my editor at antiMUSIC, Keavin Wiggins for encouraging me to write this. He wanted something special this week for the ongoing 13th anniversary of antiMUSIC and instead of giving him an older review I am fond of, I wanted to write about 30 Seconds to Mars, in short, because I want others to share my experience. This review will run simultaneously here on the blog and over at antiMUSIC at THIS LINK
-A fan from the “Closer to the Edge” music video
In the summer of 1989, Jon Bon Jovi made a grand proclamation to the civilized world that he was a fighter, poet and preacher and did so against a back drop of pyrotechnics, a full body coat, a cat walk and 20,000 fans who appeared to be lost in a total trance. The video clip of their top-ten hit “Lay Your Hands on Me” is arguably the greatest live performance videos ever aired on MTV. Of course, at the time, the critics scoffed and laughed at the band, especially with a title as unglamorous as “Lay Your Hands on Me”, but they missed the point…completely. The clip (and their concerts for that matter) weren’t about pleasing those with pens and notebooks in the dark but about the bond between the band and its fans. Director Wayne Isham placed the viewer inside the eye of a hurricane making them not just an observer, but a participant. It simultaneously made you not just want to be a rock star, but embrace the communal experience featured in the clip. Even since then, for the better part of two-plus decades, that live video has gone unmatched; until now. One never could have imagined that a first rate Hollywood actor would step behind a camera and renew one’s faith not just in the music video medium, but in music as well.
Capturing innocence, experience and emotion in under five minutes is no easy feat let alone trying to find a series of images to capture the essence of a song, it’s a fun experiment but one that proves to be impossible for most artists who aren’t Jared Leto. When Leto made music a priority a little more than a decade back, I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t saddened. I’ll fully admit to rolling my eyes when Leto ventured into music leaving acting in the dust. Even though he fell into acting as a way to pay bills while pursuing music, I felt it was an extended and misguided ego trip initially. I’m happy to report I was wrong; dead wrong. I never wanted to see him fail, I just happened to feel he was coming into his own as an actor. He inhabited truly colorful characters and worked with preeminent directors such as Terrence Malick, Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher. When I saw his performance of Mark David Chapman in the brilliant but little seen Chapter 27 I was transfixed so much so that I almost forgot he was in the film. He had a Raging Bull transformation which made him unrecognizable and despite putting a priority on music, the film proves he didn’t lose a step in the acting department. If anything, it infuriated me that he was leaving choice roles that could have been his to other actors who lack the elegance he inhabits. Instead of becoming one of the defining actors of his generation, he picked up a guitar and formed 30 Seconds to Mars with his brother Shannon on drums. In 2003 guitarist (and current member) Tomo Miličević joined them and since then they have created three full albums.
When 30 Seconds to Mars first album debuted in 2002, I wasn’t sold. For the next five years, they demonstrated great flair but to my ears, they felt more like aspirants rather than stars prepping for a heavy weight battle. What I never considered, until I heard their third album (This Is War) was that they were evolving with each record. We no longer live in a day and age where artists are slowed to evolve and become better at their craft. In fact, most acts never get to make a second record, let alone three and everyone is guilty of judging acts harshly. Look at all of the artists who never would have been able to make a third record in today’s market; Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, KISS, Def Leppard, Metallica, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, The Ramones and U2. Most of the aforementioned acts broke through with their third albums and U2, well, they broke into the mainstream with War produced by none other than Steve Lillywhite; the same man behind the boards for This Is War, along with Flood, another key U2 contributor. With this team and their musical growth, 30 Seconds to Mars reached new heights creating irresistible melodies, enormous choruses and a sound made for the masses.
This Is War, released in December of 2009, is a collection of twelve songs aimed squarely at the heart. In a world devastated by economic woes, there is an overriding feeling of tenseness in the air and somehow 30 Seconds To Mars captured the essence of our fears where sensibility overrides sense. The production and performances are so persuasive you can’t help but be drawn inward. From the wailing and tribal opening of “Escape”/”Night of the Hunter”, the band hurtles towards greatness without ever looking back. This Is War is an album produced with great care so much so that the urgency of the performances elevate these songs to a different stratosphere. Producers Steve Lillywhite and Flood prove to be brilliant collaborators encouraging and forcing the band to not just be better, but daring them to be great. As acts age and achieve a certain level of success, many believe their own hype. Jared Leto has been part of the Hollywood machinery for nearly two decades and it would have been easy for him to take the reigns and not be open to outside opinions. However, by bringing in Lillywhite and Flood to the table, This Is War is more than an album set in the here and now, but one whose themes are so universal and reaching it has the potential to be influential not just years but decades from now.
The album is full of stadium-styled testimonials full of great liberation. The title track finds the band channeling their anger through the instruments in their hands while “Vox Populi” is mesmerizing with its rumbling drums and children chorus that sounds like a resurrection. “Alibi” and “100 Suns” are more solemn yet are exquisite confessionals with Leto providing his greatest wails. Even a song like “Hurricane” (which has a Kanye West cameo) couldn’t have been written five years ago, it features Leto sharpening his blade as a songwriter as the band delicately surround the song with their instruments undercover allowing the lyrics to paint pictures. This Is War is an album that defines the current unnamed generation. The compositions within are a map for the disenfranchised and heartbroken. In the 21st century, records like This Is War shouldn’t exist. A top-to-bottom collection of songs you don’t just like but love. “Kings and Queens” is a song so commanding you pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming when listening to it. The video for “Kings and Queens”, directed by Leto under the pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins, is a sweeping love letter to LA. He manages to make a city full of glam and glitter seems like a lost metropolitan paradise. Anyone who has ever spent any significant time in Los Angeles knows what an impractical feat this is and yet he did it with splendor and grace. No one has ever captured the city as wondrous as he has and this is a place where films have been made for a century. It took a music video to open the world’s eyes to its beauty. The music from This Is War isn’t sinister or stark, it’s simply surreal. It awakens your inner sixteen-year-old where when all else fails and the tears run down your cheeks in slow motion, you turn the volume up and somehow faith is restored and all seems right with the world.
Steve Lillywhite knows how to nurture bands through their complex beginnings. He was the sole producer for the first few records by both U2 and the Dave Matthews Band. He has a keen sense of piecing bits and pieces together and stringing them into hit songs. A great producer doesn’t just turn knobs and add sonic wonderment they should push artists to the brink improving the album as a whole. The world is filled with too many “yes” men as it is, a producer should be someone who full on collaborates with the artist making them see something in themselves they didn’t even think existed. The greatest triumph Lillywhite can lay claim to on This Is War is the rescue of the album’s (and the band’s) greatest song from an abandoned ditch. According to the documentary on the special edition DVD of TIW, “Closer to the Edge” had been placed in a “graveyard for months and months” before Lillywhite encouraged the band to rescue it. Lillywhite had mixed U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and knew how U2 labored over that one song for months. The amalgamation of the instruments on “Closer to the Edge” consolidates beautifully into a psalm that connects memory to emotion, a truly rare feat. An unexplainable muscular organ/synth riff opens the song while drummer Shannon Leto pummels the listener with his tribal rhythms as guitarist Tomo Miličević flavors the song with imposing riffs all the while allowing Jared Leto the ability to whisper the verses and scream the choruses. I’ve spoken at length about Jared but much credit has to be given to his brother Shannon on drums and guitarist Tomo Miličević whose presence is the spine of the band. The drumming and guitar work is storming while unleashing thunder as their instruments propel the song into the fist-pumping stratosphere. “Closer to the Edge” is the most magnificent moment on an album busting at the seams with spiritual rebirth.
“Closer to the Edge” is not just a perfect song, but I’ll go on the record stating it’s one of the greatest video clips ever produced (once again directed by Leto under the pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins). If I was a band wanting to leave an overwhelming impression on the viewer, I’d hire Leto in a heartbeat to give my song an ambitious ambiance. Its one thing to write a song that will inspire people and it’s another to write poetry with your camera. Leto must have been a keen observer when he worked with various directors because he brings cinematic luster to these clips. The video for “Edge” intersperses amazing live footage with sound bytes of their fans. A cynic would dismiss and laugh at them, but I feel sorry for anyone who does because they’ve stopped feeling. They may not want to admit it to themselves but they were once these kids.
As I listen to songs like “Kings and Queens”, “Vox Populi” and “Closer to the Edge” I feel my life pass before my eyes. It’s the aural equivalent of a first kiss, a first heartbreak, it evokes the scent of incense at a funeral for someone we don’t want to let go and even the smell of a newborn baby’s head. When I listen to This Is War I’m reminded of just not the good times, but the challenging and turbulent ones as well. One has to remember, it’s the extremes of life that allow us to feel the most and it serves as a reminder for when things are good, they feeling is heightened. There’s loneliness and alienation that can’t be placed into words and we search for the pieces of the puzzle. Remember, if any song or album has the power to change your view of the world in even the minutest manner or more importantly, if it provides comfort and hope you don’t need Rolling Stone, Pitchfork or Spin to tell you it’s revolutionary because in your heart and mind it already is. 30 Seconds to Mars is a band who isn’t merely running through the motions but letting every bit of their being flow through their instruments. Some have said This Is War and songs like “Closer to the Edge” rely on bombast. I disagree and believe it’s not bombast the band embodied, but bravery. These are three men bristling with sentiment and feeling and they’re providing their fans with prayers for their daily lives. I’m sure there are many out there like me who weren’t willing to give the band a chance because I would have preferred to see Leto in front of the camera working with the best directors alive. Now that I’ve seen and heard what he has to offer, I can’t wait to see them live or for the next record.
We should love our musicians the way we love our children; by embracing and loving them for their differences while never comparing them to anyone else. Each artist on this planet brings something to the table that makes them wholly unique. The key is for each particular artist to be the best they can be without selling themselves short. 30 Seconds to Mars is a group creating the best damn music they can at this moment in time and if you’re not listening to them, you should. Originality is overrated. If you dig deep enough, everyone owes a tip of the hat to those who came before, so don’t try and tell me how some act isn’t great because they’re not as good as the Beatles, no one is. The secret is to love your influences and find a filter to pass them through with your own imprint. When I watch the video or hear This Is War I think to myself, “Is it wrong to love something as simple as a song so much?” Even worse is the expect so much from it. We demand the artists we love to change the world when in reality they’re just as flawed and human as we are. While no one can really change the world, a great and instinctual musician knows that it’s all about connecting, not converting, one fan at a time. There’s a part of “Closer to the Edge” where Leto screams “No, no, no” and in the video, you see him thrust his arm and the crowd of thousands follow his lead. It’s as powerful as a music moment as I’ve ever experienced and I wasn’t even there to witness it. I want to be in the crowd singing with their fans, weeping away my sorrows and wiping away the tears of joy because the sensation their songs provide is a reminder of how grand and wonderful life truly is. If it’s been a while since your heart skipped an extra beat seek out “Closer to the Edge” and This Is War and be prepared to feel more alive than you have in years.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter