Sunday, May 26, 2013

album review: 'love, lust, faith, and dreams' by 30 seconds to mars

I've written extensively before about good acts that I just don't care about. These are groups or singers that I can acknowledge are talented and good, but they don't provoke any reaction from me, and despite my efforts, I can't get excited about these bands. It really does bug me, but everyone has their own personal tastes and I can understand why some acts just aren't my thing.

So what about the acts that I don't care about who aren't good? Well, for the most part, they don't get a lot of thought or energy from me, because I'm not one who enjoys hating things just for the sake of hating them. It's a lot of energy giving a shit about things I despise, so really, when I discover acts that don't provoke a reaction from me and who suck, the only thing I can do is just ignore them. And really, this works out rather well, because I don't have to worry about pissing off fanboys or about maintaining a steady stream of vitriol.

And for the longest time, 30 Seconds To Mars was one of those acts. I knew they existed, I knew they had fans, I knew that some people I liked in university liked their music, and really, that was the extent of my knowledge of this band. And when faced with the choice to review either the new 30 Seconds To Mars album or Random Access Memories, the new Daft Punk album that seems to be the second coming of Saturday Night Fever for the modern age, I chose to buck the trend. Instead of reviewing the new Daft Punk like everyone and their cat, I chose to go after 30 Seconds To Mars. I mean, I was expecting a mediocre act, and I had always heard that lead singer Jared Leto was a little pissy, so I didn't exactly hope for much when I started going through their discography. I had low expectations.

Boy, did I miscalculate this one, and what an unwelcome surprise it was. Because, much to my horror, 30 Seconds To Mars aren't just a terrible, terrible band, they're one of the most startling misconceived catastrophes of an act to which I've ever had the displeasure to listen. Folks, we have a bad one tonight, and to fully explain why 30 Seconds To Mars doesn't work, at least by my estimation, I need to explain my feelings on the preceding three albums beforehand.

So let's start with the self-titled debut, which heralded itself as a prog-metal/space rock conceptual piece in the vein of Pink Floyd and Brian Eno, that focuses on 'human struggle and self-determination', filtered through the framework of a space opera. Now, I might immediately question the choice of making your debut a concept album tackling extremely complicated subject material and comparing yourself to legends like Pink Floyd, but debut albums have managed to surprise me before. Hell, when I was going into this album, I was actually looking forward to a modern act tackling space-themed music in a modern context.

But to encapsulate the disaster that 30 Seconds To Mars was would take another entire review, mostly because it is one of the most pretentious, startlingly incompetent albums I've ever listened through. The best thing that I can say for it is that the instrumentation is okay, and does occasionally manage to feel big enough to sound like a space opera. But too often it feels entirely too small and bland to really impact me in any way, mostly because the instrumentation is an unholy fusion between space rock and post-grunge, the latter being the fecal avalanche that remained in the system of music throughout the early 2000s. And while I don't hate post-grunge acts as much as most music critics do, I can definitely say that 30 Seconds To Mars represents the worst of the genre - a bland slurry of hard guitars with little-to-no musical excellence against ponderous pretentiousness and a complete lack of levity or irony. 

Now some fans of this act are likely already pissed by my usage of 'pretentiousness' as an apt adjective to describe this atrocity. Well, here's the thing: I can accept that Jared Leto's incomprehensible yowling and screaming (he sounds like Dexter Holland of the Offspring but with none of the humour or ability to actually scream) is just not my thing. Less easy to reconcile is the fact that his painfully weak and pissy vocals clash poorly with the instrumentation as they have none of the power and gravitas to carry the material - in other words, he's no David Bowie. But my big problem comes to the actual songwriting, in that it varies between painfully amateurish and agonizingly grating. It's an interesting concept, to use the big emotions of space rock to discuss smaller human problems, but Leto's songwriting either comes across as the melodramatic scribbling of a whiny teenager or the self-indulgent bullshit of a futurist with his head up his ass. Nothing flows together, most of the symbolism is nonsensical, and everything is taken with such portentous seriousness that it becomes laughably idiotic.

And here's where we get to the part about 30 Seconds To Mars that really pisses me off, at least regarding that first album: they really, really want to be Ayreon. For those of you who aren't aware (which I'm assuming is nearly all of you), Ayreon is a prog-rock/prog-metal collaboration project that began in the late-90s under the direction of Arjen Lucassen, an astoundingly talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who managed to bring together an eclectic group of talent from across the metal scene. The man is a mad genius who has written some of the most astoundingly literate and emotionally complex music I've ever had the fortune to listen to, and he belies it by recruiting the best vocalists in metal and superb instrumentalists for his material. And even his worst album (Actual Fantasy) is magnitudes greater than anything 30 Seconds To Mars could have dreamed for on that opening album. And yet the modern music scene handed success and platinum records to 30 Seconds To Mars, a band that couldn't hope to be as good as Ayreon's worst on their best days.

So completely unsurprisingly, 30 Seconds To Mars dropped the conceit of space rock (which they failed at) and progressive metal (which they couldn't even attempt) and decided to go for the post-hardcore crowd with their second album A Beautiful Lie. By the band's own admission, it was less 'cerebral' than their previous album, and unsurprisingly, it sold better. And while A Beautiful Lie is marginally better than the self-titled album, it's still at best mediocre and at worst painfully unlistenable. Try as he might, Jared Leto's attempts at screaming go thin and flat too often not to be noticed, and the songwriting only got worse (now consisting entirely of drivel scraped from the diaries of whiny teenagers). It was also an album with real pacing problems, with many songs suffering from awkward transitions and sloppy tempo changes, and whoever told Jared Leto that the whisper/scream dichotomy worked for the atmosphere of the songs needs to be beaten with a hammer, because it only serves to makes his lyrics unintelligible. In the end, I can imagine it sits well alongside the rest of the post-grunge slop that clogged up the rock charts in the mid-2000s like so much bitchy constipation.

In 2009, after massive label conflicts and lawsuits, 30 Seconds To Mars released their third album This Is War. And being completely fair, I think this album was arguably the best of their opening three, mostly because the whisper/screaming was dialled back, the production got a bit more bombastic (although not within spitting distance of symphonic or progressive metal), and the lyrics got a little better (although the avalanche of backing choirs and applause got old really fast). But it's also where the pretentiousness of 30 Seconds to Mars really began to shine through, and even though the lyrics were a little better, they still didn't bother being about anything substantial or clear, and with the majority of songs being over five minutes, they quickly wear out of their welcome. 

It was also at this album that I really began to figure out my problem with 30 Seconds To Mars, namely that for all of their bigness, they have nothing to say. All of the concepts they use to support their material could potentially be stretched out and made to fill a song, but 30 Seconds To Mars have such a shallow understanding of their material that it feels completely dissonant with their music's bombast. For instance, the primary themes about This Is War come back to conflicts and rallying for a right - but what that fight actually is or why we should fight is completely ignored. If anything, the title track seems to provide evidence that it doesn't matter what one should fight for, as long as they are fighting. And as a theme, that's incredibly shaky ground in which to construct an album of material, even in comparison to acts who make unbelievably cheesy songs about war and battle and glory for its own sake (basically a large percentage of power metal acts). But not only does 30 Seconds To Mars embrace their ridiculous bombast without a shred of irony or hilarity, it's clear they think they're imparting some great existential truth to us all about conflict in This Is War, and in the end, I'm just left distinctly unsatisfied and unmoved. And considering 30 Seconds To Mars is trying so damn hard to be 'epic' and 'moving' and 'passionate', I have no choice but to consider their material a failure. Or, to put it another way, if I can find Dragonforce songs more effective and moving than your material, you're doing something wrong.

So does their new album, Love, Lust, Faith, And Dreams manage to fill the void and actually be about something worth talking about?

No. No, it does not. In fact, I think I could make a case based upon this album alone that 30 Seconds To Mars should stop making music altogether, because not only have they failed four albums in a row, they've failed in the exact same way four times in a row, which is kind of impressive in a terrible sort of way. And while this album isn't offensive in the way will.i.am's atrocity was, it still was plenty bad enough to make me really think about why 30 Seconds To Mars just don't work as an act for me.

Let's start with the instrumentation, which I'd argue is easily the biggest draw card for the band, at least in my books. On the best of their tracks on this album, they have a certain skill at making the songs sound big and impressive, although nowhere near as consistently as they did on their previous album. And while they occasionally mix things up with horns and strings and the occasional blast of synth that comes out of nowhere, none of it flows together cohesively. I'm reminded a bit of Muse's album The 2nd Law in the same sort of 'spray-and-pray' method of instrumentation experimentation, but 30 Seconds To Mars don't even come close to Muse in this regard, mostly due to a lack of driving hooks. I feel this is one of the big reasons why 30 Seconds To Mars doesn't grip me or feel epic - none of their songs have a hook that sticks in the brain or a resonant key change or anything in the instrumentation that rises above power chords and general post-grunge mediocrity. And for an album that hammers on the percussion and backing choruses in a mad attempt to make the album feel 'big', it's a huge problem. 

Of course, the problem also extends to the vocals. Now, I've accepted that I'll never like Jared Leto's voice, but here I'll pay him my first (and only) compliment and say he's actually gotten marginally better, easing off on the whisper/scream dichotomy and doing more actual singing. Now, granted, he still does plenty of the whisper-screaming and I still don't think his singing is any less ear-bleedingly annoying, but this is a step in the right direction, because now I can actually parse out the majority of his lyrics.

Unfortunately, the lyrics are the big red glowing weak spot with this album, and the prime evidence that 30 Seconds To Mars just needs to stop. Apparently, the songs are segmented to represent the four words of the title, with a few songs each representing love, lust, faith, and dreams. Now this is a broad scope of material, and a better artist could probably spend an entire album on just a fraction of each subject, but 30 Seconds To Mars tackle them all at once.

The big problem is that all of the lyrics sounds exactly the same. The same false dichotomies, the same basic symbolism, and some of the time, the exact same half-hearted stabs at romanticism stolen from The Complete Hack's Guide to Songwriting. Forget distinguishing between the four concepts, I had a hard time distinguishing between the songs off of this album and those that came before, because there's nothing here that 30 Seconds To Mars hasn't done a dozen times before. And as much as Jared Leto wants to come off as a romantic, his 'tortured love' schtick hasn't just worn out its welcome, it's actively started to come across as repugnant. I mean, how is 'I'll wrap my hands around your neck so tight with love, love' come across as anywhere close to good songwriting? This is the guy ladies want to swoon over because he's so 'deep' and 'insightful'? Are you fucking kidding me?

And you know, I'd understand it all a little better if the songs had anything to say about love, lust, faith, and dreams, but the problem is that nothing that 30 Seconds To Mars brings to the table is anything close to new or interesting, or even that poetic for that matter. The closest they get to talking about anything interesting is the 'faith' song 'End Of All Days', but in comparison to the songs about religion Nick Cave or Vampire Weekend wrote this year, it's painfully trite. 

And you know, I could overlook the terrible lyrics and the awful singing if at least they came together into a whole that could be embraced with some vestige of humour or irony or even good-hearted sincerity. But with this album, it doesn't even manage that. I stand by my criticisms that Jared Leto's voice lacks the timbre and presence to sing anything with the gravitas his instrumentation is trying to create, but here it sounds more like he's trying to be Muse by way of The Killers, and it isn't working at all. And unlike both of those acts, there isn't the musical virtuosity or the sheer unbridled sincerity that can make those acts tolerable when they go over the top. But Jared Leto's lyrics are so bad and the obnoxious arrogance of his delivery is so grating that I can't ignore the fact that the album just becomes a colossal pile of junk that isn't worth the digital memory it's stored on. And the worst part is that it's not even so offensive or hateful that it'll stick in the memory - no, instead it's inert and bland and lacks any real force of personality. It's not epic or progressive or 'powerful', it's just a mess.

So yeah, I now understand why every other critic on the planet decided to review Daft Punk instead of 30 Seconds To Mars. I heartily do not recommend this album, and anything else this band makes. Fortunately for us all, I get the feeling that even the rock charts have had enough of 30 Seconds To Mars, and I'm looking forward to this band finally, irrevocably going the fuck away.

5 comments:

  1. Null and void.
    No band can be that bad to deserve a 'review' like this.
    O/5

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  2. I have to thank God for bringing Thirty Seconds to Mars to people's lives. The band spreads love, you spread hate. I think is your fault if your opinion are unheeded and worthless.

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  4. 0/5 - This review was badly written, poorly phrased, and unprofessionally written. I can understand why 30 Seconds to Mars may not be for everyone (personally I'm a fan, but it's no skin off my nose if others aren't), but this review was simply offensive. Fortunately for us all, I get the feeling that even the least familiar people with this material have had enough of Silens Cursor, and I'm looking forward to this reviewer "finally, irrevocably going the fuck away".

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    1. This is fucking hilarious. I've never seen such butthurt fanboyism pretending to be something else.

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