I first became aware of 30 Seconds to Mars when I watched their performance of The Kill, from their second album A Beautiful Lie, at the 2007 MTV Australia Video Music Awards. I was captivated by the song and I dare say The Kill would make my top 100 alternative rock and roll songs of all time. Certainly the performance was exceptional and while I never had an emo phase to my personality, lead singer Jared Leto certainly portrayed the alternative emo rock persona well. I’d even go as far as saying that I had a man crush for Leto following this appearance. He is certainly an exceptional musician and actor.
A couple of years ago, a local record store was shutting down. While it is always disappointing to see record stores close, it is a great opportunity to grab some incredible deals. One of the albums I purchased that day was the self-titled debut 30 Seconds To Mars. Having become familiar with Leto, and his band, a $5 investment was deemed to be worthwhile risk.
My only real disappointment with the album is the mastering. I think by now you have a fairly good idea of where I stand on mastering and brick walling. If not, simply go through the previous reviews and you will see a plethora of information relating to this problem. While a recent upgrade to the Oppo BDP-103 has significantly refined the quality of sound I am now getting from my CD collection, hardware can only do so much when the music is compressed to hell and back.
What disappoints me the most is this debut album was produced by one of the world’s greatest record producers, Bob Ezrin. It isn’t over produced but for the man that produced Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings, Alice Cooper’s epic 70s sound especially Billion Dollar Babies, Welcome To My Nightmare, and Lace And Whiskey, I simply expected brick walling would not be in his vocabulary. Ezrin has also worked with other incredible artists such as Kiss, Pink Floyd, and Deep Purple. The guy is nothing short of a legend.
Now, I will acknowledge that Ezrin shared production credits on the 30 Seconds To Mars debut with the band and Brian Virtue who would go on to produce the band’s follow-up, A Beautiful Lie, with Josh Abraham. That said, the recording and associated mastering is so brick walled that I simply can’t understand how Ezrin allowed it go out in the condition he did. When looking at the dynamic range scores, the debut album scores a pitiful 06 out of 20. Seriously, how much further can you go before an album is simply loud noise?
It is a really a shame because 30 Seconds To Mars are exceptional on this debut and Leto’s vocals are so multi-textured that he should be heard in full dynamic range. This is another album that is screaming out for a full dynamic range (FDR) re-issue. Death Metal band, Bolt Thrower, has re-issued their catalogue in FDR and the sonic difference is astounding. Forget the hi-res argument, of the one that says vinyl is better than CD. Even forget that TIDAL Hi-Fi is superior to Apple Music and Spotify. All the music industry needs to agree on is that they are going to master an album well in the first place and master it perfectly for the format. Do both of those things and you will have one kick ass album, regardless of distribution method.
Now that I have got that off my chest, let’s talk about the packaging and the all important music.
The cover is just weird. What does the teenage boy represent? There is quite a lot of symbolism presented throughout the artwork but you never actually see a picture of the band, other than one with their backs turned as they walk down a long hallway. Personally, I would have picked that for the cover of the album, or simply the Phoenix-styled logo that graces the CD. The typography on this release is exceptional and that can be attributed to it being, at the time, a CD-only release. The design team certainly worked within the specifications of the CD format. However, if you’re looking for lyrics you will be disappointed as they are not included with this release. That said, this isn’t the kind of album that you will likely sing-a-long to, unless you’re driven to jump in at the chorus line.
Capricorn [A Brand New Name] launches the album with an uplifting sonic zoom that I absolutely love. It certainly sets the scene and you get the impression of a record that is going to be epic. While I enjoy the song, it is ruined by the lack of dynamic range. You can hear minute elements that deserve sonic separation, but sadly they are nothing more than a glimmer of what could have been.
Edge Of The Earth has a fantastic pace to it. It isn’t too fast, nor too slow, but absolutely perfect. It has the heavy grunge metal feel, as well as an intermingling ballad style, but despite this diversity it just works. The vocal delivery in this song is also exceptional.
Fallen begins with some beautiful fat guitar riffs. Who doesn’t like that? The build up to the chorus in superb and overall it is an incredibly beautiful song. Jared Leto truly shows his vocal chops during this track.
Oblivion starts off with a very familiar sound. I’ve never been able to place it, but it sounds like a song I’ve heard before. It isn’t that it’s a common sound, as it is quite distinctive. That said, I thoroughly enjoy the song. The pace set throughout the interconnectivity of the chorus and verse is perfectly managed.
Buddha For Mary has robotic vocals at the beginning of the song and while it may work with the overall theme of the band and the album, I just don’t like it. In-fact, I would say that this is one of the poorer songs on the album. It is run-of-the-mill alternative rock and roll at best.
Echelon would be so incredible with a more complete dynamic range. The introduction and vocal delivery is amazing, but the depth just isn’t there. Such a good song though!
Welcome To The Universe is an interesting track. It begins beautifully, but is then taken in a different direction and I find the lyrical component to be lacking. It isn’t a bad song, but it is missing something that I simply can’t put my finger on.
The Mission is one of my favourite songs from the album. It is alternative music at its best as it has elements of punk, rock and roll, and ballad driven hair metal throughout. I love it!
End Of The Beginning is unfortunately a mishmash of low dynamics throughout much of the song. It just isn’t good.
93 Million Miles is thoroughly enjoyable but it is just too compressed. For most of the song you are struggling to hear a single note as they all merge in together. No wonder us ‘old guys’ say new music is horrid, despite this album not really being new. That said, it does prove how long we have been living in this ‘loudness’ phase. I’ve no doubt that artists such as 30 Seconds To Mars are extremely talented. I certainly enjoy their music, but they could be so much better if their sound wasn’t limited by demands to make it sound louder.
Year Zero isn’t a bad song to close the album on and with the repetitious chorus line ‘we’ll never fade away’ you certainly get the impression that the band was indicating they were here to stay.
Debut albums, in retrospect, are always difficult to review as there are understandably elements that need improving. Many of these aspects are subsequently improved in later albums and this is certainly true for 30 Seconds To Mars.
Unfortunately, the dynamic range issue doesn’t get much better on their later albums, unless you choose the vinyl options. The band is incredibly talented, but they just don’t stand out like they should. There is a feeling in music that only true dynamic range can present to the listener. You can’t hear it, but you can feel it. It is the feeling that makes you dance to the song in your mind, even when the song is no longer playing. Modern music just doesn’t have that. It is not multilayered and dynamic. It is flat and transparent.
I have likely harped on for too long about dynamic range but I do so because I feel it is incredibly relevant to the way we experience and enjoy music. While this is a fantastic debut album, I can’t stand to listen to the album at above 30% of my system’s capability, as it becomes harsh, ear piercing, and tiring to do so. That therefore reduces my interest in the album, the band, and the music they create. It just shouldn’t be this way.
I will be endeavouring to get a hold of the 10th anniversary vinyl edition that was released in 2012. While the original album was not intended and mastered for vinyl, vinyl does have rather strict limitations when it comes to mastering for the format. That doesn’t mean it will sound any better, especially considering it is a picture disc edition. It could even sound worse, but I’m inquisitive and I would like to know. Plus, it just looks cool spinning. Check it out:
If you have the vinyl version, please let me know your thoughts on the sonic quality.
If you’re a fan of alternative music, and rock and roll in general, then this album is worthwhile listening to. Similarly, if you’ve only heard the later albums by 30 Seconds To Mars then you should check this out to see where they came from. That said, I would recommend you listen to the album on TIDAL Hi-Fi prior to considering a purchase as the low dynamic range is honestly the Achilles’ heel of this release. You can of course still pickup the CD if you wish.