Three years ago, when Muse released their fifth album The Resistance, it managed to better define the sound of the group, but failed to truly push the envelope for them. As the record overflowed with lukewarm grandeur, their sound was made bigger, but not necessarily any deeper or more enticing . Now, releasing their latest LP, The 2nd Law, the band sought out much-needed new directions for their sound, while re-establishing the punch that their earlier work contained. And they succeed – for a while, at least.
The 2nd Law starts particularly strong, as opener Supremacy immediately does away with much of what plagued the group’s previous studio effort: the main riff hits hard and relentlessly, the operatic verses don’t go on for longer than they should, and the entire piece grooves like a mix of a Bond theme and Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. The mood then changes drastically for the synth-pop of Madness, a “love-it-or-hate-it” affair that works as far more than a mere earworm; and again on Panic Station, with an unabashed, ridiculously good-humored funk influence. The way these two tracks embrace their respective genres and hold no regards for what a Muse song “should” sound like is what pushes the band into new territory, and breathes fresh air into their music.
The momentum gained by those three initial tracks is so strong that it carries over to the more typical (by the band’s standards) Survival. Going from an orchestral prelude, to a Queen-ish piano pop song, to an immense instrumental ending, it all appears on the constant peril of going overboard. It never does, however, as the choir – of course there’s a choir – mostly assists the tune rather than carry it, and frontman Matt Bellamy’s guitar alternates between soloing and accompanying bassist Chris Wolstenholme’s crushing bass line. When Survival is tied up at just over four minutes, a few tracks into the record, there’s the impression that Muse have found a way to incorporate everything they want into their sound, albeit no longer with the necessity to merely pile elements on top of each other and see how long they can carry them for.
Much was said of how the band went dubstep, after the very first snippet of music released from The 2nd Law demonstrated something undeniably similar to a collaboration with Skrillex. As it turns out, there are only two tracks here that incorporate some dubstep, and not for long enough to actually win over any fans of that subgenre. First, Follow Me starts out like a regular venture into electronic music, until a massive bass drop hits during the chorus, and pretty much derails what could be a harmless pop song. Later, the mostly instrumental The 2nd Law: Unsustainable does a more tasteful use of dubstep by having the band members actually play something similar to it, interspersed with orchestral sections, and ends up sounding honorable in comparison to Follow Me.
Similar to what occurred in previous Muse records, the real problems start to emerge during the second half. Right after Animals brings out some bluesy guitars and welcome similarities to their second LP Origin of Symmetry, the slow Explorers comes along and inordinately drags for nearly six minutes without doing much of anything special. Followed by the heavier, though equally mundane Big Freeze, it forms a couple of tracks that seem content with simply existing, and bring to a halt any excitement that was built up until that point.
The two songs that follow are made unusual due to Chris Wolstenholme taking over lead vocal duties for the first time ever, something that obviously adds to the variety of the record, but doesn’t significantly improve it. While Save Me and Liquid State are competent on their own (as are Mr. Wolstenholme’s vocals), they would be fine palate cleansers if placed closer to the bulk of the tracklist, rather than stuck near the end. The sequencing of the songs is made even more odd by the fact that the final couple of tunes are mostly instrumental, meaning that the last words we hear from Matt Bellamy come a full seventeen minutes before the record is finished. It’s as if they gave up finding a coherent order and pushed the four vocally different tracks to the end.
Despite the tracklisting issues before it, closing track The 2nd Law: Isolated System provides a classy ending: conducted by a subdued electronic beat, it makes great use of basic, yet moving string arrangements and piano, as voice clips of news broadcasts play over, giving it an eerie atmosphere. It shows a different side of the band’s sound, one that made rare appearances in the past, and that could have been used more extensively on The 2nd Law.
As proven by their 2006 breakout record Black Holes & Revelations, Muse tend to improve the most when they stretch out and incorporate aspects from different genres into their music. They surely attempted that again on The 2nd Law, and it worked to a certain extent, as most of the record’s first half has some of their best music to date, and the second half contains a few worthy experiments. Unfortunately, the less memorable moments mean that the LP is prone to the cherry-picking of its finest moments – something that could’ve been avoided with some trimming. But still, when The 2nd Law hits its marks, it’s clear that the band did a proper job of first finding the core of each song, then building their massive sound over it, putting quality over scale.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.