MUSE – The 2nd Law (2012) – an album review

I don’t really have a snappy intro, so let’s get to it.

tl;dr Version: Muse has a new album out. If you have listened to any of their music at all, you can probably guess what you’re in for, and whether that’s something you want. Personally, I just think radio needs Muse. Badly.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Okay, this album is apparently getting mixed reviews, so I’m gonna dive in fast while there’s still some blood in the water. muse doesn’t do ordinary pop music, and they don’t tone things down for commercial acceptance. They win ground by advancing. Now I’ll admit that, having listened to the album, there does seem to be a slightly different mix of influences pervading this album. We’re gonna look at it a little harder than most will.

Boring Version: I’ve only very recently come to discover and appreciate MUSE, and it has to be said, I feel a little bad for that. They aren’t 110% my music, but they do some really neat things that amuse the hell out of me. They’re not like Bowie or (especially) Queen, but they bring a lot of that pomp and glamour to the proceedings, and they do it on the back of gorgeously-crafted and produced music. And they’ve got balls. In an age when too many rock acts seem to have forgotten how to turn it up to eleven, these guys are remarkably rocking. Symphonic Rock, Glitter Rock, Progressive Rock and Heavy Metal, all with modern production values and electronics to give the proceedings a fresh sound and attitude. This band may not be for everyone, but they are fascinating, and it’s encouraging to see how many people have adopted them. There’s hope for modern music yet.

Supremacy opens with guitars, keys, bass and drums pulsing brightly before settling into the verse, which is a veritable Bond theme over a slow march rhythm. It evokes From Russia With Love and Thunderball, until the chorus bass kicks in and it turns readily into a monster Zeppelin riff for a moment. The Bond theme returns, but instrumentally, with Bellamy’s guitar and voice wailing in a weird mix of Flamenco and Middle Eastern influences. The song bridges back to the monster Zeppelin riff, this time with a full blast of drums and guitars, reminding me of something from early Yes. The chorus plays out once more, and then dies down, only to be reprised with a brief jangling vibrato guitar, once again evoking that Bond sound. Tell me it wasn’t deliberate. Try. And then, when they finally get the gig to provide the next Bond film with a title track, you know who’s going to be laughing loudest, right?

Madness, the second single off of the album, opens with dubstep synth pulses over a drum machine rhythm, which is probably as far as the critics got before crying foul. I hear The Works-era Queen and Zooropa-era U2 in this track. It’s good. Light, but charming. Not something I’d rush out and buy on its own, but it doesn’t hurt the album any. Eventually, Bellamy supplies a stripped down Brian May-style guitar solo and then the real drums come in, along with layers of sound that just fill up the audio space in a satisfying way that harkens back to 80s hits by the likes of Mike & the Mechanics. Beautiful track.

Panic Station is a tres funky number, which Wikipedia assures me actually has some of Stevie Wonders old Superstition-era band in the mix. It shows. And it’s wonderful. A little disco, a little funk, a little Bowie-Fame, and I’m sitting here at 8 AM thinking it would be great to hear this in a dance club. The guitar solo is minimalistic and rhythmic, but with just the right amount of funky melody to fit the song. Great fun.

Prelude opens with piano, strings, and eventually choir, lushly introducing the first single…

Survival opens like an ELO number, finger snaps, vocalisations and jaunty piano, joined by a foot stomping rhythm that eventually turns into a displaced heavy metal drum beat. Then the German operatic voices begin to intrude, and Bellamy shouts, scream and begins wailing on guitar in proper MUSE fashion. The mock opera feel of this number evokes and refutes the Queen comparisons, and the guitars and pulsing bass and drums slide into a crunchy Moroccan Roll instrumental. The choir returns and augments the chant that leads to the close.

Follow Me is an electronic number, reminding me at first of Jean Michel Jarre, but then the band joins in and takes it somewhere else, at first sounding like a disco number, but then the dubstep rhythm and distorted lead synth pound the chorus into shape. The next verse and chorus hit my Zoo Station buttons, Matt turning in his best Bono imitation. It’s actually a pretty incredible track.

Animals opens in a jazz fusion vein, electric piano and burbling bass over skip beat and Santana-esque guitar flourishes, all while Matt Bellamy essays more Freddie Mercury vocalising. It continues on in this 5/8 rhythm, relentlessly, until they reach the first instrumental bridge section, essentially Wipeout paradiddles in 5/8, and then bounce back to the chorus, which leads to the second and more powerful outro instrumental section, which gives way to sampled audience and fight recordings.

Explorers is an utterly gorgeous lullaby melody that is two parts Jeff Lynne, two parts Freddie Mercury, building to a beautiful Jellyfish bridge, replaced then by a sturdier, more rhythmic verse and chorus, but still retaining the lullaby quality. Lovely tune. The middle eight has lovely vocalisations throughout, but the real chorus vocals don’t start until the outro, which ends with Matt doing his best Jellyfish-does-the-Beatles harmony.

Big Freeze starts pretty quickly, jumping into a very U2-meets-Queen-meets-Yazoo/Erasure kind of vibe. It’s a very poppy number, but it’s charming. The chorus has some balls to it, though. A second pass at the verses in muted fashion helps to accent the return to the pop rhythm, and some ELO-style harmonies accompany the second half of the verse passage. The monster chorus is too short, damn it. Bellamy finds a way to play another great Brian May guitar solo without sounding derivative, and the chorus carries us to the outro, something in the vein of the opening and closing of Where The Streets Have No Name. Very nice.

Save Me, the first of two songs written and sung by bassist Chris Wolstenholme, opens for all the world like a classic Brian Wilson-era Beach Boys number minus the irritating Mike Love harmony, and then the chorus kicks in and the number just goes someplace I never would have expected from the rockingest member of the band. Dense and baroque, synths laid on heavily, dense vocal harmonies, strong, pleading vocal as Chris begs to be rescued from his self-destructive drinking habit. The instrumental features a liquid guitar solo that melts right into the final chorus. Gorgeous. Not at all out of place, and a fine entry into the MUSE catalogue.

Liquid State is much more aggressive. Also written by Wolstenholme, this one also addresses his drinking problem, and it’s a dark, driving number. Dangerous, relentless, pounding drums punctuate Chris’s vocals and plodding bass line. The chorus is dense and brooding, like early Yes if they had gotten a bad batch of acid. The instrumental passage builds on that pulsing opening riff, and then, as soon as it has started, the song is over.

The 2nd Law: Unsustainable opens with strings and choir joined by brass, and then the sampled vocal recital of the second law of Thermodynamics leads to a very Skrillex-like dubstep section, which itself gives a little room for a reintroduction of the orchestra and choir, and then Matt starts vocalising over top of it all. It’s a strange piece, but riveting. The recital continues, and then the Cylon voice of the chorus returns, only to give way to…

The 2nd Law: Isolated System begins with pianos and what is I suspect a guitar line that sounds a bit like a clavinet play in unison, strings eventually creeping in in the high register, and then the pulsing synth bass and drum commences, at first joined by the professorial female voice describing thermodynamics, and then joined by an aural collage of sound bites discussing entropy in modern human society. The strings swell once more, and then the pulsing bass synth returns, joined shortly by pounding tom toms and a ululating choir and a crunchy sawtooth wave synth. The digital female professor voice returns to recite the problem with isolated systems, and then the track fades to black.

Make no mistake. If you came expecting Resistance pt II, you’ll probably walk away disappointed, because there is so much sonic experimentation and only some of the results fit their previous sound. They haven’t thrown out the baby with the bath water here, but they’ve incorporated more styles and more sounds, beefing up styles that haven’t really made a dent in my collection, showing us ways dubstep and orchestra can both be incorporated into a modern rock aesthetic. As well, we also get to see some poppier elements than we heard on the last album or two, accenting some pretty anthemic pop elements that have always been present in their music, but this time focussing on them, rather than confounding them with complex compositions and arrangements.

All in all, it might take me a little while to digest this album fully, but it’s clever and it’s musical and it’s got balls and teeth. It’s a good album.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

One Response to “MUSE – The 2nd Law (2012) – an album review

  • This is one of the few albums I’ve actually been looking forward to. I haven’t been able to listen to it properly yet, but while skipping through it, Panic Station caught my ear, and I listened to that in full. It’s great to hear Muse try out new things, and they’re pulling it off too. I expect I’ll love the rest of it as well, because how can you not love Muse?

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