Review Summary: 2nd Level
During the past decade there were not many rock bands who could righteously apply for the position of Rock Heroes. Devon-based trio Muse were the ones who seemed to have the most potential. Every record Muse released (well, almost) was hailed as an alternative-rock triumph over mass-media pop-programming – disregarding that Muse quickly became part of it. They were catchy, hard-hitting, melodic and futuristic enough to turn the heads of the world in their direction and ask: “Who are those good boys?”
Unfortunately – or, from a different perspective, inevitably – Muse’s fire started dying out while trying to feed on the same old basis. 2009’s album “Resistance” showed distinguishable signs of band’s increasing stalemate. They did try to complement the lackluster musical foundation with ridiculously overblown arrangements. And it worked… sorta-kinda. Parts of “Resistance”, that didn’t deliver high-quality material, fell flat and were shamelessly borrowing from Muse’s own legacy (and Queen’s legacy, when Muse’s own catalogue didn’t feel enough, apparently). And this bad kind of duality, retaining a strong scent of running out of ideas, triggered a suspicion that Muse were fading out.
Taking all of the above in mind, there was a lot of tension in the air when Muse announced the new album was in progress. And things got even tenser after Matt Bellamy boldly stated electronic dance music and brass-instruments as the main ingredients for the upcoming plate and that the new album will be “drawing a line under a certain period”. The full-scale brick diarrhea finally burst out upon the release of the album’s trailer, which contained not just electronic music but the main “trend” of our times – dubstep. Fans were eating their own hair with chocolate milk; their operatic-prog-pop world was shattered to its roots. After the band released their Olympic soundtrack things got even more interesting: “Survival” was so bombastic, so pompous and pretentious, it seemed to crumble down to silliness under it’s own ambitions. And finally, the release of soft “electrorock” ballad “Madness” has stirred the confusion up to critical. No one could realize what Muse exactly had in mind.
And so here it is. “The 2nd Law”. The album that has already gathered almost every possible rating here on Sputnik (apart from “classic” which is most accurate to real classics) and almost every possible reaction from music critics. It has provoked so much hate and love at the same time it’s hard to ignore; and such effect is usually a characteristic of music worth checking out.
The main (and, in my opinion, the best) feature of that album is it’s not Muse you knew and loved before. Of course they didn’t reinvent themselves completely – familiar melodies and lyrical subjects sparkle here and there. But for the most part “The 2nd Law” is an eclectic mix of styles and arrangements, not that much ambitious and pretentious but rather experimental and refreshing. It’s the sound of the band standing on a new level.
Speaking of new levels, I’d like to dedicate a word to Bellamy’s singing. While there are no drastic changes to the style, Matt’s singing clearly improved. He sings his highest chest-vocal notes on this record.
As much as I hate track-by-tracks, this will pretty much be one. Before getting to album’s better side I’d like to point the only two uninteresting tracks. The first is “Follow Me”, which is just pure dub with Bellamy wailing dramatically over it – something I actually feared upon hearing the album’s dub-step-fused trailer. It’s not horrible, it’s just pretty boring. Muse is absent from this track, leaving Matt’s over the top singing flow over an every-day dub song.
The second song that didn’t make it is “Explorers”. A piano-pop-rock number that sounds all nice and pretty but does not try enough to hide the obvious origin of it’s chorus’ melody which is Muse’s own “Invincible”. I’m allergic to self-plagiarism, so every time this track comes up my eyes turn red and itchy and I fall victim to a series of uncontrollable sneeze.
But the rest of the album holds up great. The new stuff and the old stuff combine with a mild taste of self-irony, strong enough to make one smile and slight enough not to ruin the record.
The album shape-shifts like the alien symbiote from Spider-Man. “Supremacy”, the opening track, sounds like a James Bond movie soundtrack, all groovy and stylish, the brass section providing a whimsical smirk. “Madness” is touching, sweet and relaxing, and the sound gradually develops from minimal and quiet to loud, powerful and, well, beautiful. “Panic Station” is basically a tribute to Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” but with it’s own quirky palette. The double hit of “Prelude” and “Survival” that I originally hated had suddenly grown on me upon realizing its majestic pompousness is a joke and should be taken as such. “Animals” is a pleasant surprise; a song, which, I think, is consciously Radiohead-esque and still made with Muse’s trademark touch. “Big Freeze” draws influence from U2’s characteristic guitar sound and pounding “stadium” drums to create a great live number.
Another innovation “The 2nd Law” incorporates is the inclusion of two songs written and sang by someone other than Matt Bellamy. Chris Wolstenholme, the band’s bassist and backing vocalist, was, was struggling with alcoholism for many years, and, having finally won, he cemented his triumph in form of two songs. The first song “Save Me” is a soft and gentle piece containing several rhythm changes that add nicely to the overall ethereal feeling. The latter “Liquid State” is a mean and rough, creating a neat contrast with “Save Me”. Both songs sound nothing like Muse (especially “Save Me”, which could’ve easily fit on one of the latter Anathema albums). Chris’ voice is much softer and overall quieter than Matt’s but his skills are pretty good, although he still sings the lead vox like it’s backing.
The album’s two-part ending deserves a paragraph on it’s own. The aforementioned trailer contained a fragment of the first part, “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”. Now that’s a clever hybrid. A cinematic orchestral with an alarming melody intro breaks into robotic dub-step, performed mostly by Matt’s toys. The track than reaches the “epic movie soundtrack” section, in which Bellamy is howling wordlessly over thunderous drums and the track concludes in the same dub-step vein. And here dub-step elements work nicely with other pieces because they never intersect: one part ends, another comes up.
The last track of the album, “The 2nd Law: Isolated Systems” is the final jack in the box that Muse had up their sleeves. Never before had a Muse album ended in such fashion, quietly and disturbingly at the same time. This instrumental track is like a huge question mark at the end of a text. It’s a question in many ways: conceptually, it’s the obliged “troubled uncertainty” of mankind’s fate. Musically, it’s “Where do they go from here?”.
“The 2nd Law” can’t be viewed as a masterpiece but it’s definitely not a stinking pile of feces many fans seem it to be. Progression and metamorphose is always good when it comes complete with wit and energy, and this album proves that even Muse, with their hard-to-wash-off clichés, can overcome a stalemate and make the world care. Most people either hate it or love it, which is a sign of a worth-while product.