Review Summary: In an isolated system, the number of Muse reviews can only increase.
Have Muse become too supermassive for their own good? After the masterclass in grandiosity that was ‘Black Holes and Revelations’, they succeeded in both cracking the notoriously difficult American market and making the leap to stadium status elsewhere in the world. In their UK homeland in particular they are revered as nothing less than gods by a surprisingly rabid core fanbase for such a mainstream act. So intense is their affection for Muse that the deeply troubled and worryingly overfamiliar follow-up ‘The Resistance’ nonetheless sold by the bucketload. But while the ‘Musers’ rejoiced in that album’s overlong classical symphonies and distasteful attempts at R&B, for the first time the wider musical world weren’t overly impressed. It’s an exaggeration to state that cracks were showing in the armour, but post-‘Resistance’ Muse no longer seemed as critically untouchable, even the NME questioning where the band could go next. How about dubstep, then?
The news that the Teignmouth trio’s sixth full-length, ‘The 2nd Law’, had been influenced by American dubstep producers like Skrillex almost set the internet on fire. The 2 minute trailer released to hype the album only served to stoke the flames- a robot repeatedly garbling the word “UNSUSTAINABLE!” over a dubstep beat and some of Matt Bellamy’s patented guitar squelches. There was a message relating the 2nd law of thermodynamics to the world’s economic problems buried in there somewhere but that soon became lost in the ensuing YouTube comment wars. If all publicity is good publicity then ‘The 2nd Law’ enjoyed a healthy birth, but many were already beginning to suspect that the mighty had finally, completely fallen from grace.
During some moments of this album, that theory certainly seems to have been realised. A Muse album is not a Muse album if no bizarre musical experimentation has been undertaken, and much like on ‘The Resistance’ not everything that is thrown at the wall sticks. The first half of controversial Olympic-theme “Survival” recalls an ELO b-side, including some operatic backing vocals that send it firmly into the box labelled “laughable”. Second single “Madness” takes too long to do anything interesting; “Big Freeze” doesn’t manage it at all. And whoever came up with the idea of re-hashing ‘Resistance’ clunker “Guiding Light” as the slightly-less-awful-but-still-pretty-damn-bad “Explorers” deserves 10 lashings from the cat o’nine tails. It’s a song so without merit that it makes the aforementioned dubstep number “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” sound downright exciting, despite its awkward transitions and over-reliance on that god-damn robot.
But that’s the ugly side to ‘The 2nd Law’- now we shall turn its face. “Supremacy” is perhaps the best Muse album opener since “New Born”- a Led Zeppelin indebted hard rock strut complete with slashing strings and the best use of Bellamy’s falsetto in ages. “Panic Station” takes the bassy funk of “Supermassive Black Hole” to its logical conclusion, with some jazzy brass included to elevate the song to top-tier status. “Animals” fuses the syrupy guitar licks of “Hoodoo” with the tumbling rhythms of “Map of the Problematique” to form a great song that is undeniably Muse. These are moments on which the band sounds comfortable without being boring, something they never managed on ‘The Resistance’.
Other experiments succeed wholeheartedly, particularly the songs penned by bassist Chris Wolstenholme. The ambient balladry of “Save Me” and the surging garage rock of “Liquid State” work well as a pairing through musical contrast and similar lyrical themes, while Wolstenholme’s soft yet sharp voice is refreshingly different to Bellamy’s Freddy Mercury-esque croon and wailing falsetto. The band even succeed in bringing dubstep into their sound on the huge sounding “Follow Me”, Nero’s enormous production work underpinning Bellamy’s voice perfectly on a stadium-sized chorus. And while the first half of “Survival” is mildly excruciating, the second is perhaps as barnstorming as anything this band have ever crafted, huge Rammstein riffage lacerated with Van Halen guitar shredding and a now well-utilised choir to wonderfully melodramatic effect.
Closing shop with the surprisingly subtle Mike Oldfield-meets-Radiohead soundscape “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”, Muse have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on a wildly inconsistent album that nonetheless boasts some fantastic songs worthy to enter the band’s infamously overblown live set. There’s little in the way of cohesion but there’s enough enjoyable material here to merit repeat listening, particularly in the album’s first half. Unlike its predecessor, ‘The 2nd Law’ sounds very much like the band are having fun, and as such most listeners will have a great deal of fun too. Where they will go from here
is anyone’s guess. The warning on the twin title tracks that anything based on endless growth is UNSUSTAINABLE could be a worry for this most enormous-sounding of bands, but for now Muse seem happy to continue crafting their planet-sized cyber-rock into ever more unique structures.