Album Review: Muse – The 2nd Law | The Audio Perv
02 Oct
2012


By Matt Arena

I’m in a weird place with Muse. They were the first band I really fell in love with. I’ve seen them upwards of 9 times, been lucky enough to meet/interview them, and essentially have them to thank for really getting me into music. So it makes this next sentence that much harder to say: I can’t stand what they’ve become. That’s not to say this is the first time I’ve disliked a release, as some of their stuff is just downright terrible (‘Prague,’ anyone?) but lately the bad has outweighed the good VASTLY. 2009’s The Resistance had its moments, MK ULTRA and Exogenesis are some of their finest work to date, but was mostly a weird foray into bombast and a competition to see how over-the-top they can get. But it got a pass. Maybe it was the production diaries of them laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of the slap bass in ‘Undisclosed Desires,’ or how nobody in their right mind could take ‘I Belong to You’ seriously, but there was a feeling that they were just goofing around. They’re not seriously going to take that direction in their next album, right?

Wrong. It turns out ‘Undisclosed Desires’ and ‘I Belong to You’ were not one-off goof tracks, but the future of the band. The riffs in ‘Unnatural Selection?’ The thundering anthem that was ‘MK ULTRA?’ Gone. Those were the one offs. This was no more apparent than when Muse starting debuting the first few songs of The 2nd Law. First was the Olympic piano anthem, ‘Survival.’ I’ll be completely honest here; I thought it was a joke at first. As did many fans. There were tweets saying “oh, Muse is just trolling us.” Sadly, there was no trolling to be had. The poppy, choir-backed, Queen-esque bombast was for real. And you know what? Many still had hope. “It’s just one song,” or “they wrote it for the Olympics, of COURSE it’ll be cheesy!” was a popular sentiment. Then came ‘Unsustainable.’ Ah yes, the dubstep track. Cue the ominous music. To be fair it isn’t really a dubstep track, as anyone with two ears can hear the distinct difference between the drop in ‘Unsustainable’ and any of the drops in a Skrillex song. But for all intents and purposes, it was Muse doing dubstep. And it was not pretty. It failed as a dubstep song, with a soft, simple, and repetitive drop, but also failed as an electronic rock song. STILL, there was hope. Hey, it’s just TWO songs, right? “Wait till you hear the whole album to judge.” Fair enough. Then came ‘Madness.’ Yikes. Where to begin? From the very beginning, it was bad news. Sounding more like an electronic cover of the Muppet’s ‘Mahna Mahna’ than an actual Muse song, many began to lose all hope. Even a fantastic music video couldn’t save it. But for all its detractors within the Muse fan base (I refuse to use the word “musers”), it had some fans. One of them being Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who called it “the best song Muse have made.” Are we listening to the same song, Chris? But soon enough, the time came for the full album. The last ditch hope of “you can’t judge an entire album just on two songs” was no more. Judgment hour has arrived. And if you think I’m being overdramatic, just remember this is Muse we’re talking about, that’s kind of their whole thing.

The result is in, and it’s a bloodbath. From its wild and abrupt shifts in style to the mind numbing mediocrity of some songs, The 2nd Law is simply a poor album. It’s the result of a band trying to be five different things at once, but never really focusing their sound to just being Muse. I got into this band because they sounded like Rage Against the Machine scoring an episode of Battlestar Galactica, not to hear them play a funk song. And yes, I get it, bands change and all that. Except when they don’t. Look at some of the stalwarts out there in the rock genre; Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen, all bands who have been around longer than Muse and haven’t changed their sound so radically. There’s a difference between growing, which Muse clearly have done just from Showbiz to Absolution, and completely becoming a different band all together. Go ahead and take a guess which category Muse fall into. And you know what? That’s fine. They are well within their rights as a band to do whatever they want. But don’t expect the people who first got into you to stick around. When you put out a song like ‘Big Freeze,’ which is the poorest example of a U2 imitation I have ever heard, you simply can’t expect fans of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ to stick around.

It’s not to say the album is a complete failure, however. There are some fine moments in there. Moments, which still bite at that fan inside you, making you think “hey, maybe Muse have still got it after all.” And that’s what makes The 2nd Law so frustrating. From the very beginning, the riff in ‘Supremacy’ is fantastic, it’s old school Muse at its finest. But suddenly there are screeching violins in the background. What rulebook is Muse abiding by that dictates the need for strings in every single song? We’re plenty happy with the riff, you’re a rock band, a riff doesn’t need anything but a sweet bass line and drum fills behind it. The track then fades into a lull of a verse, before stopping on a dime, punching you in the face with falsetto and ripping right back into the riff. It’s enough to make you bipolar. The greatness is still there, especially in the outro, which makes you want to grab the nearest stranger, head butt them directly in the face and open up a pit. Immediately you can imagine how well that part of the song will translate live. As does ‘Liquid State,’ the second of a duo of songs in which bassist Chris Wolstenholme takes on lead vocal duties. It starts into a thick, heavily distorted bass line from the first second and continues with excellent drum work from Dominic Howard, very reminiscent of a their impromptu drum and bass jams in the live shows. Though it’s a sweet track, it’s not hard to imagine how much better it would be if Matt Bellamy’s guitar work was a bit more prominent. But again, this is Chris’ song, so perhaps that was the mindset. Regardless, ‘Supremacy’ and ‘Liquid State’ are the two true “rock” tracks on the album and if they had only kept that as their focus, maybe The 2nd Law would have been a lot better.

Then there’s the rest. It ranges from utterly droll songs like ‘Save Me,’ to the upbeat, disco-anthems like ‘Follow Me.’ The reason this album fails is because it has no focus. Muse is trying to do about four different sounds at once, and what they got is a mess of tracks that don’t belong together. Even with its downfalls and overstated political themes, The Resistance had a flow and scope to it. The 2nd Law simply doesn’t. The decision for them to self-produce the record has to come into play here. It’s hard to imagine songs like ‘Explorers’ making it off the cutting room floor and onto the album with a producer in studio. That’s what producers do. They help a band hone their sound and coach them along the process of making the album. Of course one could argue that Muse knows their sound better than any producer, but one could also simply start playing ‘Panic Station’ in response. Even in talking about the album, the band cited inspiration from artists like Meatloaf to Skrillex. That’s a warning sign that the band is all over the place. To be fair, some of these tracks have been played live and do sound a bit better, ‘Follow Me’ for example turns into a ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ like guitar anthem. It would also be unfair to dismiss ‘Animals,’ a progressive rock track that harkens back the moody, dark Origin of Symmetry days. It builds throughout and culminates in a whirlwind of an outro, which sees the band warp and melt their respective instruments into a wall of wonderful ambient rock. That’s the type of song a producer hears and says, “yes, explore THAT sound.” But when self-producing, you really don’t have the luxury of an extra set of ears. The band is just left to explore the weird reaches of their over-the-top, bombastic musical repertoire. Which as The 2nd Law shows us, has no end.

That’s how it comes across as a whole, but being that it feels more like a collection of singles than an actual album, a song-by-song breakdown is almost necessary.

1. ‘Supremacy’ – A killer riff here. The start of this song is painfully deceiving, as it inspires false hope that the rest of the album will be as rock-centric. I could do without the Monday Night Football-esque violin screeches; that Morello-inspired riff is more than enough to keep me entertained. It ends in a head banging outro that not only will reach out to all the metal heads in the audience, but almost begs for the band to extend in their trademark fashion. Good song.

2. ‘Madness’ – We should have seen this coming. It’s the older brother of ‘Undisclosed Desires,’ except farther into electronic territory. Being that ‘Undisclosed Desires’ was extremely flat live, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the much mellower ‘Madness.’ The song finally picks up towards the end, but it’s a case of way too little, way too late. Impressive video though, even if I did half expect to see the Snowths pop up halfway through.

3. ‘Panic Station’ – The first time I heard this song kick in, I laughed. A full on, belly laugh. Not only because it was the last thing I’d expect a Muse song to be, but because it’s utterly ridiculous. It sounds like a Stevie Wonder produced Red Hot Chili Peppers cover of ‘Thriller.’ Not a bad song per say, but it’s certainly not a Muse song. It will no doubt have its fans, and on some level I can understand that, but this isn’t the band I signed up for. I can’t stand this track, but what I hate the most is that I can’t get it out of my head. Anybody have an ice pick? We gotta get off this rock, Chuck.

4-5. ‘Prelude + Survival’ – Split up on the album, ‘Prelude’ serves as the intro track for ‘Survival.’ It’s a deceivingly wonderful piano number, which is pretty jarring when it jumps into the poppy ‘Survival.’ This was the first song they released off the album, and served as the first warning sign of trouble. The painfully simple lyrics highlight what comes off as Muse further trying to be like Queen. An incredibly forgettable track that even sounded ridiculous as a backdrop to the Olympics. Now that’s saying something.

6. ‘Follow Me’ – This song first dribbled out in bootlegged video from a recent show, sounding very much like a guitar heavy version of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name.’ But you’ll be shocked to hear it very different on the album. It plays more like a house DJ’s remix of a Whitney Houston song than anything else. It’s not hard to see the pounding techno beat during the chorus blasting in some booze filled club. That’s right; it’s quite possible that the Jersey Shore crew will be fist bumping to a Muse song. I’m so sorry.

7. ‘ Animals’ – Muse have been compared to Radiohead before, albeit unfairly in the past, but this is the first time that comparison is audible. The slick drumming is very much like ‘Paranoid Android,’ and that’s not to say it’s a bad song, in fact ‘Animals’ is one of the bright spots on the album. It’s very much like ‘Screenager,’ with moody, dark lyrics like “do us all a favor; come on and kill yourself.” It brings back that Showbiz-era angst, which hasn’t been seen in years.

8. ‘Explorers’ – This song is puzzling. Clocking in at nearly six minutes, it’s the longest song on the album and I’m not sure why. It’s a bland, rather empty one and begs the question as to why it even made it off the cutting room floor. Piano driven anthems are what Muse is all about, but this is a vapid one.

9. ‘Big Freeze’ – From the start, this sounds just like a U2 song. Matt Bellamy’s vocals go into ridiculous territories and the instrumental elements just aren’t Muse. This personifies the album as a whole; it’s confusing, messy, and simply poor.

10. ‘Save Me’ – The first of two tracks that see Wolstenholme as lead vocals, this slow, melodic tune may be very personal, but it doesn’t inspire much excitement. It kind of just plods along for five minutes, and though there’s a build at the end, it never culminates in anything worthwhile. It’s a nice change of pace to hear Chris take lead vocals, but the song itself is too weak.

11. ‘Liquid State’ – This is the antithesis of ‘Save Me.’ The second of Chris’ lead vocal tracks, it’s a wave of distorted bass fuzz from the very start. Sadly it’s one of the shortest songs on the album. Coming across more like a fleshed out Dom and Chris drum n’ bass jam, it doesn’t make it any less of an awesome track. Muse fans have wanted to hear Chris take the lead vocally for a while, and these three minutes of modern rock bliss is exactly what they expected it to sound like. Awesome.

12. ‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable’ – The not-really dubstep track that started it all. It’s more of a song built around Matt Bellamy messing around with distortion pedals and his famous kaoss pad than an actual dubstep song. Hard to tell if they’ll attempt to play live. As an experimental track, even though it’s not good, they get points for trying.

13. ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System’ – Muse have a knack for finishing albums with a bang, as evidence by The Resistance’s three part Exogenesis symphony and ‘Knights of Cydonia’ off Black Holes & Revelation. Add to that the album sub-title on this song, and you’re expecting something epic, yes? Instead what we get is an evasive, slow piano instrumental. It sounds more like something you’d hear at the credits of a movie, and not the main credits, that second song that comes on after everyone has left and they’re still scrolling all the PA’s names. A terribly anticlimactic way to end the album.

So that’s The 2nd Law. Unfortunately it’s as bad as we initially feared. Not only is it hands down their worst album to date, but it boasts several entries on their worst individual songs to date as well. It’s a shame when your favorite band completely goes off the deep end but that seems to be the case with Muse. One could would say “at least you’ve got their live shows” but being that they like to ignore the back catalogue, play 90 minute sets maximum and will be playing at least five songs off The 2nd Law (using The Resistance Tour is a barometer), it’s not worth the likely $100+ price tag for arena gigs. Farewell Muse, it was fun while it lasted. Oh, and it’s not me, it’s you.

Rating: 3/10

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