Leading up to today’s release of Muse’s The 2nd Law, I found myself for the first time concerned about the direction the band was headed in. Based on what I saw around the net, this was a feeling many shared. Like myself, they were worried primarily about the introduction of dubstep into the band’s sound, but that soon morphed into a more general concern about the record itself and whether or not it would make up for their previous effort, The Resistance.
When it comes to the very last point, though, I was in the minority. Ask me what record of stands out most for me and I’d provide The Resistance as my answer. The main reason why is the orchestration utilized throughout. I can think of few better matches than Muse and a string section. That wasn’t the sole reason, though. It’s also my favorite in terms of lyrics, as I’ve had a thing for the dystopian as long as I can remember. Two songs, “Uprising” and “Resistance,” are even based loosely around one of my favorite works of dystopian literature, 1984. Together, these create a record that hits home with me in a way no other one of theirs has.
As an addendum, let me clarify that I love their other releases, just that The Resistance was the first to push Muse into that rare category of greatness reserved for those records that never wear out despite becoming my sole listening material for unseemly lengths of time. With that in mind, you can see why I would be as dubious of The 2nd Law as I was prior to its release. What I wanted, though I was probably alone in this, was The Resistance Pt. II, while what I appeared to be getting couldn’t be further from it.
At first, I tried to remain cautiously optimistic. In the initial trailer, nothing outside of the dubstep section exactly offended me, to be fair. Except it also did little to increase excitement on my part. A wait-and-see approach seemed like the best option, so that’s what I did. Then came “Survival,” official theme of the 2012 London Olympics, and things changed drastically. There was no dubstep, thankfully, proving that it would be more sparingly than I’d thought, but that was about it for the positives. Come the actual review, I’ll delve deeper into why. For now, I’ll simply say I was unimpressed by Bellamy’s vocals, a rarity for me as his is one of my favorite voices in music today.
At this point, my enthusiasm was at an all-time low and I was nearing skipping the record altogether. Luckily for me, though, “Madness” was the next to hit the web. While still not entirely up to par with what I’d come to expect from Muse over the years, it shined brighter than the sun in comparison to what I’d heard thus far and suddenly I had a renewed interest in the record. I would give it a shot after all. Chances are, it would disappoint me, a first for Muse, but that was a risk I was willing to take.
On first listen, I was right. Or so it seemed. The more I listened to it, the less sure I became of my stance on it. With each listen, I waffled back and forth between it being largely a disappointment and a relatively pleasant surprise. In the end, after a little over six listens, I’ve fallen approximately in the middle. The 2nd Law, generally speaking, is hit-or-miss. Yet it never quite gets a bullseye or misses the target completely. For more on that, it’s time I get to the review.
Kicking off the record is “Supremacy,” a song plagued, like much of the record, by the sounds chosen. In terms of content, it has Muse’s fingerprints all over it. What I take issue with is the execution. From the guitar tone to, at points, Bellamy’s falsetto, the song doesn’t quite mesh like it should. The booming brass, for example, sounds at odds with everything else, rarely coming together with the rest of the sounds as a cohesive whole. It’s not a poory written song. In fact, it has some of the catchiest lyrics of the entire record. My problem, which you’ll see I think applies to most of the record, is its realization leaves much to be desired.
From there we move to “Madness,” a song which takes a long while to get going. Though I like the opening minutes, with the stuttering “madness” that’s echoed throughout the song in the form of synths, and Bellamy getting a chance to show off the softer side of his vocals, it goes on too long for such a simple structure. It’s not until three-quarters into the song, following the weak guitar solo (a hallmark of this record, and one of my main qualms with it), that it picks up and turns into something more than a song that sounds nice enough, yet never really moves past that.
That’s when the backing vocals appear in full-force, giving the song the extra layer it needed to transcend its simplistic origins. If the song had just been cut down a tad, meaning it took less time getting there, this could have been that moment of real beauty that the record lacks. What a shame.
Next is “Panic Station,” which is like a better-done “Supremacy” in the sense that it’s undeniably catchy yet kept from being more by the sounds used. Admittedly, the guitar tone here is a noted improvement on the one heard in “Supremacy,” but it still doesn’t sound quite right to my ears. Though, it also is bolstered a tad by some fun brassy bits, and Bellamy is his usual self throughout, never piercing like he is at times on “Supremacy.” It’s those qualities that make it a marked improvement on the opener, yet the other aforementioned qualities which keep it, like the previous song, from achieving any form of greatness.
Preceding the next proper song is “Prelude,” a song showcasing what Muse excel at, which is soft, string-and-piano heavy sections. What I’m not sure about, though, is its placement on the record. As a “prelude” to the upcoming song, it does okay. But as a follow-up to the notoriously upbeat “Panic Station,” it seems like a rather random choice, a theme of the record.
Instead of feeling like a cohesive whole as The Resistance did, whether one likes it or not, it seems to hop around with no clear underlying idea tying it all together. From one song to the next, you might as well be switching bands or radio stations with how drastically different they can sound. This lack of focus is what’s to blame for its hit-or-miss nature, I think. When you’re jumping from one style to the next, as Muse is on this record, you’re bound to hit a sour note at some point, and they do their fair share of that.
Continue reading on the next page…Next
Then there is, “Survival,” which I already mentioned I have a certain distaste for. To begin, the foundation of the song sounds, if I’m going to be brutally honest, like the sort of thing I’d produce myself messing around on my Casio. By that, I mean it not only sounds terribly simplistic, it sounds bad as well. In particular, the choral parts sound cheap which, coming from one of the world’s most profitable bands, doesn’t seem right. Neither does Bellamy sounding this off his game. You can tell he’s trying to give his vocals some extra-added force to really drive the song forward, but that results in possibly the worst vocals he’s ever produced.
For examples of what I mean, listen to when he sings “race, it’s a race” or to the closing “I’m going to win.” He barely sounds like himself, and the same goes for the band itself. “Survival” sounds like a pale imitation of the Muse’s anthemic structure. It tries so hard to be epic, but comes across as forced, resulting in one of the worst songs on the record.
Continuing where “Survival” left off is “Follow Me,” with Bellamy still not sounding quite right at first. He improves as the song progresses, but it’s that start, and how short it is, that keeps it from achieving greatness as well. If the song were lengthened, allowing more time for buildup, something this song is sorely lacking in given its length, it had a chance at being something special. It already does something special, though, and that would be making dubstep tolerable. Used underneath Bellamy’s vocals, it oddly works, I’m surprised to say. However, that’s the only time in which it does.
After that is “Animals,” the first song to use a guitar tone which I unabashedly adore. If the guitars on the rest of the record sounded anything like this, my opinion on it might change drastically. Except this song isn’t without its problems or, rather, problem. That would be the fact that, whereas the previous song lacked a proper buildup to its climax, this song seems to lack a climax altogether. Unless you count the breakdown at the end, which I believe to be out-of-touch with everything that came before, it never goes much of anywhere. Still, I like the sound so much that I’m willing to forgive it for that.
Next up is “Explorers,” continuing the record’s love affair with sections where Bellamy sings softly over minimal instrumentation. That being said, he sounds terrific on this song, so I’m willing to give them a pass on that. Plus, of all the songs on the record, this is the one that seems to understand things like buildup the best. Starting at the beginning, it slowly builds up and then, right before it climaxes, it reigns itself back in and goes for another round.
Now onto “Big Freeze,” the anthem “Survival” (and others) wanted to be. As on “Animals,” the band nails the guitar tone, and as on the prior song, Bellamy shines. Unlike most of the record, though, the listener can really hear it building to a proper climax. But all that is ruined, at least in small part, by the end in which the guitar takes over, starting with another of the record’s weak guitar solos that’s made even worse by the addition of a sudden and unnecessary amount of feedback. It started off so promisingly, building up beautifully, but then it just stumbled to the finish line.
But there’s no such stumbling on “Save Me,” the first of two songs featuring bassist Christopher Wolstenholme on lead vocals. Admittedly, it’s second song to sound nothing like Muse, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case. Wolstenholme’s voice is simply gorgeous on this, even outdoing many of Bellamy’s performances on the record, and it’s his voice that carries the song and keeps it from getting too stale, as it’s all pretty samey.
He’s not as lucky on “Liquid State,” however, his voice overly processed and complimented by music that attempts to take the listener for a ride but ends up going nowhere especially worth seeing (or, rather, hearing). Even more than with “Save Me,” it sounds absolutely nothing like Muse. What it sounds like, I’m not sure. All I know is it has a certain mostly indescribable quality that makes it so it’s impossible for me to get into it in the least.
Finally, there are the two songs which bear the name of the record, “The 2nd Law: Unsustainble” and “The 2nd Law: Isolated System.” Both feel hopelessly out of place and tacked on. It’s as if the band went into this wanting to create a concept record, scrapped that idea, then threw the leftovers on at the end. As interludes between songs, or parts of a larger concept, these could work decently enough.
Slapped on the end, however, they only serve to undo any momentum the record might have had going with “Animals” through “Save Me.” In short, they don’t work by themselves, as they sound more like what you’d hear on a movie soundtrack than songs in the same vein as the others. Neither goes anywhere especially interesting with its music. That is, unless you count the awful and repetitive dubstep section of “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” as interesting.
Yet it seems fitting that that’s how it comes to an end. What makes The 2nd Law a slight disappointment comes down to three factors, the first two of which are displayed brilliantly by the final two tracks.
First, as I already said, I can find no discernible through-line tying all the songs together. As a result, it feels extremely disparate compared to the cohesiveness of the past record. Second, the record feels oddly simplistic and repetitive throughout and, thus, it has a hard time standing out at any particular moment in time. Third, the sound in general is not up to Muse’s usual standards. Bellamy often sounds, for lack of a better word, off. Likewise, the guitar tones are routinely bad, as are the majority of the solos.
All in all, it’s not necessarily a bad record, just one that could have used significant tightening in all aspects.Previous