No other album has caused this much personal disappointment and heartbreak. Muse is a band who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, rising above the Radiohead comparisons to gain their own fevered following the world over, on their own terms. Combining lyrical and vocal theatrics with pyrotechnical guitar work they were a force to be reckoned with. The 2nd Law is proof that this once mighty band is at a creative low, releasing the most scatterbrained and uneven album of their career.
How did we arrive at this sad state? Discovering the band in the down time between Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations, my mind was blown. Here was a band that rocked really hard, but had a sense of drama, with almost every song feeling like a cathartic revelation. Their first three albums are incredible pieces of rock—nigh untouchable. When Black Holes came out, it was certainly poppier, but it was still a great rock album. The Queen touches were starting to show with “Knights of Cydonia” and even the more experimental tracks like the Flamenco-flavored “Hoodoo” still flowed with the album. “Starlight” is still one of the most touching songs they’ve ever written.
The Resistance arrived and threw many for a loop. The first song leaked on the internet, “United States of Eurasia,” which was a strange Queen-influenced piano ballad that seemed laughable at first but in the context of the album it was pretty great. “Uprising” felt a little generic but also seemed okay. It took longer than any other album, but eventually the album clicked and while it was far and away my least favorite from them, it still had semi-regular rotation—if for nothing else than the epic three-part symphonic suite “Exogenesis” that proved even when they went out on a limb they could still pull of their ridiculous ambition.
A few months ago the album teaser for The 2nd Law was released and many, including myself were up in arms. The quick tease included bits that definitely sounded like…dubstep. It was unsettling but hoped they were just messing with us. “Survival,” the official song of the 2012 Olympics was overblown pomp and circumstance, sounding like a parody of Muse penned by a high-schooler channeling ELO. More than anything hopes were that this was a throwaway track for the Olympics and would be buried.
Then the full dubstep-influenced song “Unsustainable” was released and it was just as awful, if not more awful than the teaser led us to believe. Its awfulness churned my stomach. What were they doing? This isn’t the reaction from some staunch rock purists! This horror is from someone who actually likes dubstep, enjoying many tracks from artists like Skrillex, Figure and Bassnectar. Think about it like this: just because I enjoy goat cheese and chocolate chip cookies does NOT mean the two should be eaten together. Ever.
“Madness” was released as a single and my heart dropped. This was more electronic gibberish with a soft emo touch. But somewhere deep down there was a part of me that thought, “Surely these are anomalies and the rest of the album will rock!” Leading track “Supremacy” certainly gave me that false hope. It has all the pageantry of an opening song but those guitars were back! And the screams! Could it be it was all just a bad dream? Unfortunately this almost feels like a wave goodbye to the Muse of old because nothing else sounds like this. “Madness” follows afterward and somehow sounds more pleasing in the album context. “Panic Station” is easily one of the best tracks on the album, albeit incredibly Prince-sounding. More so than that, it sounds remarkably like Under The Influence of Giants (the former band of AwolNation’s lead singer), combining rock and disco funk.
Surprise! After a minute long symphonic interval “Survival” oozes into your ears. Turns out it wasn’t a one-off song for the Olympics. Here it is, painfully taking up real estate on the album and still as shudder-inducing as ever. “Follow Me” keeps the shudders rolling in when another song with dubstep sounds rears its ugly head. These audio touches were probably put in to distract from the lack of substance in this song, coming off as one of their weakest tracks yet—even if you ignore the wobbling affectations. “Animals” is also a bright spot as a subdued number with no obvious influences screaming at you, preferring to be a quiet reflection sweetened by some excellent sounding harpsichord. “Explorers” isn’t bad either per se—it’s just that it sounds like a retread of “Invincible” without the euphoric ending. Influences once again leap to the forefront with “Big Freeze,” sounding so much like U2 that the iPod had to be checked for accuracy.
Here’s where the album takes a unique turn. For the first time in the band’s career, bassist Chris Wolstenholme steps up to the mic, singing his own compositions. It’s a strange choice to make his songs a double-header, placing them next to each other. Sprinkled throughout the album it could have seemed to have more flow and not come off as an afterthought. They’re also stuck at the back half of a less than great album, which means they will never get the respect they deserve. “Save Me,” is a beautiful and serene song that makes the puffery of Matt Bellamy’s compositions all the more laughable. It’s also funny that he manages to pen “Liquid State” a song that musically sounds far more like old Muse than anything else on the album. It’s nothing revelatory but shows just how integral Chris and his bass groove were to those beloved songs on Origin of Symmetry.
Finally, here to twist the dagger the deepest is “Unsustainable,” with all of its strange paranoid schizophrenia on full display, starting like the opening of a bleak dystopian movie before launching into robots and dubstep beats. It’s still painful every single time as Matt’s signature wails fight for room amongst wild robotic sounds. “Isolated System” continues the theme of the previous track, but over its five minutes feels like it goes absolutely nowhere, ending this maddening affair on a whimper compared to the bombast of previous closing tracks “Knights of Cydonia” and part three of “Exogenesis.” By the time the album ends you’re baffled and perhaps even in tears over how such a great band could go so terribly wrong. The album is incredibly uneven with only a few tracks worthy of earning space on your MP3 player. They’ve broken my heart and it’s difficult to say whether they or their music can ever be trusted again.
Jarad Matula | Senior Writer