Aural Impressions: Muse, The 2nd Law

I’ve been a fan of Muse since 2003, just after they reached mainstream popularity for the first time.  In late 2005, at the beginning of my complete obsession with music, I dove into their discography and have played the hell out of them since then.  The trio is just so goddamn talented they’re hard to resist.  Since their second (and, in my opinion, best) album Origin of Symmetry, classical influences in their songwriting have been coming ever closer to the forefront.  As an amateur musician myself I find that extra appealing.  Whenever Muse comes out with new material, I pay very close attention to them and analyze the shit out of their stuff.  Singer/guitarist/pianist/virtuoso Matt Bellamy seems to have gone off the deep end with his lyrics and themes since 2006, but his (and the rest of the band’s) musicianship is still as strong as ever and that’s evident on their 6th album The 2nd Law, which was made available to stream on September 23rd.  After several listens, these are my impressions of the album tracks:

  1. Supremacy: WHAM. What an intro. This songs starts off with an awesome plodding bass riff featuring upfront staccato strings (a la Rob Dougan).  It adds Bond-like backing strings and even features a jazzy tremolo guitar chord at the end.  The verses are complete with military marching snares and brass the second time around.  The vocals are solid and Matt showcases his falsetto in the chorus.  I firmly believe this would make an awesome addition to any movie soundtrack. In fact, it almost sounds like it was written with Skyfall in mind.*cough*
  2. Madness: This one is a little different, but that’s to be expected of Muse at this point in their careers.  It’s sublime and very electronic. I actually really enjoy the lyrics, but I absolutely love the harmonies.  It builds nicely, taking its time to do so before it opens up in the end.  It gets big, but not too huge as has been a common theme of Muse’s later catalog. It took a little bit of time to get used to the wubbing synth, but it’s definitely grown on me.
  3. Panic Station:  First impression: a big load of WTF (a phrase which coincidentally appears in the song). After four listens, I’m still trying to figure this one out.  It’s overly funky; it’s got slap bass, quirky tweaked-out vocals, a stuttering rhythm, synth brass, disco guitar, and a solo that almost sounds like a repeat of the riff from “Uprising” in several different keys.  It’s catchy and danceable if you’re into that kind of thing.  I have yet to make sense of the lyrics.  Unless it grows on me, this one’s gonna be gathering some dust in my library.
  4. Prelude: They’ve gone full classical. There’s really not much else to say.  It’s a short instrumental with big piano like one would find in a piano concerto by Tchaikovsky or Chopin.  It’s got a full orchestra with lush strings. My first impression was that it sounded a little bit like The Beatles “Good Night” in a minor key and without the cheese.  I’m sure that will change once I track down more accurate classical influences.
  5. Survival:  It starts off with Queen-like piano (a la Bohemian Rhapsody) and a chanting backing choir.  I like the first guitar solo and the key changes that happen halfway through, but I really love the second guitar solo with its diving bass breaks (which sounds like it would be wicked fun to play). I’m not crazy about the fight/win chant at the end; in fact most of the lyrics are bland, too dependent on rhyme, and repetitive.  The whole song is huge and bombastic,  which I suppose is fitting for Olympics for which it was written.  It’s an okay song overall, but damn, Matt’s got some pipes on that last note.
  6. Follow Me:  This one appears to be a lullaby, starting with vocals over light strings. Electronics come in to pick up the pace, building into an uplifting first chorus, reminiscent of “Endlessly” from Absolution. The second chorus is the first dubstep on album, an introduction met with mixed reaction from the fan community when it was revealed months ago.  The vocals are catchy, but the dubstep synth hurts my ears; I can hear the rest of the mix getting sucked down as it wubs.  That’s just sloppy production.  Eventually the whole thing turns into electro-pop, which I’m more or less ambivalent towards.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a single.  Seems made for radio.
  7. Animals:  Beginning with electric piano, sparse drums and guitar, it’s perhaps the most old-Muse-like song in years.  Oh yeah, and it’s in 5/4.  Awesome!  It also features an Absolution-like chorus chord progression, with awesome clean bass beneath.  I would say it’s my second favorite on the album at the moment.  I absolutely love the bridge, which features a frantic guitar solo, but more interesting is that it has three measures of 5/4 and one of 6/4, or over four bars, 21/4 (Aside: I love odd time signatures).  The last minute or so takes a darker heavier turn as the guitars are turned up and sound effects of rioting people are mixed in and remain as the song below fades away.
  8. Explorers:  Guitars are not to be heard in this one, featuring Matt crooning over a dreamlike solo piano.  The immediate beginning vocals use the melody from “Shine,” but that quickly makes way for a new sound.  It evolves into a hybrid of “Invincible” and “Guiding Light” as strings of chords from both songs are cherry-picked in their entirety and used in the chorus.  This is another song with an second-half key change, and that part for some reason sounds a lot to me like early Keane (Everybody’s Changing, specifically). It ends the same way it started.  It’s a pretty average song, but I’m put off by the blatant recycling of previous motifs.
  9. Big Freeze:  This one starts with guitars that sound like they’re playing a toned down “Map of the Problematique” effect.  Soon they make way for guitars that if you don’t listen twice might sound like they’re being played by The Edge on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”  It’s a big song with a soaring chorus, but after several listens it remains not very notable (much like “Guiding Light” was for me on The Resistance).  In the mix there is a harpsichord like there was in “Animals.”  I must say though the ending is quite strong as it gets a bit dirtier with multiple guitar solos and more deep bass.
  10. Save Me:  This is the first of two songs featuring bassist Chris Wolstenholme on lead vocals.  It begins with heavy atmosphere and airy vocals that like “Explorers” also remind me a bit of early Keane (specifically, Untitled #1).  The echo of the guitar is very much along the lines of post-rock, and at one point in the verse, Matt plays the final chord from Radiohead’s “Bulletproof…I Wish I Was.”  I doubt it was intentional, but I go straight there every time I hear it.  “Save Me” picks up momentum at the chorus and continues building with electronic vocal harmonies.  The vocals blend into the mix nicely, rather than standing out front like Matt’s tend to.  Ultimately, very few things in this track are reminiscent of Muse.
  11. Liquid State:  The second of Chris’s songs.  It’s very post-grunge/stoner rock (a la Queens of the Stone Age or Kyuss) with a lot of fuzz and crunch.  The guitar/bass riff is immediately reminiscent of “Unnatural Selection” and the vocals remind me of Shimon Moore from Sick Puppies (which is a good thing).  It’s got tight verses and big wide choruses.  It’s not very long, and it feels like it could have (read, should have) kept going.
  12. The 2nd Law: Unsustainable:  The end of this album features what appears to be another multi-movement track like “Exogenesis” had been on The Resistance, but these last two tracks are so very dissimilar.  “Unsustainable” has frantic strings. immediately reminiscent of “Exogenesis” and steady crescendo with a faux-newscast narration overlaid.  I’m ambivalent about the chorus, which was the dubstep part revealed a few months ago, but I have no doubt it would be killer live.  After all, these guys are playing all of their instruments to make this sound rather than a laptop.  I don’t really care for dubstep (as I said before, it hurts my head), but this is certainly not dubstep in the traditional sense. Anyway, the interlude immediately following the chorus is easily the best part of this track and it rarely fails to give me chills.  It features the only vocals in either of the two “The 2nd Law” tracks and some fantastic string work.  This one seems a bit short though, and doesn’t really develop beyond the interlude; the second chorus is nearly identical to the first and abruptly ends the track.
  13. The 2nd Law: Isolated System:  Muse have certainly saved the best for last.  This track is fantastic, and by far the best on the album. It’s spacey and mellow, yet uneasy.  Multi-layered melodies of piano and guitar are joined by a steady kick drum and disconcerting sound bytes before it all fades to just a solo piano.  Before long they’re all back in force, taking you on a journey through deep space before they leave you drifting alone.  It’s trance- and goosebump-inducing, like “Ruled By Secrecy” with an electronic Kid A-like beat.  I can unequivocally say that this is the kind of music I want to make.  The whole album up to this point was only slightly above average in my opinion, but “Isolated System” pulls it up several levels.  It’s in a universe all its own.

Musically, The 2nd Law is much closer to Absolution than the last two albums, though stylistically it’s pushing the boundaries of the group once again.  Honestly, I had low expectations for The 2nd Law given that The Resistance was unable to live up to its own astronomical expectations and hype.  In some parts my low expectations were met.  At times the music is overblown (Survival, Follow Me) and at others it’s downright weird (Panic Station).  However, tracks like “Animals” and “Isolated System” are without a doubt some of the best songs Muse has ever written.  I’m not really sure how it stacks up against The Resistance or Black Holes and Revelations at this point, but for the most part it’s a more cohesive work than previous efforts.  Definitely worth a listen, even if it’s just to get to its amazing conclusion.


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