(Image from amazon.com)
My history with grandiosity junkies Muse goes back to their third and, arguably, breakout album, 2003’s Absolution. From the spectacle of the Storm Thorgerson cover to the needle-like riffs, overwhelming basslines and incredible falsetto, it was something completely fresh to me at the time – a more extreme, bigger sort of rock music, but not in the way that metal was. I was shocked to learn that the din came from only three people. I was on board.
The follow-up, Black Holes and Revelations scaled back a little on the guitar attack, but turned up the grandeur eminently. Songs like “Map of the Problematique” and “Knights of Cydonia” had an immense gravity without necessarily having headbanging riffs to go along with them. It was this that would become Muse’s stock in trade, which took me a little while to get into when I realized what was happening. For the most part, I took a pass on The Resistance, but I have come back into the fold on The 2nd Law.
They have perfected the art of bombast to a tee, which is typified best on the lead track “Supremacy” and on the lead single and London Olympic theme, “Survival”. The former has its main riff realized by what sounds like a massive orchestra (strings and horns) on one side, and Bellamy’s guitar on the other, descending slowly but with force every step of the way, not to mention a legion of martial drumming to carry the verses along. The icing on the cake, is a now trademark vocal leap by Bellamy when he finally sings “suuuuuuuuupremacy!” near the top of his impressive range. “Survival” feels like a self-knowing wink at their own tendencies at this point, starting off with a plinky piano and fingersnaps, but rocketing up to a giant chorus with a huge choir backing his shouts of “I’m gonna win!!” (Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme providing an excellent steady rhythm section bedrock all the while).
It seems as if they’ve risen to the position of this generation’s Queen – they have a number of fantastic anthems in their pocket now, and are one of the best group arena rockers of the age (their visual show is also astounding and adds an extra dimension to the experience – even the songs you don’t like become events you can’t help enjoying). Each member is becoming more involved (bassist Chris Wolstenholme takes a turn both at the pen and the mic on “Save Me”, a slower paced paean and “Liquid State”, a solid, more straight-ahead rocker). And, except for their parlay in “United States of Eurasia” (I know, I said I pretty much passed on The Resistance, but I still heard it once or twice), they’ve very much done it on their own terms – there is no sense of them being a nostalgia act. And on The 2nd Law, they’ve seen fit to try and expand their palette.
“Panic Station” is where they dive into funk territory (Queen’s Hot Space, anyone?), conjuring Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” quite readily (even employing a clavichord and horn line in verse breaks that sounds very close), and providing a perfect dance beat that straddles the line well with their rock sound (whereas their earlier “Supermassive Black Hole” dove headlong into dance, quite unapologetically).
The first of the two title tracks sees Muse make the inevitable dabble with dubstep – the genre relies on the gut feeling and gigantic sound that Muse make such an intrinsic part of their music anyhow, it was only a matter of time. It begins, of course, with a mass of violins dashing out a panicky, frenetic line, and adds in a choir and quick sound clips come in and out. It works perfectly as the drops hit as hard as possible with a dash of guitar histrionics overtop to remind you who you’re listening to. Curiously other track also titled “The 2nd Law”, is a slower piano piece, which builds up some synthesized riffs and sounds similar to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”, giving off the same spooky vibe, made even more ominous by the clips of news programs speaking of overwhelming disaster and crisis on top of each other. At the live show, this piece was played with a fantastic visual element that lends itself to what could be an incredible narrative, which fits perfectly with the line of breathless paranoia which runs through just about all of the band’s albums.
Despite the quite successful bombast, my favourite moment on the album comes on the second track and single – “Madness” – which is one of the band’s quieter moments, with a fantastic melody, and great rhythm-establishing clip of Bellamy singing “m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mad-mad-mad”. Through its straight verse-chorus format, each run-though adds something extra – more harmonies, heavier beat – crescendoing with a chorus of Bellamys towards the end and the melody taking off. No falsetto or gigantic, crunching riffs. Not to mention the best solo I’ve ever heard from the band, with a fantastic tone and fantasic melody in its own right over the fairly serene backing.
This is the album of an assured band finally at the top of the heap. Not afraid to experiment, never afraid to go too over the top and consistently building on previous successes. For having originally made their name as a live band, their studio techniques are impressive. This is a nice swatch of what the band is capable of now having attained a status as current rock royalty.