Thursday, November 1, 2012

Muse: The 2nd Law

Welcome back Muse!

If I had to pick my favorite band on the planet, I'd definitely be Muse.  So I was very excited to pick up their new album when it came out October 2nd.  Before I even heard a song on the album though, I heard about the, for lack of a better word, controversy surrounding it.  I say controversy in the sense that some fans were upset with the direction the band was taking.  One thing about Muse that I love that you'll always hear me talk about is their constant evolution and progression.  They have this unquenchable thirst when it comes to music, they refuse to settle.  To me a complacent band is a boring band.  So I was actually pretty excited when I heard people talking (some of them angrily...) about this new sound Muse was unleashing on The 2nd Law.  Unfortunately to some fans and critics they will forever refer to this album as the album that "Muse went dubstep".  A completely unfair and wrong critique...

Muse gets compared to Queen a lot (a favorite band of mine).  The more reviews I read about Muse though, especially with this album, the more I realize that the comparisons are dead on, but not necessarily because of the layered harmonies and overdubs (that helps and Muse does it with a nice nod to Queen, but in no way rips them off).  It is actually the fact that the critics don't seem to get Muse, much like the critics back in the 70s and 80s never really got Queen.  Critics (not all, but many) lashed out at Queen for their sound, their theatrics, wardrobe and tongue in cheek nature.  They didn't get it.  Queen never conformed to the standard "rock sound" of the time.  Queen used the studio like an instrument, and were constantly evolving and changing.  Critics never had a chance to catch up.  Now Queen, rightfully so, are seen as the innovators and geniuses that they always were.

Enter Muse.  Their sound is unlike anybody else out there today.  So while their vocal harmonies and touch of theatrics evokes comparisons to Queen, the real comparisons is the fact that most critics just don't get it.  Now I don't want to make it seem that every Muse album is trashed by the critics.  Not at all.  What I'm trying to get across is that I don't feel that people are seeing Muse as the real innovators that they are.  Their albums are a continuous evolving piece that leaves hints of where it's going to go as it charges along.  Case in point, their last album The Resistance.  There was  a song on there called, Undisclosed Desires.  It was unlike anything Muse had recorded up to that point, it involved electric drums, keytar-like instruments, and an emphasis on more electronic beats.  That right there is what I believe was the prelude or birth of what would become The 2nd Law.

So how about I finally start talking about their new album?!

Well the album starts off with a bang (Supremacy), there is no intro for you to get a firm hold before you are launched into Muse's best attempt at writing a James Bond theme song (a damn good one I might add, I hope the producers of Bond 24 are taking notes...).  It has all the hallmarks of a great Bond tune, the strings, the spy-like riffs and the exploding chorus.  A great intro song and a great example of Muse starting to flex their muscles and letting you realize this isn't going to be unlike any other of their albums.  This song also lets you know this album is going to be a showcase of Matt Bellamy's vocal range.  He is all over the place with this song, his falsetto soaring over riffs and strings.  They even go a little "thrash" towards the end (Dominic Howard, the drummer kicks ass on this song), letting themselves go completely wild.  In true Bond fashion though, the song ends with a final guitar riff that is perfect.

Madness is one of the few songs I've heard that puts me in a trance a soon as I hear that hypnotic opening.  Bassist Chris Wolstenholme is on double duty for this track with a double neck instrument, a Misa Kitara (a digital MIDI controller) on top and a headless bass on the bottom.  I feel this song is a direct descendent of Undisclosed Desires.  This song is a triumph for Muse.  They set aside the big heavy riffs, and wild falsetto vocals for a introspective song of paranoia and the effects on the relationships between people (something VERY Muse-like).  The reason I bring up the trance it puts me in is because I feel like it is a setup for what happens around the midway point.  An "excuse me while I kiss the sky" guitar break from Bellamy that snaps you back into reality and for I think is one of the most inspiring and cinematic endings to a Muse song ever.  A complete realization from the singer that what he needs is, "to love.".  We also get another soaring vocal line from Bellamy, this time in his normal register (and with a touch of falsetto toward the end).  He sings the line with such conviction and emotion that you can't help but feel optimistic with a lump in your throat.  Just as you feel that the song is going to explode into total hysteria and um...madness, Muse reigns it back in, and the trance is regained if only for a moment.  We realize that the singer's relationship is nothing more, than madness, however detrimental or possibly beautiful, that's up to you.  A real beauty of a song and possibly the song of the year for me.

So after my first listen to Madness I sat there in awe for a moment, only to be immediately snapped back into reality with the motha funker of an intro to the next track, Panic Station.  This song actually does remind me of a lost track off of Queen's (see even I compare them sometimes...) 1980 album The Game (for you non Queen fans out there, it's the album with Another One Bites the Dust).  This song evokes everything 80's, slap bass (Chris steals the show with his bass intro), pop brass, razor sharp synth riffs and a vocal call and response line from Bellamy.  The great thing about this song is the building wall of sound that is constructed throughout and only to be eventually torn down.

The next song is "The Official Song of the 2012 Olympics".  Now Muse didn't write this song specifically for the Olympics, it just happened that way.  This is the song that you need to have in your iPod to help you get through that last rep or lap.  It is the "Muse-iest" song on the album.  What I mean by that is it is totally ridiculous, over the top, grandiose and wonderful.  Muse always has these songs on their albums to show you how out of this world they can truly be (United States of Eurasia and Knights of Cydonia to name two...).  The song starts with a Prelude which is very Muse, and is a beautiful piece of music in it's own right.  What we are treated to after that is Survival.  Bellamy wanted to get inside the mind of the athlete and find out what it is that makes them tick and want to continue to fight on.  I said earlier that Madness was a triumph for Muse, this song is equally triumphant.  The vocal line hits every note of Bellamy's range, with some notes soaring beyond belief ("Yes I'm gonna WIN!!").  The Greek-like chorus of souls chanting ("So I told you!"), counter the cheery happy piano intro.  The song evolves from that intro into a full blown stadium/sports anthem.  The riffs are huge, the drums are pounding and the lyrics are inspiring.  The lyric that always gets me is,  "And I'll reveal my strength, to the whole human race!"  Being a comic book fan, that line always makes me think of a young Clark Kent realizing his powers and what he is going to become one day...a Superman.  Ok, I had to throw that in...back to the album...

The next song Follow Me is one of the more emotional songs for Bellamy.  He is a father for the first time while writing and recording this album, so naturally this is going to effect the way he writes.  Follow Me I believe is the product of that.  The song takes up to this point of the album (there's a big one later...) probably the biggest step toward the electric sound they were going for on the album.  The chorus explodes and takes you into a digital landscape that Muse pulls off very well.  The electronically slick feel is mixed of course with the emotionally powerful lyrics and what I considered some of Bellamy's best and most powerful vocal work at the end (which is very reminiscent of Springsteen's wails and cries at the end of Jungleland).

Animals is a slow bowling track that builds as it goes along.  Bellamy's vocals are smooth and airy but also filled with rage.  This is a song pointing the finger at the "animals" of the human race destroying the very planet they live on (i.e. the fat cats he sliced and diced on The Resistance's opener Uprising).  It's a song that makes you wonder, how can people be capable of causing so much harm, and never having to answer for it.  The cries and anger that accompanies the song's end says it all.

Explorers is beautifully haunting.  A cliched term maybe, but very true in describing this song.  The planet isn't infinite, and the themes of this song are similar to Animals in a way.  Will it be too late when we finally realize we are abusing this planet and tapped it for everything it has to offer?  This is a heavy song folks.  The melody is top notch, and Bellamy completely captivates with his vocals (a common trend on this album!).  I don't mean to get preachy, and never want to get political, but the themes in this song (and the overall album) are important.  Read the lyrics on this one.

The next song Big Freeze is a driving upbeat song that slips in and out of the shadows (does that even make sense?).  The intro is classic Muse.  I does have a bit of Black Holes And Revelations on it, the intro, the vocals, the chorus and the lyrics.  It's inspiring, and Bellamy pleads with us ("Hear me!  What words just can't convey!")  I love the call and response vocals throughout the song.  It gives the song depth.  The band is tight on this track, the guitar break is perfect and a bar away from full blown insanity.

Save Me is interesting for a couple reasons.  The first kind of stupid reason is, the intro for a split second reminds me of Lawrence of Arabia.  The second and more important is that it is Chris on vocals!  He regularly tackles the back-up vocal duty like a champ, but to hear him step into the limelight and shine is something wonderful.  He wrote the tune to, a personal one about his alcoholism and the people in his life that no matter what happened stayed with him throughout it all.  A gem of a track and I'm very pleased Bellamy gracefully handed over the mic to Chris.  The vocals are layered and never reach the absurd (not that when Muse does that it's a bad thing).  A powerful song, written by the quietest member, but sung loud and clear.

That isn't the last we hear of Chris on vocals though!  The very next track Liquid State has Chris on vocal duties again.  This time his voice is a little harder edged and in your face, but still holds that melodic quality to it.  This song deals with Chris' alcoholism again, and this time deals with the inner demons fighting with the sober side.  The aggression works, and you can hear the struggle for freedom from the bottle.  A hard rocker indeed.  It's interesting that even though the song rocks, it never loses control and becomes just a generic rock track.  The lyrics keep it grounded just enough.

The next song The 2nd Law: Unsustainable is the the track that kind of freaked out some fans, and divided others.  This was the first track I heard months before the album was released when the band had a trailer put out about the upcoming album.  The intro is something you'd expect to hear in an epic film directed by Christopher Nolan or Peter Jackson, aggressive strings and soaring melodies, then we are giving the definition of the 2nd law of  thermodynamics.  AH HA!  It all makes sense now, the album title, the themes of the songs...

All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way that the availability of the remaining energy decreases. In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system, the entropy of that system increases. Energy continuously flows from being concentrated, to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted, and useless. New energy cannot be created and high-grade energy is being destroyed. (THE 2ND LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS)

The album and the majority of the songs are about this very definition.  THE PLANET ISN'T INFINITE (sorry caps lock got stuck...).  So after getting a bit of an education on thermodynamics the bands ROARS (damn caps lock...) into the most fearless choice a band has made all year, they go dubstep!  The song does evolve to a more tradition rock song with Bellamy wailing over the electronic shout of "UNSUSTAINABLE" .  The cool thing about this song, and the dubstep part especially is it's all done with their own instruments.  Muse was interested in the idea of dubstep, and the laptop being the new amplifier and/or guitar.  They wanted to see if it was possible to create that sound organically.  Many scoffed at the idea, but once you hear the finished result, there isn't any doubt...Muse did what most thought was impossible.  They made a smart, epic dubstep track with solely their own instruments.  I'm don't listen to dubstep, so I'm kind of a fish out of water talking about the genre, but one thing I know's heavy!  Muse grasped on the idea of the heavy bass and huge beats and made it their own. Another HUGE triumph in their career, and the biggest step forward to a new sound and direction the band has ever taken.

The album finishes with The 2nd Law: Isolated Systems.  I guess what you'd call Part II of The 2nd Law Electronic Opera?  Hm...sounds good to me.  This strings are a bit more quiet and haunting than the biting striking strings that were heard during the intro to The 2nd Law: Unsustainable.  Bellamy says it best, "It's the noise of humanity on a tiny planet in the middle of nothing...".  A perfect end to the album.  And a reminder perhaps?

Well that's it folks.  To call this album a cinematic album is almost an understatement.  It's huge, moving, haunting and brilliantly ballsy.  Muse doesn't push the envelope, it shoves it out the door.  I can't want to see these guys on tour, and what they decide to tackle next.


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