Sound — 8
"The 2nd Law", Muse's latest attempt at a musical masterpiece to wet the appetite of anybody who seems to enjoy their perspective on life, is difficult to put into words, and even harder to define. If pushed, I would say that it resembles being asked to apply toppings to a pizza, and being given 12,000 plastic robot soldiers to do it with. What the hell am I supposed to do with this? I am lost beyond words right now. The name comes from the second law of thermodynamics. Particularly, the classical variation based on the Shannon entropy. It's a complex metaphor to choose, but it's one that Muse seem to largely ignore until the later tracks on the surface of things. Broken down into simple terms though, the metaphor is this. Too much of the same thing is not helpful in the long term. Change is necessary.
Lyrics — 6
The opening track, "Supremacy", speaks of older Muse. The bassline is heavy and strong, Bellamy's lyrics speak of competing - taking down the big guns in a way that echoes "The Resistance". It is a strong, militant track, bearing such challenging lyrics as "the time it has come to destroy your Supremacy." To open with such a blatantly defiant track speaks volumes about the way Muse want this album to be perceived. It also ends with a western echo, similar to "Knights Of Cydonia", presenting quite a nice throwback to old Muse. And then, abruptly, that all changes, and we are presenting with the aptly named "Madness". This is not rock and roll, but is a Queen-esque little love song. The repetitive drone in the background starts out quite annoying, and some are bound to find it so the whole way through, but the layers of the track are such that it soon fades into the background. The beat is obvious, making this quite a nice, calm song to do a bit of a dance to. This is also the first track to really show how deeply this album appeals to the robot. I could do the robot to most of these tracks, and so could you, I'm sure. The solo displays the Queen influence again, but it is in the final section that Bellamy seeks to make the Muse mark on it. The third song is called "Panic Station". Again, the beat comes in strong from the off, and the lyrical echo, which becomes a feature of this album, begins. This song actually belies the title completely. It's about taking ownership of yourself and your choices by choosing to act in your own way. It's about doing things that might seem chaotic or strange to the people around you. It's about being you, and how other people seem to panic when people are real. It's at this point that a bit of an underlying message begins to emerge. Muse are talking about doing what they want to do, and how other people can have a negative take on this. I actually really like this track, and have already danced a bit of salsa to it. Oh, and the robot, of course. Seriously, this whole album begs for the robot. Now, "Prelude" is a strange one. It works similarly to the interval in "Absolution". It's a little taster of what might come in the future; "Unsustainable" in particular. The music is quite beautiful - relaxed but with a building tension, and then it vanishes much like it came. We're left then with "Survival", a track within which are layers upon layers of vocals, acting as instruments to suit the piano, drums and bass. The main lyrics themselves also build in the same way. The lyrics are once again about competing; refusing to be beaten by anything, even with no other target in sight. Old Muse make a cameo in the chorus, a strong, guitar driven blast in which Bellamy really lets go with both his vocals and his guitar work. This is a driving, ambitious track that is difficult to take seriously upon first hearing, but soon takes hold of you as the beat of a war march. A special shout out has to go to the brutal competing sections at the end of the track, in which the instruments literally do battle to the death. It's the sort of thing Death Metal guitarists would be blissfully proud of, and it's in a Muse song. The promised change in style, and input from many different genres was very obviously not a myth. Muse are extremely different in each and every track, making this album appealing to many different people in some parts and unappealing to those same people in others. There aren't many artists out there who dare to do such a project, and Muse's attempts to rejuvenate, alluded to in "Panic Station", "Supremacy" and "Survival", are clear in the music. "Follow Me" starts with an odd sound, sampled from the heartbeat of Matt Bellamy's son before he was born. It's an obvious tribute to fatherhood, and something that Bellamy will be able to play for his son in later years. It's about protecting those you love, guiding them, and inspiring them to do as you did in life. Bellamy must be fairly happy nowadays. "New Born" and tracks of that ilk were violent, angry pieces of music, whereas this album is full of optimistic, major scale works. "Follow Me" could be played in any dance club, and perhaps that's the intention. It's a dance track, with another loud, sustained beat driving it. That said, it plays out quite confusingly after talking about change, revolt and evolution that he would suggest that anybody follow anybody else, as this is the exact opposite of everything that Muse have always been about. It's interesting when you think about how Matt Bellamy might react when his son does begin his natural teenage rebellious phase and does exactly what Bellamy has always tried to do himself. Or maybe that's what should be followed. This one's actually a little deeper than it seems on the surface. We move on then to "Animals". Capturing human nature is difficult to do in song, especially in something that starts off beat heavy and distinctly soft-rock. Muse use this song to compare the modern society-inspired man to the animalistic neanderthal of bygone ages. The comparison is actually quite a strong one, but the song is a bit too obviously structured and basis to truly echo the lyrics. Once again, old Muse make a slight cameo with the later sections of this song. After returning to the theme about competition with lines such as "kill the competition" - a truly basic human instinct - their is a build, and then that collapses all too easily, before going right back to where it started. And then it really builds up, and we hear the sounds of angry voices. Could this one be inspired by the riots? Could it be something about just how advanced people thing they have gotten, but in truth, nothing really changes? There are lots of ideas, but it's a lovely blatant track, with not much hidden from plain view. I like that. "Explorers" is almost like a lullaby; soothing and relaxing, and yet truly bipolar. While being calmed, you are told not to give in, and also told that "there's nothing left, for you or for me". "Explorers" certainly suggests that more can be found by those that truly look for it, and yet asks repeatedly to be freed from a mistake made. This is another one suggestive of the evolution of the band, and how it should be taken as an exploration of what they might become in the future, while also perhaps challenging the flippancy of modern society. To dispose of technology, food and friends is fairly commonplace in the digital age. "Explorers" never really picks it. It remains calming throughout and the idea of being released from some bondage is repeatedly constantly. Likely the most rock song on the album after "Supremacy" is "Big Freeze", which, though sticking with the themes set out in the album, leans back an album in much the same way that Starlight was more suggestive of "Absolution". That said, it is once again contradictory with the rest of the album. It speaks of being beaten: "I lost before I started". Ultimately, the theme most obvious is that, once again, of being rescued by another person. The idea of the big freeze is, at its most basic, to keep things as they were, and that's rather blatantly where the lyrics go. The lyrical echo returns in strength, and the guitar work is more reminiscent of artists such as All-American Rejects. It once again kicks in in the chorus, bringing in layered vocals and a strange sort of intimacy. Intimate is likely a good word to describe this one. Chris Wolstenholme, primarily the bassist for Muse, has two tracks, one after the other, on this album. "Save Me" is the first, and once again continues the theme of being rescued, and two word sentences ending in 'me'. It's another somewhat laid back song, as if the artist in question had low expectations, but in the same way it's suggestive of a cry of desperation, or somebody who has given up already. Largely led by melodic guitar, "Save Me" offers little new, but helps to clarify the themes already presented. Wolstenholme's vocal contribution is, far from being just acceptable, perfectly suitable for the song, and a large part of the affect is that Bellamy isn't singing it. It helps to create a unity, and knit the album together. It's another lullaby; the calm before the storm, as it were. It's almost unobtrusive; asking for as little as possible. The second of these tracks is the distinctly old Muse "Liquid State"; featuring a driving bassline, energy vocals about getting rather brutally tortured by the rigours of life and the people within it. The sad thing is that it doesn't really go anywhere. Neither "Save Me" or "Liquid State" really evolve towards anything, but rather make a statement and then abandon it. It's yet another song requesting a rescue. It definitely makes me wonder why there's so much defiance, followed by so much defeatism on this album. Starting on such a high, "The 2nd Law" openly descends into darker matters as things go on, accepting that it is the purpose of life to challenge and, depending on where you are in the album, lose or win. And this is where old Muse dies. For track 12, we are treating to a tense orchestral opening, reminiscent of the old symphonies; startling in both simplicity and beauty. A female voice confirms the details of The 2nd Law of thermodynamics for those that don't know, but does so in a stutter, constantly stopping and starting and repeating herself in order to keep time. It's distracting, and quite upsetting. And then it goes into orchestral techno. "Unsustainable" is a look at how the world, the global economy and life in itself can not exist within change and evolution. This is actually a good way to say this, with so complete a change demonstrating that Muse are extremely different now from how they used to be. This is an ideal track for a dance or trance club, something that you could never say about Muse before. If this is the direction that Muse will be taking in the future, a lot of people will be switching off, but a lot of the themes suddenly make sense. The challenge has been put out there. They've considered both sides of victory and defeat and you are invited to make your choice and choose the next step. Their argument is equal parts compelling and divisive. "Isolated System", a reference once again to "The 2nd Law", closes things out. This is a mention of that system which, within, things do not change. I reserve a special shout for a line that sounded suspiciously like "beef o'clock" and make me think I was about to hear a musical documentary on kebabs. "Isolated System" presents a mirror to the world. It drives the eye towards our own society and our own collapsing economy. It's a slow paced, rarely variant song filled with debates and voices. And it ends as it began, closing out an album that started with a bang by offering only a slow whimper. The idea, surely, is to make you think about it.
Overall Impression — 7
What to make of the album overall is difficult. Muse have certainly evolved, changing almost entirely from the rock outfit that made them one of the most popular bands in the world. Perhaps, in gaining age, they have simply mellowed. There are many potential reasons. The biggest question will be the reaction of the fans, and judging by many of the themes in this album, that's a question that Muse have chosen to raise themselves. So what do you think? Personally, I find it hit and miss. "Panic Station" will go with me wherever I go, but I will be skipping both of the final tracks and the rest will depend on mood. In the same way that Dethklok once made an album for fish, Muse have put together a piece of art for all the robots out there. In an increasingly AI driven world, where the built-in brains of a computer game are smarter than any human, that's quite a clever move if you ask me.