The first time I ever heard Muse I was exhilarated. I have often said that the amount of utter garbage that is shoved down our throats (or in our ears) by the record industry increases incrementally every year. When I hear something different, something that immediately catches my ear and I stop what I am doing to ask, “Wait: What is this? Who is this?” I stop, pay attention and listen. And I listen. And I listen. And I listen.
“Knights of Cydonia” was my introductory song to the band—thanks to an enthusiastic game of Guitar Hero at a friend’s party one night. I quickly went out and purchased both “Black Holes and Revelations” and “Absolution.” I invested in the latter because when I told a few of my music snob friends about my new discovery, after being taunted for never having heard of Muse before, it was also suggested that I listen to Absolution. Most of my opinions of the band were formed from these two albums, but I have every single Muse album in my collection at this point.
I was excited to purchase “The Resistance” when it came out, but found myself somewhat let down. I tried to remind myself that when “Adore” (The Smashing Pumpkins) first came out, I was not initially impressed, but as the years went on that the album quickly became one of my favourites. I compare The Resistance to Adore because both were a significant shift from the style of music that built up either band’s initial popularity, though I would posit that Adore was a much more dramatic shift. The Resistance is still in my collection, but it has had very little continuing listening value to me.
Like most people, the first track I heard from “The 2nd Law” was “Survival” due to it being played and replayed for the 2012 Summer Olympics. I was not entirely certain how to interpret this song and what it would mean for the coming album. My very first impression was that it reminded me of a Queen song. Now, that said, I recognize that Bellamy’s vocals can be very Mercuryesque and this is not a new thing. It was more than the vocals–though admittedly, I felt that the lyrics and delivery thereof were definitely part of what helped me form this opinion—but also the background vocals and the repetitive, but exciting staccato build-up of the song. Being compared to Mercury and Queen is by no means an insult. I love Queen. But I suppose I walked away from this song with a strange taste in my mouth. I like to see bands go in new directions, especially a band that was already so far out there like Muse, but Survival made me feel like I was listening to a band that was gone before I was born.
So then I heard, just before the album came out, “Madness.” I felt the sort of excitement that I felt the first time that I heard Knights of Cydonia. Madness had the pomp and beauty and strangeness that made me fall in love with this band the first time around. Admittedly, it was considerably more poppy than Knights, but it was still riveting and exciting and—just damn catchy. It snatched me up the way that “Starlight” did on Black Holes, and the passion and dreamlike quality with which Bellamy sings, “Come to me, trust in your dream…” instilled a dream in me—a dream of what this album could be, forget the retrograde of Survival!
Let’s talk about the actual flow of the album now. It opens with “Supremacy.” Not unlike many of Muse’s songs—and not unlike the opening song of Black Holes, “Take A Bow,” Supremacy is driving, heartfelt anthem of political criticism that could be easily thrust at whatever political system you dislike the most. Before we all jump to say that he is singing about Obama or Romney, please remember that Bellamy is English. Now, this song is probably one of the best on the album—as opening songs should be—and has the first taste of something Muse brought to this album that floors me every time I hear it—the brass. But other than that, and Bellamy’s wild vocals, which I could never criticize, there is nothing particularly stellar about this song. It flows right into Madness, for an entirely different feel, and then into…
“Panic Station.” Hardcore Muse fans will probably disagree with me, but I think this is the best song on the album. It’s not because of the disco-funk of it (and let me tell you, nothing has made me want to do the Lawnmower so bad before), and as I suggested before, certainly not because my secret desire is to see Muse give up all of their forward progress and time-travel back to the 70’s when they should have been making music. It’s because of…the brass! The brass on this album is probably the only real saving grace, the only thing that will keep me listening to this album for very long—and there is no song on this album that utilizes the brass section as powerfully, flamboyantly, and ridiculously as Panic Station. So, if you listen to only one song on this album (and you probably don’t need to listen to much more than one) it should be this one.
Then we drop right into “Prelude,” which is really just a pretty, string-filled way to introduce Survival…I can’t honestly say why they made this it’s own track. Oh, well.
“Follow Me” is the beginning of the end of this album. I know, I know: You say, “We’re only on track 6 and you told us track 4 didn’t count, so how…?” Trust me. This song is just boring. Muse is great because they’re exciting, and they surprise you. Do you know what the surprise on Follow Me? Bellamy drops the bass. Yes, you read that correctly. Bellamy drops the bass. The song is slow and draws on and builds up, pinches in and…drops the bass. I do not have anything against dubstep. I think that there are a lot of interesting and exciting things you can do with dubstep. But, unfortunately, I also believe that we have been inundated, culturally, so heavily with dubstep, that to have someone who has proved themselves to be musical virtuosos resort to the power-play on the central song on their 13-song album (12 if you don’t include Prelude) being a drop of the bass? Yeah. Sorry, Bellamy. I believe in you, and I want you to create the beauty I know you’re capable of, but this is just cheap and lazy.
“Animal” just isn’t interesting. I mean, it has a cool ratchety breakdown that tricks you into thinking it’s going to pick up into something powerful, but never really gets there. The solo that we have instead is “okay” at best. I guess the best thing I can say about this song is that the line, “Kill yourself. Come on and do us all a favour,” is pretty good. Right after that line the song starts to pick up, but again: it never actually goes anywhere. I really, really, wish it would.
Then we’ve got “Explorers,” which starts out fairly pretty. This is one of the songs which I have seen being criticized as “overwhelmingly preachy.” I wish I could remember where I read that, because whoever wrote that article is a complete idiot. If you are just now starting to feel like Muse gets a bit preachy in their songs, then you have probably never listened to any Muse songs before. Not unlike Animal, Explorers never really gets anywhere and is a bit boring.
“Big Freeze,” is a song I want to be excited about, but I’m just not. Unfortunately, much like Explorers and Animal before it, it is a little boring and begins to build toward something that could absolutely devastate you, but never actually gets there. I enjoyed Bellamy’s vocals in this song a lot more than the other two, but then we go into…
“Save Me” and “Liquid State” should not even be on this album. I do not mean to disrespect someone who is an amazing musician, but for those of you who are only going to read this and not actually listen to the songs (which is a big mistake!) Chris Wolstenholme is the singer/songwriter for these two songs—both of which address his alcoholism, and both of which are actually really great songs that I love. These are probably two of the best songs on this album! Liquid State especially. After Panic Station, Liquid State is my favourite song on this album. However, the reason I say that neither of these songs should be on this album is because, as lackadaisical, unfocused, and just generally non sequitur this album is, the jump to these songs is jarring. We move from the eco-political rantings of Bellamy, the impossible jumps of vocal ranges, both sweet and severe, into an almost Mastodonesque (at least later era Mastodon) pair of songs that have an almost monotonous vocal range, and drive home personal feelings about self-destruction. I support the band wanting to promote songs written by someone who does not usually take the lead in song-writing…but couldn’t this have been done more smoothly? Couldn’t it have been put on an album where we heard this coming and it fit into the general flow of the album?
Speaking of jarring songs that do not fit into this album at all, let’s then move on to “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable,” which is a jump back into electronica and dubstep that has no bearing on Muse’s body of work whatsoever save for the fact that Bellamy’s beautiful moans are layered atop the mechanical thrust.
Then, we have an unspectacular end in “The 2nd Law: Isolated System,” in which we begin with some prettily tinkled piano keys—Muse apropos—and a few tracks about how the earth is dying or something like that—remember the zealotry I mentioned before? This one almost starts to pick up and…just like this entire album, just lets you down in the end wondering when the song is going to start. Fantastic wrap-up for this album.
So, sounds like I hated this album, right? Let me tell you, that when I read multiple reviews that lambasted it, I was determined to walk into it with ears open and loving. I wanted to embrace it. I reached out for songs that caught me in their snare—and Panic Station and Wolstenholme’s songs did actually catch me—but despite the wonderful brass section, this album had—not nothing else—but too much else. What was this album about? How was it supposed to make me feel? What mood should I be in when I listen to this album? Or maybe I should ask, what mood should I be in when I’m done listening to this album?
I do not expect musicians to keep producing the same style of music that gets them famous. I do not believe that artists of any kind are capable of creating in stasis. Creation is ever-evolving and you become something different than when you started. I have had trouble accepting that in the past, but now I embrace and even crave an artists change. But I don’t know if there was a real change here. I think this album was tightly recorded and produced, but beyond that it is rather…musically lazy. At least when you consider what we all know this band is capable of. The entire middle of the album left me bored, and I probably won’t remember any of those songs six months from now. The beginning was good, and the end was almost good, but ultimately failed to more laziness.
So, yeah. There you have it. I think it took me so long to write this review because I felt so bad saying so many bad things about a band I actually like a lot.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Listen to it yourself. Tell me what you think.
I just hope their next one is better. So far this is two in a row for me.