To all the Muse fans concerned that the band was set to take their sound in a new, dubstep-inspired direction: feel free to breathe a sigh of relief because that’s not happening. Well, at least not yet. Yes, the first track to leak from Muse’s new one The 2nd Law was the track “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable,” and it absolutely falls under the dubstep genre. Interviews with band members about the change in sound yielded quotes about how inspired they were to see dubstep artists sending crowds into a frenzy with wires, drum pads and turntables. It turns out you can rock a crowd without the need for a guitar or drums or piano. If they truly took that message to heart though, they’d have made an entire album’s worth of crazy drops and frenzied dial-up internet noises. Instead, it’s just the one song. For most of The 2nd Law, it’s business as usual for Muse. Here is a band that has become more and more bombastic and arena-forged with each new release, apparently seeking to claim the crown that Queen left behind with fist-pumping anthems and tracks with titles like “Exogenesis: Symphony, Parts 1-3.” On the new record, songs like “Survival” and the opening number “Supremacy” are layered with huge orchestral swells that create a grandeur and excess the likes of which deserve to be the soundtrack to some big summer blockbuster popcorn flick. In fact, “Survival” was the official theme of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and it sounds every bit like it belongs as such. This is the Muse we met on the last album, 2009’s The Resistance. On the band’s 2006 record Black Holes and Revelations, they dabbled in synths and electronic textures more than they ever had before, and those sounds once again make themselves evident on this new full length thanks to the pulsations of first single “Madness” and “Follow Me,” the latter of which truly feels like a slowed down, less guitar-heavy remix of “Map of the Problematique” with nods towards U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Whether or not that’s a good thing is your decision, but it’s somewhat nice to hear a few stylistic nods back to their earlier material. It’s a real shame then that The 2nd Law suffers from such a saggy midsection. “Animals,” “Explorers” and “Big Freeze” all strip away the excess to remind you that this is still a relatively simple rock band that made great records like Showbiz and Origin of Symmetry not too long ago. The problem is that they fail to capitalize on the opportunity to do something interesting with these songs. They don’t need to go big to be great, they just need to remember that the smaller moments are of equal importance to everything else. Things do take a decidedly random turn towards the end of the record, when bassist Chris Wostenholme takes over lead vocals for the first time on “Save Me” and “Liquid State.” The former track comes across as a little jarring at first for two reasons: the switch in vocals and the very measured and delicate instrumental work. It’s the only song on the entire album that would function well as an Explosions in the Sky-esque post-rock adventure, if only those pesky vocals didn’t get in the way. Wostenholme doesn’t have a bad voice, it’s just for that particular track his singing hurts more than helps. Bellamy’s falsetto would have done a bit better with it, but really what that song needs is room to breathe. The crunchy metal-lite feel of “Liquid State” suits Wostenholme a lot more, though with the “Hysteria” or “Plug In Baby”-like aggression almost deserves an equally visceral vocal that’s not fully landing in this case. You could say he’s off to a decent start, but could use a bit more practice to equal the many fine other things Muse has done over the last decade. The 2nd Law closes with “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” and “The 2nd Law: Isolated System,” the first of which is the aforementioned dubstep attack, which really comes out of the blue when you consider everything that’s happened leading up to it. The other track is a calmer and lightly pulsating piano and strings instrumental mixed with more sound clips of announcers and news reporters all talking over one another about problems around the world. Working in tandem with “Unsustainable,” the two peas in a pod make a great statement about what this entire record could have sounded like. It’s progressive and interesting and completely unlike anything Muse have ever done before. For a band that likes to continually push the envelope and keep their fans guessing, this record is strikingly safe and overly sincere. The Resistance at least sounded like a band having fun by going completely over-the-top with excess. Interesting as it might be at times, The 2nd Law sounds like it was made by a band trying to find focus while going more and more blind each day. There are moments of clarity amidst their fumbling, but mostly you just hope they get some glasses and keep making engaging music for years to come.
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