When it first became known that progressive rock band Muse was incorporating dubstep, of all things, into their new release The 2nd Law, you could almost sense the global assembling of the critics at the starting gate, hovering like so many hyenas and vultures, ready to pick the album apart the second the advance copies came out. After all, with dubstep now as intensely popular in the EDM scene as it is (and now even appearing in mainstream pop), how could this be seen as anything other than a sell-out? Not to mention that Muse is already fodder for the critics for the simple reason that their sound and vibe is rooted in overstatement and melodrama.
But if there’s anything we should know about Muse, it’s that they are a band defined by doing nothing small; they’re just going to put it out there, and let the chips fall. Furthermore, they do everything on purpose, and if they’re doing dubstep on the record, dang it, there must be a reason for it. Regardless of said reason (which will no doubt be debated and speculated about for years to come), The 2nd Law plays remarkably well as an album—or more specifically, as a Muse album.
But I will say that if Muse is trying to scare the hell out of us, they’re not doing a very good job of it. Frankly, this is the most fun you can have with an album immersed in pre-apocalyptic themes. I’m not saying that sarcastically; the album really is enjoyable to listen to. Whether this is the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, or whether Muse’s sense of drama is actually detracting from the message—that’s also a matter of discussion. But from a musical standpoint, for people who “get” Muse, this album is very likely to please.
The epic tone is set with the opening track “Supremacy,” perhaps the album’s strongest actual political statement, set against a blend of heavy guitars and James Bond-esque strings in a manner that would make Queen proud. (And let’s face it, the overall musical direction of Muse is going to bring inevitable comparisons to Queen—just get used to it.) From there, the album descends into “Madness,” Muse’s first hint at dubstep, but interestingly used as more of a slow-jam as Matt Bellamy philosophizes about love. Other notable points on the record include “Survival,” Muse’s contribution to the London Olympics, and the most Queen-esque sounding track; “Big Freeze”, the most U2-esque sounding track; and “Follow Me,” which opens with a recording of the heartbeat of Bellamy’s then-unborn child in the tummy of wife Kate Hudson, and moves into the album’s first prominent move into dubstep.
The record’s apocalyptic vibe really kicks into gear during the second part of the record, starting with “Animals” and continuing to the end. And here’s probably where the band makes their first really questionable move. Specifically, someone should tell Bellamy that when you write a song as a lullaby to your baby boy (“Explorers”), you should leave out lyrics like “This planet’s overrun / There’s nothing left for you or me.” That’s just gonna keep the kid awake at night once he gets a little older.
The final two tracks really bring home the album’s message, generally through instrumental music punctuated by fictional news clips. In “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”, the band really brings out the dubstep to emphasize their point, while the final track, “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”, is more like a reflective musical coda on the whole thing—“think about what this all means.”
The Second Law of Thermodynamics essentially states that in any transfer of energy in an isolated system (like the world or the universe), some energy gets wasted. You can therefore draw the conclusion that the amount of unusable energy (entropy) is constantly increasing, and eventually all the energy will unusable. Translation: we are all doomed. (Unless, of course, we can find a way to break the cycle, which is what Muse is no doubt pressing us to do.) Whether you believe the band gets their message across in The 2nd Law, or whether you think they are overdramatizing, you still have to respect a band that puts it all out there without reservation. For Muse, at least, “do nothing small” seems to be a law all their own.