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Progressive Rock CD Reviews


The 2nd Law

Review by John Pierpoint

Released in 2012, this album capitalised on the success of The Resistance with Muse making a conscious effort to further diversify their repertoire and try out new sounds, styles and technology. This time round, the Teignmouth Trio of Matt Bellamy (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Chris Wolstenholme (bass, keyboards, backing vocals – plus lead vocals on two tracks) and Dominic Howard (drums and keyboards) brought on board electronic “dubstep” techniques and enlisted a brass section, a string section and a huge choir. As with its predecessor, this album features some of Matt Bellamy’s finest vocalsthat screech that he employed on the first few outings having now matured into a powerful, expressive tone with a large range. The band continues to channel the music of Philip Glass, Queen and U2 in arrangements of these songs, but other influences also crop up. While many critics and some long-time fans derided the band’s latest effort, for me (someone who didn’t particularly care for their earlier work) this is a very enjoyable, approachable and fun album. It contains some of the band’s most wonderful moments, and I rate it right up there with its predecessor as the peak of the band’s creativity.

The album’s title and concept derive from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This can be stated in many different ways, but one interpretation is that entropy in a closed system will always increase, leading to a reduction in useful energy. This principle has been applied to entire societies as well as to physical processes, and it is in this context that Muse use it here. The track “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” directly quotes such an interpretation.

The striking cover art is a graphic representation of neural pathways in the human brain.

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Track by Track Review
Good grief! Right from the very first opening burst of four rapid, damped, distorted guitar chords, this song grabs you by the nether regions and just does not let go. “Awesome” is a word that is bandied about much too often in rock, but in this case it most certainly fits. Following those attention-grabbing, heart-stopping chords, the guitar and bass crank out a meaty, distorted riff while high-pitched orchestral strings play in the background. (I used to think it was just the bass, but in a live performance they seem to be playing in unison.) It’s in 4/4, but with the main notes on the off-beats, it feels more like some proggy compound time trick. It drops down and pauses while a martial side-drum forebodes dark events. Brooding orchestral chords trace out a chord sequence that is unmistakably reminiscent of a classic John Barry James Bond theme. This is no accident either: this song sounds like it was written to open a Bond film, with all the bombast, swagger and compositional tricks of some of the greatest Bond themes. Bellamy’s vocal melody is low and dramatic, but jumps right up into an ear-splitting, heavily distorted scream on the line “Your Supremacy." A guitar comes in on the next verse, playing the same melody as the lead vocal. It’s joined later by another guitar counter-melody, vocal wails and then some soaring Mariachi trumpet, morphing the song into a spaghetti western theme. There’s a final playoutreminiscent of the one in Wings’ “Live and Let Die”with Bellamy’s liquid guitar taking centre stage. Except it’s not quite the finale, as we get another run through the starting riff while Bellamy yells his head off. The song closes with a clean, tremeloed guitar playing a broken chord – very Bond!
While the next track is much quieter and more sedate, it is still incredibly catchy, thanks to the unforgettable “bass” part, which Wolstenholme performs using a guitar-shaped touch-screen MIDI controller device. The sparse drums sound electronic too.  The second verse begins to introduce more elements, including the first of many echoes of Queen in Bellamy’s multi-tracked vocals. This is reinforced by a guitar solo that evokes Brian May.  As the song nears its end it begins to resemble a U2 number with chiming guitar and soaring vocals. This one was released as a single.
Panic Station
Here is another single, this time with obvious funk influences (notably Wolstenholme’s rich and rounded thumbed bass sound, and Bellamy’s Prince-like guitar chords). During the verses, Bellamy’s vocals are interspersed with (rather annoying, to my ears) multi-tracked backing vocals. Then a synth (and later a horn section) plays what sounds like the hook from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”. A burst of distorted guitar riffing introduces a high-register guitar melody that plays over the last chorus.
This is a little bit of Chopin-like piano, orchestra and choir – just one minute long. It reminds me so much of a Louis Clark orchestration for ELO. This sets the scene and runs straight into another stonking, over-the-top song. . .
This was chosen as the theme song for the 2012 London Olympics. It starts with a ticking piano riff accompanied by clipped, vocal “pa-pas” that could have come from a Philip Glass opera. As Bellamy sings, a full choir comes in, energetically punctuating the main lyrics with great gusto, as though this were a Handel oratorio (but also somehow reminding me of Howard Goodall’s closing theme to “Blackadder The Third”!). It’s an apt arrangement of a song with such testosterone-fuelled lyrics: “Whatever it takes/You won't pull ahead/I'll keep up the pace/And I'll reveal my strength/To the whole human race/Yes, I am prepared/To stay alive/I won't forgive/Vengeance is mine/And I won't give in/Because I choose to thrive/Yes, I'm gonna win.” A wailing guitar rides over the riff, sounding to my 70s-tuned ears like classic Ritchie Blackmore, especially when it reappears after the next verse in a frenzy of plec-twiddling that could have come straight from “Stargazer." This is wonderful stuff! It’s tempting to think of this as an “epic” song, yet the whole thing is done and dusted in just over four minutes. It is a prog masterpiece!
Follow Me
Strange, unsettling, glissando vocals slide over a soft synth backing that begins to bubble with typical early-Muse sequencer patterns. The drums come in on the first chorus to provide some structure. So far, so good. But then, on a repeat of the chorus, there’s a horrible “wub-wub” panned swell effect that I personally cannot stand. If they’d left that off, I might pay a lot more attention to this song. Thankfully it subsides for a while, allowing breathing room for Bellamy’s Bono-like vocal performance. The U2 comparison continues when the song crashes into the final, triumphant chords with sequenced notes emulating The Edge’s guitar sound.
This has such a beautiful, understated arrangement, with repeated (maybe sampled and looped) electric piano riff, soft bass and mellow guitar (clean, with just a hint of distortion when it opens up), as though Dave Gilmour or Mark Knoppfler have joined in the performance. Dom Howards’s tight and busy drums drive it on, becoming more expansive as he brings the ride in on the next verse. The guitar lets rip, becoming louder and more distorted, while Bellamy adds more layers of vocals. Then it veers into a new riff, accompanied by what sounds like a riot in progress, but which I think could also be a stock trading floor – given that there’s some applause at the end, and matching with the song’s lyrics about corporate greed. This is one of the tastiest tracks on the album and far too short, in my opinion!
This song comes as a bit of a breather after all the madcap goings-on that precede it. It begins like a child’s lullaby, with a bell tree or glockenspiel tinkling away alongside a piano. Bellamy’s vocal melody sounds an awful lot like something from Queen, and Wolsetenholme’s John Deacon-inspired low bass fills reinforce this feeling. The orchestra fades in, swelling up on the “Free me” chorus. The drums kick in on the next verse, lifting the mood a little, but the overall feeling is still melancholic. The song keeps building though. It begins to feel as though there could be some escape from the desperate situation described in the lyrics, if only sufficient velocity and power can be achieved. But it falters and settles down to the opening instrumentation, with the final line “Go to. . . sleep” bringing us back to that lullaby.
Big Freeze
This song begins with a guitar laced with electronic effects and low-key vocals with higher backing vocals punctuating the lines. A sharp, staccato guitar comes in on the second verse with Wolstenholme’s trademark distorted bass shadowing the guitar pattern. The sound gets bigger on the chorus with chunky bass chords, but the next verse drops the distorted guitar in favour of lighter, arpeggiated chords. There’s a twisted, wailing, wang-bar guitar solo near the end that hangs over the last verse and chorus, mingling with Bellamy’s wailing vocals and ending the song with a final, keening cry. I can’t help thinking that with a slightly different (perhaps simpler) choice of instrumentation, this could have been an amazing heavy metal song, but it’s still an impressive tune as it stands.
Save Me
Bassist Chris Wolstenholme sings on both this and the next song. His voice is great, although obviously not as powerful and operatic as Bellamy’s. I would be happy to hear more with Chris on lead vocals. Maybe he has a solo project that will surface one day? For me, though, the most striking aspect of “Save Me” is the uncanny similarity between the vocal line and a melody from Yes’s “Perpetual Change." It’s a slow tune with restrained, delicate guitar. About a third of the way through, the drums come in, and it feels like it’s about to get heavy, but it settles back to another verse. It does grow from there, but slowly, organically, with none of the sudden changes that Muse tend to throw in. The almost continual arpeggiation of the guitar part reminds me of some Pink Floyd.
Liquid State
This is Chris Wolstenholme’s second bite at the lead vocal cherry on this album. Why they put both of his songs together in the track order is puzzling. The obvious gambit would have been to separate them. This is a much heavier song, with Chris’s busy lead bass front and centre and a stripped-back, no-nonsense arrangement that harks back to the band’s earlier material. I can’t help feeling that this would be a great song for some harder, heavier bands to cover.
The 2nd Law: Unsustainable
This for me is a “Wasabi” track. By that, I mean it works on the ears in the same way that Wasabi works on the palate: the first taste is overpowering and painful, and with each throb of pain you wish it would end quickly. Then once the pain has ebbed away, you find that you want more! It becomes addictive. In the same way, this song seems to embody many of the traits of modern pop music that I find particularly repulsive: the step changes; throbbing sub-bass; an appalling, atonal row. When I first heard it, I really hated it. Yet on subsequent listens (because my partner loves Muse and plays this album frequently), it started to grow on me. Then it became something of a necessity. Sign me up!  Newsreader Katie Razzall supplies the reading of the 2nd Law, which is cut up, stuttered and repeated (Max Headroom style) to a backdrop of dramatic sawing strings and bursts of choral “aahs." A robotic voice intrudes to speak the last word “Unsustainable," ushering in a section of intense, electronic drums and atonal squeals from a heavily-processed guitar, while the robotic voice is also given the same cut-and-paste treatment - brutal! But then the bass and drums lock in to boost the music’s power, and the choir and orchestra return, transforming the initial mess into something truly jaw-dropping. Matt’s agonised vocal wails seal the deal. The whole process more or less repeats, ending on a last, doom-laden “Unsustainable”.
The 2nd Law: Isolated System
This delicate, synth-led tune brings welcome respite from the aural bludgeoning of the first part. The gentle opening notes are a little like the piano at the start of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells." This is interesting, because just as “Tubular Bells” was used on the soundtrack to “The Exorcist," this track was used as the main theme for “World War Z." In both cases there is the juxtaposition of beautiful music and horrific visuals. The drums fade in, as we hear another reading of The 2nd Law and snippets of spoken news reports, becoming increasingly urgent in tone. These drop away, leaving a gentle piano and orchestra backing, with the piano pedalling a repeated riff while the strings change keys. (As so often with Muse, Philip Glass seems to be a major inspiration.) The drums return, along with a wailing sound. Then we hear what could be a sampled, looped and layered female choral part that sounds incredibly peaceful and beautiful, reminding me a little of the perpetual staircase of mellotron vocals that end Pink Floyd’s “Echoes." It’s an unusual and memorable finale to what could be Muse’s finest (certainly their most eclectic) album.
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