The Madness Of Muse: Genius Or Insanity?
A dubstep-inflected, cinematic symphony hybrid with a chopped-up spoken monologue that takes the second law of thermodynamics as its inspiration?
Must be a new Muse album in town…
The UK power trio’s brand new studio album, The 2nd Law has been officially released in Australia, and as it turns out, the whole ‘Muse go Skrillex’ controversy of the record’s album teaser – and what eventually became penultimate album track ‘Unsustainable’ – is a handy prism to view Muse’s sixth studio album.
A record that is, song-for-song, as sonically daring as anything the band have attempted yet – outstripping many of the band’s ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ moments. Including the proto-’Bohemian Rhapsody’ of ‘Knights of Cydonia’, the outlandish ‘United States of Eurasia’ and, yes, even the French-singing, opera-referencing, bass clarinet-soloing of ‘I Belong To You’ (That’s ‘Mon Cœur S’ouvre À Ta Voix’ to you Francophiles).
If the London 2012 Olympics anthem ‘Survival’ irked some, there’s plenty more here that if it doesn’t polarise fans, will certainly be the final straw that breaks the back of those hoping Muse would steer back from the waters of genre diversity to pen that 23-minute magnum opus epic they’d always hinted at.
Bad luck, they’re simply having too much fun.
Forget the dubstep and OTT Olympics anthem, ‘Panic Station’ is easily the most willingly bonkers moment here, channeling Kick-era INXS and Bowie’s 80s decadence. While ‘Big Freeze’ is an unashamedly buffed and polished pop/rock ballad – complete with U2’s Edge-scaling guitars – that makes the band’s previous glossy highpoint, ‘Starlight’ seem gritty.
But to understand just how Pendulum-tinged ballads (‘Follow Me’) or dripping, twinkling odes to terra forma (‘Explorers’) can be seen as daring as opposed to pure folly, we have to understand the extremes the band have previously charted.
Or more importantly, the initial promise of where Muse came from, where they were going, and where they ended up.
While their early days showed a band that took the excesses of progressive rock and heavy metal and curtly introduced them to a baroque sense of melody and classical formality. The years since have seen Muse edging ever closer to a more widely accepted form of sonic showmanship.
Not mainstream in the traditional sense, but enough to fill the world’s largest stadia and charts several times over with some of the barmiest moments in modern rock.
Their winding towards a generally accepted sense of grand pomp eventually brought on endless (but not unfair) comparisons to Queen, thoroughly replacing the Radiohead associations that used to dog them. (A fact that probably bothered Thom Yorke more than it did the Teignmouth trio.)
But while their edginess and outsider status originally had left-field music lovers shambling from the fringes to see what all the fuss and noise was about, many more of the same converted abandoned Muse when it seemed they had made the arena rock spectacular their residing habitat rather than a by-product of their ambitions.
If you were forced to pinpoint the moment, it may well be the cross-over success of 2006’s Black Holes & Revelations, which first proved that beating beneath the sci-fi affectations and symphonic grandeur was a heart of sheer pop ambition.
And so we come to The 2nd Law, which forgivingly, opens with ‘Supremacy’, the kind of fusion of rock riffage-meets-string section that’s become their trademark; only to close, thirteen tracks later, with a cyclic instrumental of haunting electronica reminiscent more of Mike Oldfield’s grandiose Tubular Bells than the Rage Against The Machine-meets-Rachmaninov (with a touch of Bond theme) of the album’s opening.
Much like The Resistance before it, Muse have again ditched an overall sonic consistency for a track-by-track attitude production technique, a listen which can prove to be exhausting work.
As they expand their creative boundaries, and task the listener with making ever greater stylistic leaps between them, what was once genre-hopping can now feel like genre-leaps-of-faith.
Rocketing from shimmering mood-setting to buzzing bass-driven rumble to Hans Zimmer-aping film score like so many planets in a breathless trip of the band’s musical universe. To follow Muse’s sci-fi fascination to its logical conclusion, when you land on that new musical world for the first time, it’s a bit scary and uncharted – hell, you don’t even know if there’s life.
Luckily, there’s some comfortable familiarity in Matthew Bellamy’s lyrical moors remaining relatively unchanged.
Aside from the counting silliness of ‘Panic Station’, there’s the usual invisible oppressor (‘wake to see/your true emancipation is a fantasy’ he sings on ‘Supremacy’), along with a host of sweeping, unifying statements of ‘us’ versus the derisions of an uncertain ‘them’ played out against the drama of geo-political conspiracy and apocalyptic angst.
They’re all just rejigged forms of Bellamy’s previous expressions, this time the fat cats of ‘Uprising’ are literally ‘Animals’, all the while Bellamy urging – most bluntly on ‘Survival’ – the same defiant tones that characterised ‘Butterflies & Hurricanes’ nearly a decade ago. Its refrain of ‘best/you’ve got to be the best/you’ve got to change the world” now a simple chant of ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!/Win! Win! Win!’
When they’re not fighting and winning, love is Muse’s other thematic preoccupation on The 2nd Law.
Not even Bellamy’s split from his long-term model girlfriend Gaia Polloni could sour the romantic idealist that blossomed on The Resistance. In fact the mid-section of the record is given almost entirely to unapologetically syrupy ballads.
Muse’s towering neon inferno version of them, but ballads all the same.
We can now add ‘Madness’, ‘Follow Me’, and especially ‘Explorers’ to the band’s ‘widescreen heart-on-sleeve’ catalogue that already includes ‘Starlight’, ‘Resistance’ and ‘Guiding Light’.