Yes, there is dubstep on Muse’s sixth album. Yes, there are fewer prog-metal power chords amid the histrionic bluster and widescreen opulence that has endeared the English trio to listeners who’ve craved a heavier Radiohead. These changes, combined with the subtler fact that singer Matthew Bellamy here leans less on the Thom Yorke-y range of his increasingly operatic tenor, may be a deal-breaker for some.
For the rest of us, The 2nd Law offers a wild ride through lush and varied orchestrations that recall the intricacies of ’70s rock heightened by today’s digital excess. When this record gets big, it does it in high style: via 24 string players, 11 horns and a 30-member choir. Opening cut “Supremacy” alternates the album’s heaviest riff with strings conducted by Beck’s dad David Campbell that suggest Bond dueling super-villains to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” “Survival” – the official 2012 Olympics song, natch – juxtaposes riffs nearly as monstrous with choral chanting and castrato shrieking evoking an Ice Capades staging of Dante’s Inferno. The penultimate track, “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable,” offers warning of ecological collapse over doomsday symphonic pomp that crashes against EDM bass and drum swoops and hilarious Van Halen guitar jack-off-ery that yield “The 2nd Law” Isolated System,” a montage of random radio and TV transmissions set to Exorcist-ic trance vamping.
Say what you want about Muse’s OTT aesthetic: At press time, they’re the only major international act making Occupy movement-themed statements in America’s election season; of course they’d set them to music that suggests Babylon’s fall. The single, “Madness,” doesn’t do that; it’s a love song that sets sputtering and farting two-note synths where acoustic guitars would ordinarily strum. Bassist Chris Wolstenholme contributes lyrics and lead vocals late in the album to “Save Me” and “Liquid State,” which deal with the respective light and dark sides of his recovery from alcoholism. But the rest implicitly or explicitly rages against the machinery of economic, governmental, and ecological control. “Animals,” which takes on immoral corporate greed, even climaxes with the roar of the Wall Street trading floor. Like most of his heavier metal brethren, Bellamy isn’t a subtle lyricist; he favors brutal truths, like “The time, it has come to destroy your supremacy” and “It was a mistake imprisoning our souls.” He’s full of fury, but recognizes, more than ever, that tenderness is part of the solution. Both are still in ample supply; only the means and the ratio between them have changed.