The label “prog” has been thrown around a lot in discussions of Muse, but if their progression up to this point has taught us anything, it’s that the alt-rock youngsters with stadium ambitions back in 1997 really haven’t changed much since then. They’ve dressed themselves up in all sorts of costumes, mostly to accommodate their continually growing arena shows, but when stripped down to their most basic elements there isn’t much “prog” to be found. Unfairly accused of being Radiohead clones with their early LPs like Origin of Symmetry (mostly having to do with lead singer Matt Bellamy’s uncanny vocal resemblance to Thom Yorke), Muse have proven themselves to be, if anything, the anti-Radiohead. The latter have become more stripped down and subdued with each successive album, culminating in 2011’s The King of Limbs, a significant contrast to OK Computer 14 years later.
Muse, on the other hand, have opted for piling on new genre gimmicks record after record, reaching its bloated end with 2009’s The Resistance, which took these Brits’ Queen aping to new heights. The three-part “Exogenesis” symphony that concluded that album, meant to stand for all the group’s artistic achievement, instead represented all the wrong moves they had taken. When Bellamy quipped that The 2nd Law would sound like “christian gangsta rap jazz odyssey, some ambient rebellious dubstep and face melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia”, one can hope that’s he’s being self-deprecating, because if he is, then he’s dead on. What separates Muse from the halls of prog’s greats, aside from the (significant) fact that their music really isn’t prog save for a couple of songs scattered across their discography, is that rather than incorporating different genres into a new-sounding sonic, they just cobble together stuff in the hopes that they’ll adhere.
And in a very un-prog move, the latest of these additions to their style is… dubstep. If you retched just now, you’re well within reason. As Skrillex continues to rise to fame, more and more are beginning to realize that liberal usage of wobble bass is likely to kill a remix, not aid it. A genre once perfected with subtle beauty on Burial’s Untrue has now become reduced to a few overdone elements. A popular style of music this reductive would undoubtedly clash with prog’s basic tendencies, aside from the general lack of dance music in prog. (Who could breakdance to Dream Theater?) But this isn’t even the least of the problems with the choice to include dubstep. In merely hopping on the popular bandwagon, Muse prove themselves to be anything but prog provacateurs. They go so far as to audition for the next James Bond theme on “Supremacy”, a title already taken by Britain’s favorite heartbreaker.
But for those who enjoy the band’s Queen worship, don’t worry, it hasn’t gone: one that stands out amongst the few here is “Panic Station”, an attempt at an alternate, funkier take on “Another One Bites the Dust”. The emphasis on grand string arrangements and dramatic piano chords has thankfully dissipated, but the pomp and circumstance underlying the band’s artistic ego is still present. Some might wish for these impersonations to go away entirely, especially considering the critical bashings the Olympics theme song “Survival” got. Call me crazy, but I’d much rather have weak impressions of Queen than a trio of white British guys convinced they can rock the club so long as their alt-rock has a fat bassline.
Fortunately, Muse don’t go overboard. Though there is a stronger presence of electronics here than on past records, only two songs really qualify as dubstep. One is The 2nd Law‘s worst moment, the first part of the title track, “Unsustainable”. The other, lead single “Madness”, hones in on the dreaded wobble bass in a way that’s befitting of the band. The song is really nothing more than a 12-bar blues; the bass synth does give off the impression that it’s a really sick take on dubstep, but like most of Muse’s work there’s nothing fancy going on underneath. “Madness” doesn’t quite pop like Muse’s best material, but it’s remarkable that the group doesn’t get drunk on their own tendency to draw heavily from their influences. For much of The 2nd Law they do just the opposite, opting for a bunch of safe mid-tempo cuts on the second half of the LP, undermining any attempt at cutting-edge the inclusion of dubstep might have offered the group.
In the end, the most fitting criticism of The 2nd Law comes from within. The underwhelming, eponymous finale contains fragments of robotic dialogue detailing the various facets of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the Law of Entropy. This law tells us that in a closed system, things will always move from a state of order to disorder. “The fundamental laws of thermodynamics will place fixed limits on technological innovation and human advancement,” the voice tells us, as if signaling an impending doom.
What this means for humankind has yet to be seen. For Muse, however, it’s the defining of the truth of their career at this point. Left to merely find the nearest, most convenient genre to riff on for a bit, they’ve solidified their quest to top 2004’s brilliant Absolution as a real existential crisis. Their genre-hopping, ostensibly the signifier of their artistic maturity, is in actuality the most concise description of their fatal flaw. Beginning in the comfy confines of alternative with Showbiz, this trio has expanded into a chaotic mass of sound, one that has lost the straightforward power that once served them well. The 2nd Law certainly isn’t the career bomb that many might worry it to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not any less of a red flag.