Beginning with 1999's "Showbiz," Muse launched into a stretch of three thrillingly virtuosic records. But with "Black Holes and Revelations" in 2006, the ascendant English act accelerated their climb up music's beanstalk to find and supplant every last giant. "The 2nd Law" not only marks Muse's sixth studio release and their third on the three-years-between-albums plan - it most importantly showcases how confidently the trio has reached a new echelon of enormity.
From the brashly titled "Supremacy" to the closing self-titled two-parter, this is a mammoth effort. More immediately accessible than 2009's grower "The Resistance" - which took home a Best Rock Album Grammy - "The 2nd Law" is a display of self-assurance coupled with frontman Matt Bellamy's undying need to experiment. After a seemingly interminable onslaught of Radiohead and Queen comparisons, the group has taken to wearing equally striking influences on its sleeve, acts ranging as wide as Stevie Wonder and U2 and Skrillex. Yes, this is the album where Muse dabbles in dubstep.
"The 2nd Law" is blatantly frontloaded, but when that sin is committed entirely through songs Muse will be playing live for the rest of their careers-huge, gaudy pieces of orchestration-it's hard to complain about something as piddling as a less-remarkable back end. Muse fans will have a hard time being disappointed by "The 2nd Law," and rookies have a new perfect place to jump in.
Which songs on Muse's "The 2nd Law" are standouts? Check out our track-by-track breakdown of the album.
1. Supremacy - While some Muse albums have taken a deliberate moment to kindle a fire, "Supremacy" stomps out of the gate with a monstrous seven-string guitar riff. Bellamy begins his vocals like he's narrating a musical, gradually working his way up to that patented hell-shriek.
These guys have rarely, if ever, written a massively infectious single without sounding coy about it in the process. "Madness" follows suit-it's sincere without being overly earnest. When the dust settles, this winds up as one of the band's slickest singles ever, thanks in large part to the throbbing synths and the casual solo rather than an over-the-top shredfest.
3. Panic Station - We're not sure where the titular location can be found or what its significance may be, but damn does it make Bellamy screech. This one's aggressive until it serves up a 70s-sounding falsetto chorus with audacious horns. It's all incredibly self-indulgent in an impressively restrained amount of time, with every Muse hallmark included and every riff a champion.
4. Survival (Prelude) - Familiarly symphonic Muse music deployed as an hors d'oeuvre to the main event.
The 2012 Olympics theme song stands strongly on its own here, particularly after that ostentatious intro. The lyrics remain squarely triumphant, but a solo ripped from an Alfred Hitchcock soundtrack and some crushingly heavy guitar work keeps the song relevant.
6. Follow Me - Move over, Blue Ivy Carter - this track opens with Matt Bellamy's baby's heartbeat, recorded days before his wife Kate Hudson even gave birth. The synth-y jam sounds like it's going to segue into Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" right before it presents the album's inaugural dubstep dalliance.
7. Animals - Bellamy's wail is in classic form for this softer tune. "Animals" feels like it might have stuck to someone's shoe after falling to the cutting room floor during the sessions for "Absolution." The hypnotic guitar lines and a carefully crafted atmosphere keep it worthwhile, although we could all survive without the noisy prison riot ending.
8. Explorers - At once the album's most dreamy and forgettable track, this is the lullaby Bellamy promised his new son, concluding in a moment not unlike the Beatles' "Good Night." "Explorers" is certainly tender, but there's very little to cling to, even as the the album's longest offering at nearly six minutes.
9. Big Freeze - At the outset, Bellamy apes the tone and axe-sensibility of U2's the Edge. By the minute-mark, he's crooning like Bono. This is Muse's U2 moment, and why not? When you're gunning for that World's Biggest Band mantle, sometimes you have to follow the leader.
10. Save Me - Welcome to the first-ever Muse song sung by bassist Chris Wolstenholme. "Save Me" is passable, although the lack of instrumental bravado or excitement makes it barely recognizable as a Muse song. It's unfortunate timing for Wolstenholme, as this is the point when it becomes fair to wonder if "The 2nd Law" is losing steam.
11. Liquid State - The second of Wolstenholme's songs is the Muse-ier and superior of the pair. It's still jarring, though, and not one of the album's standouts.
12. The 2nd Law: Unsustainable
Some more of that dystopian "Fantasia" sound we remember from "The Resistance." But wait -- the band just added some Skrillex to the mix. Make your way through a bit of glitchy news-speak and you'll be entrenched in Muse's definition of dubstep, allegedly recorded entirely with actual, non-electronic instruments.
13. The 2nd Law: Isolated System - After closers like the three-part "Exogenesis: Symphony" and "Knights of Cydonia," a sound-collage of fictional news pieces isn't what anyone's looking for to wrap a Muse record. But try not to let the ending mar how spectacular the journey was.