- - Monday, October 1, 2012

The 2nd Law

Muse

Warner Bros.

★★½

You’re not supposed to listen to Muse with a straight face.

The guys are rock & roll drama queens, with a sound that evokes everything from Rush’s “2112” to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” They write songs with unwieldy titles like “Exogenesis: Symphony, Pt. 2: Cross-Pollination,” and they play them with brute, symphonic force, never missing an opportunity to stack their vocals into Queen-worthy harmonies or extend an epic guitar solo by an extra measure or two.

The boys reach a new level of pomp with “Survival,” the first single from “The 2nd Law.” Released earlier this year as the official theme song of the 2012 Olympics, “Survival” is colossal and campy, with more flashy pageantry than the opening ceremony itself. “I’m gonna win; I will light the fuse, and I’ll never lose!” howls frontman Matthew Bellamy, while a Gregorian chorus chants its support in the background. He flips into his falsetto for the song’s conclusion, shrieking a stratospheric high note that would make Celine Dion jealous.

The rest of the album is just as high-flown. Like the biggest action movie of the summer, “The 2nd Law” is built to dazzle and daze, and it leans heavily on special effects — an explosive prog-rock interlude here, an ‘80s-influenced wash of keyboards there — to smooth over any holes in the storyline. Even the ballads sound huge, like Meat Loaf played through a Marshall amplifier.

“Madness” is the album’s best moment, thanks to a pulsing, throbbing bass riff that runs beneath the song like a heartbeat. It’s also the album’s most subtle tune, with a slow-building climax that peaks during the final 45 seconds without overshadowing the quiet parts that came before it.

Whenever Muse exhibits that sort of ability to play with dynamics, “The 2nd Law” shines. Most of these songs hit a high point within the first few bars, though, and remain at that sort of sonic plateau until the track ends. Sure, it sounds pretty good but it tends to sound the same, too.

Glad All Over

The Wallflowers

Columbia

★★★

Perhaps you’ve heard the new Wallflowers single, the one that sounds like a Clash song with Jakob Dylan’s deep, smoke-cured baritone at the helm. It’s called “Reboot the Mission,” and it serves as a nice summary of the Wallflowers’ comeback album, which updates the band’s classic rock & roll with a few danceable twists.

“Glad All Over” is the band’s first record in seven years. Mr. Dylan has kept himself active in the meantime, releasing a pair of solo albums and collaborating with other roots musicians, but he’s never come close to reviving the success of “Bringing Down the Horse,” the multi-platinum album that put the Wallflowers on the map back in 1996. “Glad All Over” feels like a reboot of that sound, a bid for readmission into the cool kids’ club, with some head-swiveling soul influences serving as the most obvious addition.

“Reboot the Mission” is actually one of the weaker songs here, and a guest appearance by the Clash’s own Mick Jones provides little relief. Mr. Dylan and company write rock & roll songs for the heartland, not the dance floor, and they fare better on shimmering epics like “Love is a Country.”

Dance music and rock ‘n’ roll are close cousins, though, and the guys do come up with a few successful combinations. “Have Mercy on Him Now” mixes Motown boogie with the anthemic attack of the E Street Band, and “It’s a Dream” builds a haunting, guitar-based foundation on top of a funky backbeat. The Wallflowers seem to be tired of standing toward the side of the dance floor while the more confident kids dance, and they throw themselves into each new groove, eager to try out their new moves.

Thanks to Mr. Dylan’s coarse croon, even the offbeat songs sound like the Wallflowers. The other guys in the band lack such a strong presence, and Rami Jaffee’s swirling organ — that same instrument that kicked up some atmospheric dust during the beginning of “One Headlight” — serves as a rare, crucial reminder that this is a Wallflowers record, not another solo release. Mr. Dylan never grooved this much on his own, though, and it’s nice to hear him back in the saddle.

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