After the release of 2009's The Resistance - an album whose standard edition came with a free kitchen sink - you wondered just how much juice could be left in Muse's bombast pedal - this, after all, is the band who make Guns N' Roses' November Rain sound like an xx home demo.
Well, Messrs (in this case it really does feel like there's another 'e' missing) Bellamy, Howard and Wolstenholme have just gone and found themselves a bigger one and The 2nd Law could have even the diehards tugging anxiously at their knows-its-own-way-to-the-washing-machine Origins of Symmetry tour shirt, fearing that their heroes really have gone too far this time. In certain places they have; in others not far enough.
The record begins in familiar style with Supremacy - an orchestra on a Kashmir nixer, another application for the Bond theme song job and a great way to open the upcoming live shows. But after near-five minutes of fist-pumping comes The 2nd Law's first one step beyond, current single Madness. It sounds like George Michael and Climie Fisher reworking Queen's (them again) I Want to Break Free for an expanded edition of the Drive soundtrack and belongs nearer the end of the album, not the start – if at all. And if you're chickening now, there's scarier to come.
Arguably the most chart-friendly song in Muse history, Panic Station lives up to its name, a camp-as-a-pink-tent stomper which seems inspired by the horns from Spagna's Euro hit Call Me and throws up images of Matt Bellamy with his hands on his hips in the vocals booth, dressed like Leroy from Fame. The Scissor Sisters must be seething. Even rockers may end up dancing, but the shame comedown is a heavy one.
For those who find themselves in a state of some distress from that double whammy, Muse then offer comfort by way of a prelude (eh, Prelude), a victory march for Oompa-Loompas (Survival), foetal heartbeat monitor sounds and young-Dad-fires-up-the-people-carrier driving music (Follow Me), and while the latter throws in a bit of jagged electronics, it's not too freaky.
At the halfway point comes one of The 2nd Law's three best tracks. While Muse have faced Radiohead clone brickbats in the past, the maudlin, Spanish guitar-recalling Animals is both downbeat and seething with a great solo and an ending that will be a showstopper in the venues down the road.
While things then go a bit dull with the ballad Explorers and the 'Tonight Matthew, We're Going to Be U2' of Big Freeze (an electrical storm is even mentioned!), an unlikely source soon comes to the rescue: bassist Chris Wolstenholme. The duo of Save Me and Liquid State are the first tracks he has written and sung for Muse and both prove he's an excellent foil for Bellamy - the former is a gorgeously proggy love song; the latter no-messin' rock with a great chorus where Wolstenholme does much in the service of the riff.
Save Me would actually have made the perfect closer for The 2nd Law, but Bellamy isn't done with testing the faithful, and the two-part title track proves to be the biggest of clangers. In part one, London Weekend Television's Metal Mickey comes out of retirement and fights for space with a doom-laden choir, dubstep and Open University-like samples - it sounds worse than it sounds. In part two, the boffin lady from part one starts up again and is joined by voices from news reports for some string-heavy pounding which is meant to be thought-provoking but instead has you expecting to hear, "Four remain; who will be Sir Alan's next apprentice?"
So, a mixed bag if ever there was one, but you do learn a couple of things and find surprises (good and bad) rummaging through it - more of a rarity than ever in music these days. You'll also get plenty of ideas about where Muse should go next while you're listening. Here are but a few: strip the sound right down; give Wolstenholme half the songs; work with Steve Albini or Chris Goss.
One thing's for sure after this: if Bellamy suggests that he has a song that combines the feelgood of Men Without Hats' The Safety Dance with the fury of Metallica's Dyers Eve Wolstenholme and drummer Dom Howard need to leg it like they're trying out for Rio 2016.