"We are defined by the fact that we can't be defined by anybody," says Matt Bellamy, the singer-guitarist-pianist of Muse, as he runs down the range and nerve of the British trio's new album, The 2nd Law, out in October. "There are electro-pop sounds and songs that are obviously classic rock," Bellamy notes, referring to the machine-funk nightmares "Madness" and "Panic Station" and, in the latter category, "Big Freeze" and his lead-guitar blowup in "Animals."
"Then there are the orchestral things," he adds over lunch in New York: the strings-choir-and-metal "Survival," already a hit as an official Olympic theme song, and the symphonic chaos of the two-part title suite. The 2nd Law would sound like "three different bands," Bellamy contends, "if it wasn't for my voice."
Bellamy, bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard recorded most of the follow-up to their 2009 U.S. breakthrough, The Resistance, in London last year, then did overdubs in L.A. with David Campbell, whose arranging and conducting credits include albums by Metallica and his son Beck. "He understood that film-music thing we were looking for," Bellamy says. "And he found a lot of amazing people," including a trumpeter who played on Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."
But it was in London, as Muse started work on The 2nd Law last summer, where Bellamy found his title and main theme. He was watching a panel of economists on the BBC when someone on the show referred to the second law of thermodynamics. "He said, 'The laws of physics say that an economy based on endless growth is unsustainable,'" Bellamy says. "Everyone is obsessed with constant, unchecked growth, and no one is pointing out that we might be maxing out.
"'Survival' tunes into the insanity of that," Bellamy adds. Another song, the piano-based ballad "Explorers," "looks at the other side of the coin, this adventurous spirit we've created that is now in question, because the planet is saying, 'I'm only so big and have this much.'"
There are breaks in the apocalypse. "Follow Me" is a dreamy plea with an unusual pulse: the in-utero heartbeat of Bellamy's son with fiancee Kate Hudson, recorded on an iPhone, the father says, "just before she pushed him out." And "Save Me," one of two songs written and sung by Wolstenholme, suggests the Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds. "It's a new sound for us," Bellamy says with a smile. "It makes for a nice change."
This story is from the August 30th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.