It’s been nearly twenty years since Teignmouth stadium rock trio Muse announced themselves to the world. And over the course of those two decades, they’ve worked their way up from hard-rocking upstarts to being arguably the biggest rock band in the world.
However strange, however bold Muse might be – for who else can boast a sound one part Lightning Bolt, one part Stravinsky, one part John Carpenter, one part David Icke and two parts Queen? – the last decade has seen them become an exceptionally divisive proposition, rather than an exceptionally lauded one.
Today sees the release of ninth album 'Simulation Theory', perhaps the logical conclusion of the group’s ever increasing scope and lust for spectacle. It’s not too hard to see just why Muse rub people the wrong way; here we have a particularly precocious band who rarely hit exactly what they’re aiming for. 2009’s 'Resistance' aimed to be an extravagant space rock opera, and simply missed.
Then, 2012’s '2nd Law' aimed to fuse chart dubstep with stadium rock, and although it holds up as one of the decade’s most enjoyable rock records, it was pretty universally hated across the board. And following that, 2015’s 'Drones' set out to be an all encompassing political opus that also took Muse sonically back to basics, and well, it certainly wasn’t quite that.
A particularly clinical critic could well look back on Muse’s last decade and scoff at all the misses, but that would simply miss the point; Muse might have a patchy report card recently. They might be far from their artistic pinnacle. But Muse are among this generation’s great entertainers. As you can see from the cover art, retro futurism, sci-fi and synth wave are on the menu for 'Simulation Theory'.
Alongside the ever present orchestral and classical influences, and the need to make huge ‘stadium’ music, arrives the influence of Tron and Nicolas Winding Refn. Matt Bellamy’s falsetto croon arrives for the first time on track one, 'Algorithm', atop a soundbed of Vangelis synthesisers and neon lights, which don’t dim until the album’s over.
The bright, oscillating synthesiser tones of 'The Dark Side' turn Bellamy’s banshee screams into some sort of anthemic spectacle, whilst the wailing guitars of 'Thought Contagion' are ripped straight from the advert to the imminent release of the world’s first commercially accessible jetpack.
'Simulation Theory' as an artistic statement is about as profound as a deadline day Harry Redknapp interview, but it’s entertainment value makes up for it. Here we have one of the biggest bands in the known universe, choosing to use all the resources at their disposal to attempt a retro-futurist pop epic… about the increasingly memefied conspiracy that we all live inside a giant, glitching simulation.
It’s genuinely zany, a loopy attempt to deconstruct and reconstruct everything a huge rock group should be, and over its runtime 'Simulation Theory' evokes more smiles than a puppy on the bus. At some points you won’t even believe what you’re hearing; for better or worse, 'Get Up' and 'Fight' is a wildly kitsch late noughties indie-pop banger, whilst 'Break It Up' twins a disparate strings section with an amazing falling-down-the-stairs riff.
It certainly won’t win Muse any new fans, but their phantasmagoric spectacle is at its most fully formed for years. This album may constantly titter between the naff and the genuinely great, but it has riffs, choruses and hooks in abundance. It is probably still the case that Muse’s extraordinary ambition gulfs their ability, strange given that at this time you’d struggle to find a rock band more skillful at their instruments.
But once more, they’ve turned up a kooky electronic rock fantasia that’s as wonderful as it is bonkers – and in a world of Royal Bloods, Greta Van Fleets, and a manner of ‘real music’ rock bands, Muse remain a breath of total fresh air.
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Words: Cal Cashin
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