In Brief: Absolutely amazing. I’m kicking myself for resisting this band for so long.
I have a confession to make: I used to hate Muse. And I had pretty shallow reasons for doing so. It was back in 2003 or so, when their album Absolution was brand new and the band came highly recommended by a few friends who were really taken with the band’s theatrics. I downloaded it and gave it a try, and the only thing I could manage to hear was, “Radiohead ripoff”. I had only just gotten to the point where I was starting to appreciate Radiohead’s genius, and that wasn’t even something I thought was displayed consistently on every track they did, so to hear a band doing more loud, bombastic rock with a vocal approach that seemed to unabashedly mimic Thom Yorke at Radiohead’s brooding high point in the mid-90’s, which I thought was a bit irritating even coming from the source, you can see why it wouldn’t be my thing. (Yeah, that’s code for “I’m not a huge fan of The Bends. Deal with it.)
But man, that first impression just wouldn’t die. Suggestions of tracks from Muse’s follow-up, 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations, caused me to respond with similar indifference, not being able to get over Matthew Bellamy‘s “vocal histrionics” (you know, the whiney sort of way that he can draw a note out into a moment of indulgent drama), and honestly not listening closely enough here to realize the band had carved out a very different musical path from Radiohead’s. So I remained dismissive, not expecting that their newest release, The Resistance, would come along in 2009 and totally knock my socks off. Maybe I’ve learned to see the good in bands whose lead singers I find off-putting at first, or maybe I’ve come to believe that every band deserves a second chance (or sometimes a third!), or maybe Muse just tweaked things enough that I could no longer picture Thom Yorke fronting a band that sounded anything like what they were doing these days. All I could say for sure was that their latest stab at mixing electronic music, theatrical progressive rock, and classical music was impressive to behold, even for a former nay-sayer. I like it when bands figure out how to exist in the space between pop and art, and with The Resistance, Muse struck that balance exceedingly well.
I also love a good conspiracy theory. It’s a bit of a well-worn cliche in rock music – you know the whole, “Fight the man, don’t let them control us”, attitude, but when you can infuse it with a bit of a science-fiction bent and make it adventurous enough to believe that some draconian government somewhere would want to keep people from hearing it, I’ll usually buy into that sort of thing – not because I believe the world necessarily works that way, but simply because it’s entertaining. It’s a “what if?” proposition that I can’t resist. The Resistance contains such themes, and while I can’t say for sure that it’s all connected as one grand story, they’ve sparked my imagination in a way that few bands have since OK Computer (which is not a concept album as defined by the band, but that never stopped me from listening to it as if it were). To hear different musical eras colliding as such a story unfolds is simply the icing one the cake – the alien government supposedly trying to keep us down with its drugs and its propaganda could have just as easily been present during the heyday of classical composers as it could during more recent decades when bands like Queen and Depeche Mode ruled the airwaves. It’s no easy task to draw such influences together into a coherent whole – and at times, The Resistance does seem to divide itself into distinct sections (first the electronic/new wave pop stuff, then the “rock opera” stuff, and finally the symphonic suite that closes out the album). But you can hear the influences bleeding into one another if you listen beyond the superficially apparent pieces of each song, and it’s never a stretch to believe that all of these sounds could have come from the same band.
Simply put, Muse has made an album here that has not only made me reconsider my former position of disliking the band, but that has convinced me it might be worth going back to re-evaluate the material that made me dislike them in the first place. That sort of thing doesn’t happen every day.
The syncopated beat has got to be one of the oldest tricks in the pop music book, yet it’s one that I almost always fall for. Muse’s spin on this oft-used rhythmic device, involves fuzzy bass, handclaps, a bit of a militant feel, and a prominent synth melody that whips right through it like the floodlights from an alien spacecraft. (I can’t help but think of aliens when I hear this song. I blame all the commercials for V.) Amidst all of the bounciness, which will remind you of everything from Norman Greenbaum‘s “Spirit in the Sky” to Marilyn Manson‘s “Beautiful People”, you’ll find a defiant anthem which describes a “thought police” sort of moral code and stands right up in the face of it, as Bellamy croons to his army of resistors, “They will not force us!/They will stop degrading us!” It could be about the idiocy that so often passes for entertainment, it could be about the way doctors keep us hopping from one prescription med to the next… it could be about Bellamy’s nightmares of the UK turning into North Korea, for all I know. But when that guitar riff screams out, “SO COME ON!!!” (okay, the guitar doesn’t literally scream that, but it’s timed so perfectly with the vocals that I almost thought I was just imagining the words there), I know I want to put on my marching boots and fall in line behind the protestors. This is one of the most addictive singles of the decade – an amazing way to lead off an album.
The title track takes its sweet time to get fully cranked up, using eerie synths and distant, echoing percussion to set the mood before finally launching into a thrilling bass line and another dominant keyboard riff, settling into a danceable, kinetic rhythm that’s part new wave and part U2. The song follows directly on the theme established by “Uprising”, but adding an air of mystery to it by describing a group of people in hiding, who have claimed their side and who are now hunted men and women. “Love is our resistance”, Bellamy boldly claims in the chorus as the guitar rock finally overthrows the electronic element that dominates most of the song, but there’s still a lingering doubt there, a repeating question of whether “It could be wrong, could be wrong”, as the background vocals keep interjecting. The dynamic range of this piece is impressive as it morphs from ambient calm to its intense, fiery core and back again. Normally I enjoy such songs for the big payoff when it finally arrives, but I find every second of this song to be just about equally delicious.
3. Undisclosed Desires
Whoa, what’s this… an English rock band palying a song with an R&B beat and staccato strings? That definitely got my attention. It’s the sort of thing that’s risky for a band whose fans are likely expecting acts or guitar heroism, but at the same time, it’s a pretty catchy experiment. Drummer Dominic Howard handled the programming here, which is the defining element here as it ranges from urban to industrial, with the verses giving a nod to Timbaland and the chorus leaning on the darker side of Depeche Mode. (Bellamy sounds uncannily similar to Barry Blaze, better known as Code of Ethics, during the chorus, but that’s likely due to how heavily Code of Ethics was also influenced by Depeche Mode. I doubt Muse has ever even heard of Code of Ethics.) There’s a lot of romance and just a wee bit of obsessive/compulsive behavior here as bellamy confesses the need to tell all and know all about a lover: “I want to reconcile the violence in your heart/I want to recognize your beauty’s not just a mask/I want to exorcise the demons from your past/I want to satisfy the undisclosed desires in your heart.” What might be mushy in a slow song is pretty dang seductive with a side dish of danger here, amplified all the more by Christopher Wolstenholme‘s funky slap bass. I don’t care how many jokes about porno movies or Seinfeld you make, I think that’s a kick-@$$ way to play the bass guitar.
4. United States of Eurasia (+Collateral Damage)
Here’s where the band really starts to get their Queen on. It requires a little patience, because the slow piano intro can be a slight buzzkill after the hot rollercoaster ride of the first three tracks, but it’s not too long before the bombastic background vocals and the wailing, theatrical guitar licks leap out, turning the whole thing into a melodramatic opera, with a string section swooping in to match the minor-key meandering of the piano. Bellamy is pleading for an end to war and a unity between nations here, which on the one hand is a lofty ideal, and which on the other hand is very dangerous. Could this mark an end to oppression, or just the beginning of the totalitarian regime that his resistance is trying to fight against? It’s a bit unfortunate that the climax of the song is little more than the title (with the syllable “-sia” repeated again and again, which honestly sounds pretty silly), but they redeem themselves by shamelessly borrowing Chopin‘s tranquil “Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9, No. 2” for the outro. (If I was a cooler music critic, I would have already known that without having to hit up Wikipedia.)
5. Guiding Light
The roar of a jet engine crashes right into a slow, steady drum beat guaranteed to get lighters and/or cell phones waving as the sound of this power ballad comes sweeping across the arena. Imagine marrying the percussive power of “We Will Rock You” to the anthemic build of “We Are the Champions” (wait, aren’t those the same song?), complete with gratuitous falsetto and a delicious guitar solo. I might be overstating the case a bit by comparing to such obvious classics, so don’t sue me if you don’t get quite the same amount of euphoria out of this one… but it makes me feel pretty awesome, anyway. Funny thing is, it’s not exactly a victorious song if you pay attention to the lyrics. Bellamy sounds pretty lost, crooning about the disappearance of a person or cause or deity or whatever, which leaves him with “No guiding light left inside.” It’s a powerfully sad moment, a realization of innocence lost.
6. Unnatural Selection
The album’s longest selection, surpassing the six-minute “United States of Eurasia” by tacking on roughly sixty more epic seconds, goes for the throat in terms of its aggression and also its ambition. The beat is about as driven as I’ve heard from Muse thus far, and the guitar riffs a tricky pattern of power chords and fast-fingered arpeggio. This is the point where Muse sounds like the across-the-pond equivalent of their fellow Queen devotees in Green Day, which I realize is an unlikely comparison, but listen to those “Hey!”s that get interjected during the chorus and tell me it doesn’t call “Holiday” to mind. (Both bands are probably drawing from similar influences in a previous generation.) Green Day doesn’t quite possess the same operatic range that Muse does, though – I can’t imagine Billie Joe Armstrong drawing out his notes the way Bellamy does here (which is funny, given that I used to hate that about Bellamy), or completely dismantling a song with such a driving beat in favor of a slow, bluesy, and gritty solo like the one that gets whipped out here. This of course leads to a big payoff when the chorus comes crashing back in at the end, and the band goes the extra mile with a hyper-driven coda just to close it out. That’s how the entire seven minute length of the song plays out musically, and I haven’t even touched on the lyrics, which seem to explore the tension between religious notions of fate and destiny, and science’s cold harsh reality of evolution and the survival of the fittest, loudly demanding, “I want the truth!”
7. MK Ultra
A zippy, synth-driven rocker like this one would probably be one of the cathy highlights on a normal rock album, so it’s to Muse’s credit that they’ve created so many massive highlights on this album that a more modest track like this gets lost in the shuffle. It’s not “modest” at all by normal parameters, possessing a driving beat in its own right and furthering the conspiracy with some creepy vocal distortion and its fascinating yet disturbing preminition of “All of history deleted with one stroke”. Doing a little bit of Googling and finding out that “MK Ultra” was apparently a CIA project that experimented with drugs as a way to control people’s minds makes it that much creepier. More heavy riffing drives the point home with an exclamation mark at the end, the guitar continuously jumping to higher and more nervous notes as the whole thing comes crashing to a close.
8. I Belong to You (+Mon Cœur S’ouvre à Ta Voix)
This is the oddball, the one track that I can’t quite seem to wrap my head around. it’s the one moment, amidst all of the gleeful excess, where I wonder if it starts to border on self-parody. It seems sweet enough at first, with its bouncy piano melody and its devotional lyrics, which seem to describe an alternate “happy ending” to counteract the sad separation or inability to express love heard in “The Resistance” and “Guiding Light”. Bellamy’s not afraid to be mushy with this one, or even a bit self-referential by describing her as “my guiding lightning strike” (get it?) and “you are my muse”. (GET IT??!?!) But what really mucks the whole thing up for me is when the song comes to a dead stop so that Bellamy can sing an aria… in French. (It’s apparently from the opera Samson and Delilah, and yes, I had to look that up as well.) Not that the guy doesn’t have the vocal range for it – it’s just the one spot on the album where I’m reminded of the whinier side of his voice and my reasons for finding the band so off-putting at first. I will say that it leads nicely back into the song’s main piano melody, and I’m impressed at how prolific they are when they bring in a bassoon, of all things, just to make the closing verse of the song that much more off-kilter.
9. Exogenesis: Symphony Part 1 (Overture)
Here’s the point where my lack of knowledge of classical music really sets me up for ridicule as a reviewer. As the first segment of Muse’s album-ending orchestral opus launches into a series of delicious, minor-key scales, I should be able to tell you where I’ve heard this before. Because I can’t, I’ll just have to marvel at they way that the string section blends in perfectly with the slow 3/4 beat, Bellamy’s falsetto, and the eventual emergence of a delightfully “dirty” guitar solo. I can barely even make out what Bellamy is singing here – turns out it’s mostly questions about the meaning of life (“Who are we? Where are we? When are we? And why are we here?”), punctuated by an emotional cry for retribution (“I can’t forgive you, and I can’t forget”). Powerful fragments of ideas, but you’ll need parts 2 and 3 to complete the thought.
10. Exogenesis: Symphony Part 2 (Cross-Pollination)
A stunning piano solo opens the second segment, its rickety tempo slowing and speeding up in all the right ways to accent the drama before eventually settling into a mournful, slow pace as Bellamy’s lyrics begin to reveal the main theme behind the song – the idea that life on Earth found its genesis in some sort of alien seed from a world far beyond. Sure, that’s pretty nutso as theories go, but it’s pretty intriguing as ideas for 13-minute rock operas go. The title “Cross-Pollination” works pretty well to describe both the lyrical theme and the musical approach, because this is the spot where classical instruments and the typical rock band lineup don’t match each other and don’t bother trying. The slow piano interlude leads into a rocking coda with little warning, bringing us to a refrain that descrees “Spread our codes to the stars, you must rescue us all!”, and then gradually dies back down to its humble, classical origins. Weird stuff.
11. Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3 (Redemption)
The peaceful melody of this song, mostly provided by piano and the gentle backing of strings, is a gentle but stunning way to close out the album. The band has mused (heh) about the origins of mankind, and now they jump from the beginning to the ending, suggesting that maybe next time we’ll get it right, asking “Why can’t we start over?”, as if to suggest that sending our DNA off into space to jump-start life on some distant, barren planet is “our last chance to forgive ourselves”. I love how the tempo gradually speeds up to match the urgency of this plea – the performance is completely fluid and never jarring, which is a welcome approach after other spots on the album where the band has cut rather abruptly from one musical idea to the next. Even though there are drums, bass, and guitar present when this song reaches its peak intensity, the orchestral elements are at the forefront, and I think it was brave of the band to let the classical arrangements take the lead here while the “rock band” played a supporting role. Not something I’d want to hear all the time, but (if you can believe this coming from a guy who knows squat about classical music) something I’m definitely open to when it’s done this well.
Muse pretty much hit all of my buttons with this one – stylistic diversity, a common thematic thread running through most of the album, the ability to mix disparate influences in interesting ways, and an uncanny knack for a pop hook that doesn’t diminish the experimentation in the process of being catchy. I’m the one who should be seeking absolution, asking for one last chance to forgive himself, for ever criticizing this band.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Undisclosed Desires $2
United States of Eurasia (+Collateral Damage) $1
Guiding Light $2
Unnatural Selection $2
MK Ultra $1.50
I Belong to You (+Mon Cœur S’ouvre à Ta Voix) $1
Exogenesis: Symphony Part 1 (Overture) $1.50
Exogenesis: Symphony Part 2 (Cross-Pollination) $1.50
Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3 (Redemption) $1.50
Matthew Bellamy: Lead vocals, guitars, piano, keyboards, synthesizers, programming
Christopher Wolstenholme: Bass, backing vocals, synthesizers, double bass
Dominic Howard: Drums, percussion, synthesizers, programming
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.