In Brief: In which the Three Horsemen of the Modern Rock Apocalypse ride across the sky to kick my sorry hindquarters into next Wednesday.
So, I saw Muse in concert for the first time a week ago, and they were friggin’ AWESOME. It seems that, whatever your feelings about the band’s experimentation with increasingly erratic styles of music over the years, whether you enjoy the genre roulette or prefer that they stick to the near-constant killer riffage and take-no-prisoners performance style of their old days, they know how to put on a show that doesn’t make you feel left out. I’ve already talked at some length about the pros and cons of The 2nd Law, which of course was the focus of the tour, but when discussing with friends which songs we were most looking forward to hearing that night, I found myself thinking of several of my favorites from their 2006 album, Black Holes and Revelations. And I realized that, as much as I got excited about The Resistance when it first came out – it was, after all, the record that finally made me a fan – Black Holes had slowly shoved it out of the #1 spot in my personal pantheon of Muse albums. I had been listening to it on the way to the show, grooving along to a few of its more rhythmically-oriented hit singles, and of course wailing at the top of my lungs to the absolutely epic final chorus of “Knights of Cydonia”. I thought, “You know, it’s a shame that I haven’t reviewed this one by now.” I’m sure that there are absolutely no Muse fans out there who need to be told that it almost thoroughly kicks @$$ from start to finish – chances are if you’re already in the fan club, you either agree with me, or else you prefer their older works and take issue with this one due to the clipping and brickwalling and other side effects of the “loudness war” that, to be honest, I’ve never noticed nor cared about. So I’m writing this mostly for the sake of nostalgia, and maybe to rope in a new listener or two who has become casually hooked on one or two of their singles over the years but who isn’t sure if it’s worth diving into one of their albums. Starting right here is the perfect litmus test for whether you can get into this group’s brand of bombastic stadium rock, and whether you’ll gravitate more toward the electronic experiments and symphonic movements of their newer material, or the manic rock-n-roll taken up to eleven on their earlier albums. Black Holes and Revelations is a near-perfect synthesis of Muse’s past and future.
Now I’m not just saying this because the album happens to contains a few of the band’s most massive hits. It’s a darn catchy record, for sure, but like all Muse albums, some pretty serious musicianship is displayed throughout. As I’ve argued before, the use of synthesized and programmed elements doesn’t faze me when it’s there to support a band who loves to play their instruments loud and proud, rather than covering for a lack of ability in the instrumental department. Muse has nothing to cover for. Here they jump from doom-y symphonic rock to a poppy love song to funk rock to dance-rock to an acoustic ballad within the first five tracks of the album, and while one thought doesn’t always naturally follow the next, the amount of musical ground they cover here is pretty staggering (and a bit easier to swallow than some of the shenanigans heard on their later albums). Aside from one or two tracks that admittedly feel a bit out of place, this album is a pretty amazing rollercoaster ride all the way through. You’ve got Matt Bellamy‘s over-driven guitar solos and riffs, and his wailing vocals – wisely reigned in so that they retain all of the power but are controlled enough to not emit as many distracting gasps for breath as he did on past albums (which was the primary reason that it took me so long to get into the band – well, that and my mistaken belief that he was trying to copy Thom Yorke‘s vocal style). You’ve got Chris Wolstenholme‘s formidable bass lines – especially on the more rhythmic tracks – and his solid backing vocals. And you’ve got some absolutely fierce, pounding rhythms coming from drummer Dom Howard. With Howard and Bellamy also pulling double duty on synthesizers (an important, though not overpowering, element of this album), this “power trio” comes up with an impressive array of diverse sounds, clothing each song in a mood appropriate for each lyrics, and ensuring you’ll never confuse one song with another (which is a problem I still sometimes have when trying to dig my way through the comparatively tamer rock songs in the back half of Absolution, or the madly stomping progressive rock suites all bleeding into one another on Origin of Symmetry).
And as for those songs that get so royally dressed up? They all feel like individual pieces of a fictitious but fascinating whole – a world full of UFOs and government cover-ups and desolate geographic landscapes daring mortal men to explore them more deeply. Bellamy’s a bit of a conspiracy nut, so it’s up to you how many of his lyrics are real-life rants against flesh-and-blood political and religious leaders, and how many are simply an immersive exercise in grown-up role playing. The best science fiction stories can ask us “What if?” while stopping short of saying our world has actually become as dystopian as the worlds they imagine. I feel like Muse is trying to pull off the musical equivalent of such a science fiction story here, and they definitely evoke the same sense of wonder, along with the occasional creepy shivers that come along with getting wrapped up in such a story and having to remind yourself that the villains aren’t real… or are they?
1. Take a Bow
The story begins by introducing us to one of those villains. Bellamy wastes absolutely no time in cutting to the chase as he denounces some political leader for greedily ravaging the country they claim to love, as an unsettling electronic melody, built on what seems like almost constant key changes, swirls around him. Up until this point, it seems like the electronic stuff was largely a supporting element in Muse’s songs, so it was perhaps asking a lot of their fans to accept a song almost entirely flooded with keyboards right at the beginning of an album that takes their sound in a new direction. But halfway through, just as Bellamy begins to repeatedly insist, “You’ll burn in hell for your sins” in his creepiest falsetto tone, the drums and guitars kick in hard, and suddenly we’ve gone from computerized nightmare to epic, symphonic rock. The song snakes about, seemingly groaning from its own discomfort, as it comes to a noisy climax loaded with feedback and some of the most ridiculously high-pitched vocals that Bellamy’s assaulted our ears with since “Micro Cuts”. I’m willing to bet this unsettling album opener was rather divisive at the time, but nowadays it feels like a bona fide classic – just one that occupies an unusual place on a commendably unpredictable album.
One of the reasons that Muse can be so “out there” and yet so popular at the same time is that they know how to slip a few insidiously catchy pop songs into an album without it feeling at all unnatural. The jarring shift in tone from menacing to easygoing as the ear-splitting feedback becomes a steady drum beat is one of the most triumphant moments on Black Holes, and even if you’re not big on lovey-dovey pop songs with catchy hand-clap rhythms, it’s really hard to resist this one. (Plus, for the geniuses out there, the hand claps turn out to be Morse code for a four-letter word. How’s that for playful subversiveness?) The buzzing guitars and extremely simple melody keep this song in a dreamlike state for the most part, as Bellamy imagines he’s a sailor using only the stars to find his way, dreaming only of the day he’ll return to his lover. The main hook of “I just wanted to hold you in my arms” is way more effective than such a simple phrase has any right to be in the 21st century, and while this song doesn’t have the slick guitar solo that Muse seems to manage to find space for in most of their hit singles, the heavier drums and rhythm guitar on the chorus do provide a nice change of pace to keep the song from getting too mired in its own little trance. Plus how could you not love the ending? The way Bellamy hangs on that last word – “I just wanted to hoooooooooooold!” – is such a slick and seamless transition into the next track that it makes me smile each and every time.
3. Supermassive Black Hole
The sinister buzz of an over-driven guitar riff and the cool, slinky stomp of a hip-hop inspired drum beat conspire to instantly lodge this song permanently in the brains of pretty much anyone who stumbles across it. This may well have been the “alternative dance” track of the decade, as far as I’m concerned. Many jokes have presumably been made about how easily the track sucks you in, or how “massive” of a hit it became, so I’ll skip all that and just note that between that seductive beat and Bellamy’s whacked-out falsetto vocals, this one sort of began a trend of wacky R&B/funk-inspired outings on future Muse albums. (Just check out “Undisclosed Desires”, “Madness”, and “Panic Station”, and imagine any of those having any context in a world where they hadn’t tested the waters with this one first. Though there is some precedent for it if you look back at the minimalistic but groovy “Endlessly” and their cover of “Feeling Good”.) Here, Bellamy knows he’s trapped under a spell cast by the “Queen of the superficial”, and just like light trying to escape from a black hole, he has no hope of escaping her clutches even though he knows the relationship can only lead to his destruction. Just when you think the song couldn’t get any catchier, they unleash some layered chorus vocals (complete with the most tortured whispering ever to sneak its way into a pop song) and an appropriately spaced-out guitar solo. Man, why couldn’t I have actually been into this song back in 2006 when it was freakin’ EVERYWHERE?
4. Map of the Problematique
Continuing in the vein of “highly danceable applications of contemporary rock music” is this glammed-up, synth-heavy number that may as well take place in a space disco somewhere in Alpha Centauri’s orbit. The heavily processed guitars swirling about make it easy to imagine glowing floor tiles constantly changing colors as denizens of several different solar systems party hard on top of them, and all of this is a rather unusual setting for the topic of loneliness. Surprisingly, the lyrics are some of Matt’s most forlorn, as he laments meeting someone whose realness and vulnerability adds a huge layer of meaning to an otherwise superficial existence, but then like a hand briefly brushed against on his way through a crowded club, she’s gone. “I can’t get it right since I met you”, he wails. “When will this loneliness be over?” The words are quite dissonant from the mood of the performance, in which Dom Howard absolutely nails the frenetic drum fills that lead out of each chorus. I’m always breathtaken by how gigantic that live percussion element sounds as it comes blasting out of an otherwise very synthetic song. I think back to the 90s, and that poor, misunderstood Pop album that U2 made, which everyone ripped the band a new one for but which I came to love, and I find myself wondering if some of my favorite songs like “Discotheque” and “Mofo” could have sounded this awesome if only Larry Mullen, Jr. hadn’t been out of commission for a good chunk of those sessions.
5. Soldier’s Poem
And now we have… a humble little acoustic ballad that runs for barely two minutes? What the heck? While the stylistic whiplash demonstrated here pales in comparison to the band pulling that track over and over again for an entire album on The 2nd Law, this is still one of the few tracks on Black Holes that I’ve never really warmed to. It feels like a little interlude that didn’t really fit anywhere, but that the band felt was important enough of a political statement (this being the height of the Bush administration, after a few years’ worth of the Iraq war and all) that it was worth the collateral damage that the album would take by wedging it in there. Honestly, it’s not long enough, nor does it slow things down enough, to really wear down the amazing momentum that the album has built up so far. Bellamy is quite surprisingly reserved with his vocals here, only peaking briefly when the background vocals stack up in these sorts of “mini-Queen” moments that hint at the sort of stylistic direction that the band would explore much more blatantly on The Resistance. The basic message here seems to be that a solider is rather p*ssed about being shipped off to fight an unjust war, but due to his own internal sense of duty, he’ll still carry out his orders, despite knowing that “There’s no justice in the world, and there never was.”
All of the elements that struck me as overbearing and off-putting when I first tried to get into Muse, way back when Absolution was still new, are present in this bombastic power ballad, and yet for some reason they never seemed to bother me here. Perhaps time has just made me grown accustomed to Bellamy’s manic vocal tics and his weird habit of gasping for breath like each line of lyrics he belts out is like he’s fighting to keep from drowning. But for some reason, as he starts off all pensive and sullen here and slowly ramps up to the point where his vocals and his guitar work are in ridiculous overdrive, I find it amazingly entertaining. Perhaps it’s the sense of unity and defiance that the song gives off that makes it work for me – whatever force is trying to pull apart two people who deeply love each other, the struggle just makes them that much stronger. The chorus melody – despite how loosely Bellamy plays with it – has that “instant epic” quality to it, and a commendably strong verse melody is reinforced by a middle-eight guitar solo that seems to hit all of its main notes while he finds time to flail his fingers across about five other notes in between each one, making it a curious hybrid of “brooding alternative” and “futuristic hair metal”. The song takes no prisoners in its quest to go above and beyond even the usual level of ridiculous scenery-chewing that makes your average Muse song such a love/hate proposition. And I come out firmly on the “love” side.
Speaking of taking no prisoners… well, I guess I’ll get to this song’s unflinching lyrics about offing political leaders who have outlived their usefulness in a minute, because first, there’s a complaint that I need to address. “THIS SOUNDS EXACTLY LIKE STOCKHOLM SYNDROME!!!” Yes, yes. I can hear you rabid fans of Absolution loud and clear. And to be fair, “Stockholm” does have one hell of a riff, one that this song’s equally hellacious riff seems to mimic too closely for comfort. And then there are those drawn out lyrics in the verses, intentionally contrasting against the dizzyingly fast drums… but then the two parallel universe diverge, and while I mean no disrespect to “Stockholm”, this one just takes the music in more of a triumphant direction throughout. The blistering riffage and crazy drum fills just never let up, and there’s a certain dissonance and, dare I say, dirtiness to the whole thing that isn’t as common on Muse’s “slicker” albums from later in their career. It’s perfect for a dark song about doing the unthinkable and plunging a society into chaos as a (presumably well-meaning) way of excising the cancer within. You can make what you want of the dark message – it’s just vague enough to not get the Secret Service or MI6 keeping tabs on these guys, but it certainly is chilling, and as Dom’s menacing drum fills come careening to a sudden stop, it’s hard not to be both fascinated and extremely unsettled by what just transpired. I remember the chill that went up my spine when listening to Radiohead‘s slow and unimaginably creepy “Climbing Up the Walls” – this song is sort of like the insanely fast version of that.
Adding a needed dose of weirdness to whatever loose thread of a story has been told so far is this song, which with its weird, gleeful, stomping guitar riffs, welcomes an alien invasion with open arms, insisting “It’s just our leaders in disguise”. The somewhat ham-fisted, jerky rhythm of it reminds me of the sort of thing Muse might have pulled off in the old days, but there’s a different quality to all of the scratching and scraping and weird sound effects happening between the riffs that you won’t hear even on a record as weird as Origin of Symmetry. While not one of my favorites on Black Holes, it keeps the pace up and the mood weird, and I’m actually willing to buy for a second that Bellamy is the kind of guy who would watch psuedo-scientific documentaries on basic cable and travel the world searching for his own clues about when the mothership might come back to collect the faithful ones who have interpreted their centuries-old signals correctly.
9. City of Delusion
It’s hard to claim personal favorites on this album as personally meaningful to me when I know that there were hordes of Muse fans pawning all over those songs when I was still insisting that the band was an overbearing Radiohead ripoff. But this is one of those songs that I hold in as high esteem as some of their biggest hits, that I don’t think has necessarily received as much attention from the world at large. So to me, it sort of still feels like a best kept secret playing a “sleeper hit” role on an album mostly filled with much more obvious ones. The fast-paced acoustic riffing, with a bit of Spanish flair to it, draws me in immediately, and it’s also one of the few songs where Chris Wolstenholme’s bass seems to play as important of a role as the guitar. There’s a formidable sort of “bounding” motion to the rhythym section, making me feel like I’m furiously chasing outlaws on horseback through the maze-like, adobe corridors of some ancient Mexican city. Those walls are a sort of metaphor for a closed mind, I guess, one which Matt hopes to siege and destroy as the scratchy electric guitars come swooping in and the drums began to roll like hapless, tumbling stones. Nearly every song in this album gives me a strong visual, but this one has so much color to it that it might just give me the most vivid mental images out of all of them. That it does so without relying on the electronic tricks that many of the other songs do is surprising – it’s not everyday you’ll hear Muse throwing a mariachi trumpet into a song, after all. The result is an intoxicating blend of science fiction and spaghetti western that once serves to makes me curse the day that Firefly got cancelled.
We trade our weather-beaten cityscape for a vast desert vista as we are suddenly swept away to the driest and most desolate, unpopulated areas of some remote planet whose scenery strangely resembles the American Southwest. A quivering guitar solo hints at Latin guitar licks before suddenly pouring out on us with an awesomely aggressive, flamenco-inspired electric riff, but then that backs off as suddenly as we’re introduced and we’re left with a slow, muddled and completely out-of-place ballad. Bellamy’s vocals here start out as near-whispers, almost afterthoughts really, free from the rhythmic grid laid out for the rest of the album as his words follow his mysterious guitar licks in the most unhurried fashion. Midway through, he switches to piano and there’s this flood of symphonic chaos, almost if a strange dream had led him to give us a glimpse of the middle section of the “Exogenesis” trilogy before he fully realized that what he was composing needed to be saved for the band’s next album. The result overall is one of Muse’s most experimental and unfocused songs – a notable one for how it so effectively segues between the mood of destructive vigilantism in “City of Delusion” and the sense of cosmic wonder found in the album’s killer finale, but definitely not a song that’s likely to rank on most fans’ lists of personal favorites. I appreciate what the band is going for here, but most of the time, I find myself itching for them to just get on with the show already.
11. Knights of Cydonia
AWWWWWWW YEAH! There is no suitable reaction short of total elation when this song starts up. It’s just too much fun to resist, throwing together Matt’s out-of-this-world falsetto, more of Dom’s cataclysmic drum fills, and the sort of guitar riff that can only be described as “music to space-surf to”, and then proceeding to take the whole crazy starship to Warp 11. The song is named for the “face on Mars”, and as the song’s highly addictive rhythm begins to prance across the skies, it may as well be heralding the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. What’s going on musically is difficult to describe without employing the word “epic”, which I know I’ve already used above and which has seen its share of abuse in our modern age, but if ever a song deserved that description, this would have to be the one. As we gallop through the halls of history itself, Matt initially displays a bit of cynicism at the chaos left behind by corrupt and inept men who have ruled the Earth, and since he’s ever the skeptic, he doesn’t have terribly kind words for it concerning the man upstairs (“I’ll show you a god who falls asleep on the job.”) I’d take issue with him coming to that conclusion, but honestly, the verses are secondary here, with the song mostly being an excuse to weave together some of the funnest riffs and vocal melodies known to mankind, all of it hitting an immensely satisfying climax when the rhythm breaks down in the middle of the song, only for the synths to begin building it back up again, and just when you’re expecting a loud return to the song’s previously heard refrain, instead everything else drops out and the band sings in such triumphant unison that you are immediately enslaved and forced to do their vocal bidding:
NO ONE’S GONNA TAKE ME ALIIIIIIIIIIIVE!!!!!
THE TIME HAS COME TO MAKE THINGS RIIIIIIIIIIIGHT!!!!!
YOU AND I MUST FIGHT FOR OUR RIIIIIIIIIIIGHTS!!!!!
YOU AND I MUST FIGHT TO SURVIIIIIIIIIIIVE!!!!!
Repeat this several times while the most amazing musical freefall to the finish line commences, and there you have a song that kicks the @$$es of entire damn galaxies. I would say that you haven’t lived until you’ve belted this one out along with the band at a live show, but that would be ridiculous. Of course you’ve lived, and you’ve probably done much more meaningful things than just singing along to awesome rock songs and not caring that you like a total fool doing it. Still, it’s something to put on your bucket list.
Oh yeah… so, that concert? The band was rather faithful about making sure no era of their history got left out (well, apart from their oldest album Showbiz, which probably isn’t too well known on this side of the pond), so Black Holes got three of its best and brightest tracks included in the setlist – “Supermassive Black Hole”, “Knights of Cydonia”, and the appropriately placed encore, “Starlight”. (Imagine a bunch of iPhones waving around in the dark as the audience hoped to lure the band back on stage, and you’ll see why that made sense.) It’s telling that I was more excited about hearing these tracks than I was about even a lot of my newer favorites. At least in my personal opinion, this is going to be a tough album for the band, even with the best of intentions in their increasingly erratic musical experiments, to ever outdo.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Take a Bow $1.75
Supermassive Black Hole $2
Map of the Problematique $2
Soldier’s Poem $.25
City of Delusion $1.75
Knights of Cydonia $2
Matthew Bellamy: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards, piano, synthesizers
Christopher Wolstenholme: Bass, backing vocals
Dominic Howard: Drums, percussion, synthesizers
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.