All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler), with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.
*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD
Up This Week: Map of the Problematique by Muse
Read Last Week’s Lecture on Seek & Destroy by Metallica here.
Once upon a time, Muse were arguably the most powerful band in the world. Their space opera theatrics mixed with symphonic, heartbroken aggression, plus some big riffs, they made the world dance to their beat. Whilst yes, now they’re on the speed dial of every festival organiser, can sell out arenas with the flick of a wrist and shift records by the pallet, Muse reached their headiest heights in 2007, not long after the release of Black Holes & Revelations, as they took to the stage in Wembley Stadium, becoming the first band to sell out the “new” Wembley.
Your reaction to their name might be one of pure adoration, or pure disgust, but the run of four albums from Showbiz to Black Holes is full of absolute treats, with few songs across those records disappointing the senses. Many of you will likely argue that Absolution or Origin of Symmetry is the GOAT Muse album, and to be honest, you’d be right with either selection. However, Black Holes is not without its charms and is a handsome bronze medallist. Think Knights of Cydonia, Hoodoo and Assassin, and you can see why Black Holes is such a treasure. However, nothing post-Black Holes has come close to it, with The Resistance, The 2nd Law and Drones offering flashes of greatness, but nothing that could slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of Matt Bellamy.
But one song off that album is anecdotally regarded as the best Muse will ever produce, and whilst this is a lecture, not an op-ed, it’s hard to disagree with anyone who puts this song at the top of their list. That song? Map of the Problematique. The composers? Muse. The result? Shock and awe.
Let’s just dive in right away and look at the riff, shall we? It’s absolutely sublime. First of all, how the fuck does it work? Research suggests that as per Matt’s mid noughties guitar work, involves a lot of effects-based jiggery pokery, largely focused around the Digitech Whammy, a particular favourite Mr Bellamy, and a Molten Midi 2, based on what Equipboard, a few YouTubers and a few live performances can tell us. Sorry to break the Magician’s Code on that particular riff, but peeking behind the curtain is the whole point of the series.
The result of tech wizardry is an octaved, harmonised riff that rattles around your brain as the notes crack through the sky like lightning. Couple that with the gently tapped piano, thundering drums and scratchy, choral sounds exploding through the song, the opening of Map of the Problematique paints an image of lightning breaking through a darkened sky, the white hot light of the bolts mixing with the inky blue of the night to create a midnight purple that illuminates the night sky. The use of a delayed, ocatved effect is prominent through the whole song, and has a real Depeche Mode feel to it.
You’ll probably have a favourite Muse song, but it’s hard to find a song more polished, refined and perfect than Map. The title comes from the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, commissioned by Club of Rome, a think tank. The book talks of a “map of the problematique”, referencing to a “global problematique”, or a set of catastrophic problems that will face the world in years to come (See also: Trump: The Art of the Deal). The opening line refers to “Fear, and panic in the air”, which Wikipedia reckons is a reference to Mars, with Mars’ two moons being Phobos and Deimos, the Greek gods of fear and panic (not to be confused with comedy duo Pain & Panic from 1997’s Disney classic Hercules). Not a bad shout considering that the cover is shot on a red plane, maybe Mars, Cydonia is on Mars, and members of the band have been enjoying Mars bars[Citation Needed].
However, Map is unarguably about the faltering relationship between Bellamy and his then girlfriend. First and foremost, the first verse doesn’t exactly scream “Lad’s Holiday to Mars!” now does it? It instead paints a picture of the protagonist struggling with their relationship, and the feeling of hopelessness in failing to get things right.
“Fear, and panic in the air // I want to be free from desolation and despair // and I feel, like everything I sow is being swept away // well I refuse to let you go”
Whilst Wikipedia argues that pain and pan- fuck – fear and panic refer to the two moons of Mars, “fear, and panic” in this context could refer to the fear that the protagonist’s efforts aren’t good enough for their lover, and panic that the relationship will be swept away as a result of it.
The chorus isn’t much of a picnic either, with the protagonist bringing their beau into the song:
“I can’t get it right // get it right // since I met you”
Three little lines, but it’s a very relatable chorus, it’s fair to say that in the midst of a rocky patch in a relationship, we’ve all felt that we can’t get it right, no matter how hard we try. Interestingly, since the eventual collapse of Matt’s relationship, he altered the last chorus to “since I lost you”, implying that either he, or the protagonist in the song still wrestles with the same demons that they did when with their lover. or that without them in their life, they struggle to live with the same vitality they did when with them. Arguably, this should have been reflected in the studio version of the song to add extra poignancy, but, none of us are members of Muse, unless you’re a member of Muse, then hello!
The use of a delayed, stuttered midi effect is also prevalent in the bridge in the chorus, moving the protagonist to plead:
“Loneliness be over, when will this loneliness be over?”
This is pretty poignant, as the protagonist feels alone in their own relationship, maybe through the rockiness in their relationship, they’re not speaking, and that can be an exceedingly lonely time. However, the poignancy and eternal romantic struggle, as the stuttered riff comes back in with some thumpy-ass drums, moving into a really dance-heavy section of the song, but still carries the gloomy lyrical theme of the first verse into the second, if not gloomier as the tone gets lower.
“Life, will flash before my eyes // so scattered almost // I want to touch the other side // and the world, thinks they are to blame // why can’t we see, that when we bleed, we bleed the same?”
Sort of like a real-life professor interpreting a body of work, it could be argued that wanting to “touch the other side” loosely refers to the protagonist taking their own life. Considering the gloom that envelopes them and their struggle to find happiness, or do right in their relationship, going to the other side may have become an option. For a song with such a pacey tempo & dancey structure, it’s pretty fucking dark.
Something that really stands out though is the last line before the final chorus
“Why can’t we see, that when we bleed, we bleed the same?”
In the context of the song it’s pretty hard to see what Bellamy means. Is it the protagonist trying to reach through their lover, in that both of them not communicating or seeking to destroy their relationship is destroying them at the same time? However, in a wider context, this line has a lot of poignancy, largely because we’re all human, we’re all of the human race, but the marginalisation of select groups, growing wealth inequality and rise of far-right rhetoric has caused multiple schisms in our collective human race. But if you were to cut us, we would all bleed the same red blood, just that some groups are cut more than others, and others can afford to be cut.
Again, this theory is probably GCSE-level philosophy at its maxim, but there’s something about that line that’s extra meaningful.
But the poignancy of Map’s lyrical theme, plus the perfectly polished production and composition of the track is what makes it one of, if not the best Muse songs ever written. The intricacy of the riff and similarities to Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode is what really makes it stand out. The upped tempo of the riff gives it a real uniqueness as well, and something that you won’t really find elsewhere in Muse’s back catalogue. Lyrically, Muse were really in their own in the mid noughties, especially with Absolution, but even more especially with Black Holes. You only need to look at the depth of songs like Hoodoo, Take a Bow and Invincible to see that the band had a real knack for writing meaningful songs back in the day.
Fingers crossed that with whatever Muse are up to this year in terms of studio time, they manage to bottle some of the magic that Map of the Problematique offered, and produce a song that bursts through the sky like violent lightning.