Looking back on… 15 years of Absolution

Words fae Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler)

You stand there, helpless, welded to the spot as the sound of a thousand jackboots march towards you, in almost rhythmic fashion. Apocalyptic in its sound, you know that the time to be absolved has come… Or at least the time to be judged for your sins has. You crane your neck skywards as you see a multitude of bodies be lifted into the air, most definitely deemed to be chosen ones. Almost instantly, a sound akin to crashing thunder permeates your eardrums, and you know the time has come. You shut your eyes, lie back, and as the sound of man made thunder washes over your body, you whisper one thing to yourself:

Absolution.

A lot of you are quite negative towards Muse these days, perhaps rightly, or wrongly, hey, that’s your opinion maaaaaan. You furrow your brow and scratch your chin as you fail to understand just how this band is headlining festivals and selling out arenas, but the answer is quite simple friend; on September 22nd 2003, Muse made certain that whatever they would touch for the next 15 years would turn to gold… and oftentimes, platinum.

Even the most sour faced, contrarian-for-the-sake-of-filling-their-vacuous-personality contrarian can admit that Absolution is a complete masterpiece. You could release it in 1973, 2003 or 2023 and it’d still be an era defining record. At some point, you have to stop and wonder, have Muse really gone off the boil, or is it just the fact that Absolution was such a high water mark, everything after that just seems a bit… meh? It’s hard top perfection with even more perfection.

Absolution’s origins come from around the time the band were touring in support of their second studio album, Origin of Symmetry, with songs like fan favourite Fury coming about as early as 2000. To turn that on its head, Soldier’s Poem from Black Holes and Revelations was originally meant to appear on the album, but was sat on the bench for another time. Fury was dropped all together in favour of The Small Print, though Matt has gone on to say in recent years that both The Groove and Fury should have made it to the record.

Originally, Absolution was going to be about mundane home matters, seeing as Showbiz was the “angsty” album, and Origin was about life on the road, Absolution was going to be “more about us being personable, about us being normal people at home”. It’s fair to assume that looking at the bombastic and overblown sonic and lyrical themes on Absolution, that concept was dropped, or if not, going round to Matt Bellamy’s house must be nothing short of traumatic.

However, cooler and saner heads prevailed, with the end product being recorded throughout 2003 at Grouse Lodge Studios in Ireland and AIR Studios in London, with Rich Costey and Paul Reeve sharing production duties. Regarding the title of Absolution, Matt insists that the title isn’t religious, and that instead:

“I think the absolution is not necessarily a religious word; It has meanings of purity, but it’s not necessarily talking from a Christian or any particular religious point of view. I think it’s just suggesting that the act of making music is a way of understanding things.”

Regarding the theme of the album, Matt said that the songs were meant to be “uplifting”, largely because he had recently fallen in love with Gaia Polloni. Looking at it critically and in depth, there is a theme of romance running through the veins of Absolution, and when it comes to matters of the heart, there’s quite a few songs that you can relate your experience to in the swelling of your heart, to the inevitable shattering of it. For instance, see Time Is Running Out:

“I tried to give you up, but I’m addicted”

Sing for Absolution:

“I only dream of you, my beautiful”

And Endlessly:

“Hopelessly, I’ll love you endlessly”

The prosecution rests.

Although interestingly, the coin completely turns to the other side when it comes to Falling Away With You, arguably the most forgotten song on Absolution, due to all the commotion happening around it, not least being the entree to the three course sonic salvo that is Falling Away With You – Interlude – Hysteria, undeniably one of the hardest three song combos to feature on an album.

Falling Away With You has never appeared once live, despite being soundchecked and occasionally teased, which is quite a shame, as there’s a case for it being the best song on the record, seeing as it combines all the best sonic elements off Absolution; a strong riff in the form of the gently plucked introduction, devastating lyrical theme, use of apocalyptic distortion and electronics. The problem is, much like Muse’s recent output, Falling Away With You was a difficult followup, considering that you’d heard Stockholm Syndrome just before.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXN9acC9edU]

Stockholm, without question, hyperbole or argument is the best song Muse have ever written; the symphonic, heartbroken aggression of the song, compared with the almighty riff has installed it as a fan favourite. Originally written for the piano, and at a much slower and softer pace, Stockholm was thrown onto Madman Matt Bellamy’s cold hard slab and torn apart, growing into the demonic riff that stands before you today.

The riff to Stockholm was inspired by System of a Down, something that makes sense when played in all its pomp, but would have been interesting to see just how that riff sounded as a sweet and gentle piano song. Whilst Absolution, and the era, B-sides and cultural impact flowed perfectly, a piano acoustic version of Stockholm would have been the cherry on the cake.

Pulling back the curtain on Absolution’s conception actually reveals how different life could have been. Alone, Absolution stands tall and is widely regarded as one of the best albums of the noughties, if not the 21st century, but seeing what the tracks could have looked and sounded like, plus with bass enthusiast Chris Wolstenholme revealing that the album was set to be called Universal Melodies, the album could well have been a complete turkey, and seen the end of Muse’s global dominance before it even began.

That being said, Absolution was also planned as a concept album, basing itself around the idea of insanity, but was changed in response to the Iraq war. Butterflies and Hurricanes is a remnant of that according to producer Costey, but the concept album idea was shelved until Muse finally released a concept album with Drones. Would Absolution as a concept album have landed with the same impact? Hard to tell, but it’s harder to dwell on what might have been. Butterflies is an obvious part of that concept album, as it is about finding inner strength and pushing through a situation, which could be comparable to dealing with insanity, and features a romantic, Rachmaninov-esque piano solo in the middle, which is just. Fucking. Great.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzCKrwOme2U]

Critically however, the album that landed before us was roundly received, garnering rave reviews, or at its very ebb, positive reviews, scoring 72/100 on Metacritic, based on an aggregate of 16 reviews. However, not too much should be read into this, because as we all know, every music writer is a wanker. Chart wise, the album came straight in at number one in the UK, and peaked at number one in France and the US, with most chart positions seeing the band finish in the top ten. Further to that, the album went triple platinum in the UK, platinum in the US and Europe, and gold in a smattering of other countries.

The album cycle also went on to see the band headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, a feat they would go onto repeat two more times, and established them as arena filling titans. Life would never be the same after the release of Absolution, and did indeed give Muse free reign to headline arenas and festivals at a click of their collective fingers.

The cover is iconic, and its conception is a complete mystery. Cover art legend Storm Thorgerson, a man whose client list was essentially every superstar band that’s ever existed ever was behind the project. The cover features people coming to earth, or down to earth, depending on your interpretation, but the main thing is; it’s all real. Thorgerson never revealed quite how he made the cover, and we may never know, but all that is known is they needed a sunny day in a chalkpit in London, to cast definite shadows. Whilst the cover may be up for interpretation, how Thorgerson got the bodies in the air is the first place is the REAL head scratcher.

Absolution also saw the band stretch their legs creatively, what they had achieved with Origin, they built on in Absolution, and the two are more related than you think. The bombastic, apocalyptic piano riff of Apocalypse Please feels like an offshoot from Origin, and is the perfect opener to the album. Though it’s a quite simple mix of piano, bass and drums, it’s layered with electronics, arpeggiated synths and most interestingly, the loud, thumping drums in Intro and Apocalypse Please were recorded in a swimming pool to create that booming effect. The song was also meant to have a full orchestra with it, but was taken away because it was “too much”. Slightly confusing, because Muse’s whole approach to music and the live show is “too much”.

However, the full orchestra reappeared in Blackout, an emotional and slightly melancholic song, talking about life being too short, and uses a mandolin on the song. Whilst the two may seem detached stylistically, Blackout was inspired by none other than Frank Sinatra. The use of a mandolin is also present on Falling Away With You. The mandolin came about due to Bellamy spending time in Italy around folk music and the use of that instrument, so found its way into the album.

The album produced countless hits, obviously, seeing as this whole piece is talking about how much of a masterpiece this album is, but even today, tracks like Hysteria and Time is Running Out are enough to send people into a frenzy, be it in a club, pub, or you’re lucky enough to gaze upon Chris Wolstenholme as the sound of a thousand fuzz pedals begin to rattle your eardrums.

Hysteria began life as a soundcheck riff on the Origin tour, and borrows its sound from Futurism, another “how the fuck is this a B-side” b-side from the band’s early career. Though complex in its structure, Hysteria is a pretty simple song; a big honking bassline with the rest of the band just trying not to get in Chris’ way. Even its composition was simple, rather than it beginning life as a roarin’ twenties jazz number with Matt on bagpipes. Just a simple bass riff with a bit of synth to beef it up. Prior to that is Interlude, a simple instrumental… er… interlude based on Adagio for Strings. The interesting thing about Interlude is that it only received its live debut 6 years after the album’s release, finally preluding Hysteria on the Resistance tour in 2009, and has remained ever since.

Parts of the album were more guitar led as well, including The Small Print and Thoughts of a Dying Atheist, a song that’s interestingly about a dying atheist’s acceptance that they do not believe in heaven or hell, and have to accept that nothing faces them in the next life. Kind of an interesting way to see atheism, and the fact that when you die, you get to sleep for more than eight hours, which sounds great, but you will not pass through to another life to live eternally, which is where this atheist’s fear comes from; not that they will face God upon their passing, but they will face nothing.

These guitar led tracks did feature more pronounced solos on them, with the solos and guitar riffs in TSP and Thoughts of a Dying Atheist feeling more prominent in the mix, compared to tracks like Citizen Erased, where there was a solo, but it felt a bigger part of a mix, rather than its own standalone component. This is most notable on Thoughts of a Dying Atheist, where the solo was whammy-driven and a focal point of the song.

The piano felt more overblown as well. Piano led tracks on a Muse album were, and are not uncommon, seeing as Matt started out life as a pianist, wanting to become a concert pianist before seeing Rage Against the Machine and changing tack, but on Absolution, they felt like concert pieces, as opposed to piano-driven rock songs. Take original album closer Ruled By Secrecy, which feels like a half piano concerto, half blockbuster film soundtrack. The chords seem more violent in both this and Apocalypse Please, with the romantic solo in Butterflies and Hurricanes literally stretching Matt’s piano skills to the limit.

Overwhelmingly then, Absolution was an evolution of Muse’s signature sound, and would establish them as space rock titans across the globe. Whilst the dice may have tumbled in a different way, and we might not have been able to experience the bounty we were offered, it’s undeniable that Absolution left an indelible mark on the world of music, and would change their lives forever, providing them the foundation to keep growing, and growing, and growing, allowing them to perch themselves at the very top.

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