“Uhhh… it’s like ummm… did anyone see the movie Tron?” – Homer Simpson
Muse are a hard animal to identify, playing by-the-book rock in their debut album Showbiz, the band probably float in the space rock atmosphere, if you want to staple a genre to them. Always one to favour the unusual, piano flourishes, robotic synths and skyward riffs have always been a staple of the Teignmouth trio’s offering.
However, it’s been nearly 20 years since Showbiz introduced some bright eyed and bushy tailed kids to the world, and deservedly, have become kings of the universe since then. Albums like Origin of Symmetry, Absolution and Black Holes & Revelations welcomed them into the rock legends circle, and even still, it’s hard to say they’ve outstayed their welcome as arena gladiators.
But in recent years, it’s fair to say the end product’s gone off the boil a little. No, ‘off the boil’ is a bit too generous. The pan has fallen off the hob and is currently melting your foot like it’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Resistance had its moments of excellence if not a bit wobbly, The 2nd Law was… yeah… and Drones offered a welcome return to form in places, although lacking substantially in others. So surely with their new album, Simulation Theory, they’re about to return to their old form of writing an album that sounds like Jimi Hendrix wrestling Jesus in space?
Mmm. Perhaps not.
Before the pan comes out the cupboard on this one, it should be stressed that a band changing their sound is a Very Good Thing, because bands can be reborn under a new sonic blueprint, but bands changing their sound and not putting their entire heart into it is a Less Than Good Thing. In some places, the gamble pays off and works, but in other places, it just feels like that more time & effort should have been put in to the writing of these songs. However, had the band written Showbiz after Showbiz after Showbiz, they’d probably make the odd “Good debut, where are they now?” lists, rather than being rock legends.
Simulation Theory has the best of intentions, but it just doesn’t leave a mark. Algorithm opens the album, with growing strings and dystopian synth, which does serve well as an opener. There are some familiar if not slightly recycled Bellamy brand piano flourishes, but the whole track just feels a bit sluggish. It feels like a rejected cut from Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack. It’s a little confusing seeing as the band have used synth so freely and to much more devastating effect, pretty much from their inception.
This is the thing that’s bringing the album down; stuff like this, the bombastic dystopian space rock opera aliens shagging in space approach could probably be copyrighted by Muse, but on Simulation Theory, it just feels like they’re on their last week after handing in their notice, almost as if this album says “yeah, I’m still coming to work, but at best I’m going to send two emails and go for a three hour shit”. Is this album a case of biting off more than they can chew, or have they just simply sailed wide of the mark?
Highlights on this album are few and far between, but Pressure offers something different AND enjoyable. The riff is pretty funky, and the use of the horns during the intro and the verses is really enjoyable. In the dystopian present that is Simulation Theory, Pressure feels like a friendly face, and a warming embrace. It’s got a very Radio 2 feel to it, in that your mum and dad can join in the fun too, and that’s not a bad thing at all, it shows a widely appealing sound. It’s a carefree track, and although the use of horns might be the only link, it has the same dancey, upbeat and fun feel as Panic Station, another late-stage Muse banger.
There are some more personable and perhaps more emotionally vulnerable moments on the album than we’ve seen in recent years, with Get Up And Fight inspired by Bellamy’s uncle having cancer, with an emotional lyrical theme, especially with a trademark falsetto crying “I can’t survive without your love in my life”. There’s a huge emotional vocal delivery in what is one of the more poppier songs on the album. Something Human was written regarding the disconnect Bellamy feels when touring, and the excitement of coming home.
Something that’s extremely confusing about the album is the way the tracks have been chosen. For argument’s sake, we’re going to just review the standard album, but the area of concern is the deluxe version of the album. You’ll find “alternate reality” versions of tracks like Algorithm and The Dark Side, and this “alternate reality” must be the one where Simulation Theory is an album of the year contender, because Algorithm is a substantially beefier, and more frightening track. It feels like Tron and Star Wars had a baby. It feels like Darth Vader is about to square go with Thanos, with The Undertaker as a special guest referee.
Another conundrum the deluxe version throws up is the acoustic version of Something Human. Comparing the two side by side, it feels like the synth has overcomplicated the recording in parts, and the song would have worked better as this stripped back acoustic song, perhaps built up a bit more. It feels like in places on Simulation Theory, there’s electronics for the sake of electronics. As if Matt got bought a synthesiser for Christmas, and he’s using it loads so nobody gets their feelings hurt.
It’s just a little confusing that, whilst opinions are subjective, the bonus tracks on the album feel more put together than the main album tracks. None of this goes to help the album’s overall score, but if you find yourself underwhelmed by the main course, the side dishes might be a bit more to your taste…
Let’s offer a positive, shall we? Blockades deploys the synth-first strategy with success. It feels a more comfortable track than its album-mates, with the electronics forming a more coherent part of the song, with slight undertones of Knights of Cydonia in it. Maybe it’s the space-esque synth or the galloping bass, but this feels like proper space rock song, rather than an ambiguous stab at electronics. It feels polished, mixing the dystopian themes with space rock, to create that neon-bathed aesthetic the album cover tries to cultivate. Same goes for The Dark Side, which does create the same dystopian effect. Had this approach run through the veins of this album, you could have produced another concept album similar to Drones.
Propaganda is a deceptive track. The thudding bass and robotic voice make way for… a trap-esque beat? Does Matt really say “floozy”, in the year of our lord, twenty eighteen? Absolutely nothing wrong with a rock band taking inspiration from hip hop and vice versa, we’re all here to learn from one another, but this feels like Muse are wearing baseball caps backwards and saying “yo yo yo kids!”.
Muse taking a new direction is not a bad thing. It’s through this innovation and evolution that new music keeps happening. Imagine if everyone still sounded The Beatles? Oasis tried it and look what happened to them, ran out of gas by Be Here Now and lived off the back of Wonderwall, now a load of parka-clad wankers will assure you they’re the greatest band ever. The problem here is that in taking this new direction, it feels unfinished. It feels like some of these songs, like Propaganda, Break It To Me and Algorithim have potential, but it hasn’t yet been unlocked. Some of these tracks should have stayed in the studio a big longer. They’re still a little frozen in the middle.
Some songs, however, are totally finished and are just shite. Take Thought Contagion, for one. It’s like Muse watched that parody “How to write a Muse song” video on YouTube, then wrote a Muse song. We’re on layers of Muse that we can’t comprehend right now. It just feels like the band are trying as hard as they used to when it comes to song writing. Which might be fair enough, they’re all worth millions, and if they want to have their kitchen redone, they can snap their fingers and book an arena tour.
Drummer Dom Howard mused (wahey!) that 2015’s Drones might have been their last album, due to the way music is consumed, releasing singles and EPs might have been the way forward for the band, and it’s hard to disagree. In releasing sporadic singles, the band could have had more time to work on their new sound, rather than having to do it in one gulp, perhaps waiting another year or two to release an album. It took Metallica eight years to write, record and release Hardwired… and that payed dividends for the band. Hardwired was a good album, breathing new life into the band, something Muse might have benefited from. At their level, they can rely on arena tours, sporadic singles and festival appearances, because their marketable product is the live show, rather than having to get themselves known through their music.
The Void closes out the album, which is pretty fitting, because that’s what you find yourself wanting to scream into at the end of the album. With that said, The Void is powerfully enjoyable, and another example of where the electronically led approach pays off. Again, it uses the dystopian theme with the electronics perfectly. It creates a powerful sense of dread. It feels like a call to arms in the dying light of day, and whilst the use of electronics works perfectly and powerfully here, the delicately tapped piano at the end of the song, making way for the rippling synth with droned repetitions of “they’re wrong, baby they’re wrong” giving the song a tired feel, not in production, but almost as if it’s the dying breaths of the album.
The problem here is that Simulation Theory will work as a transitional album, but this take comes clad in ifs & buts. This could be the base to provide a greater reaction in the future, but Muse need to stick to this blueprint. An issue is that since The Resistance, the blueprint’s been a bit sixes and sevens. Before they even record anything or even think about considering pondering lamenting mulling thinking about recording something, they need to define what they want to be, which should either to be build on this concept of dystopian space rock, and solidify what they’re learning to improve future sounds, or go back to basics.
They are much better off sticking to this blueprint, because it more or less gives them a fresh start. See Simulation Theory as a re-debut album. Positive in places, shaky in others and gives you a glimpse into what this band can offer. They need to sit down, listen back to this album and ask themselves; “How can we do these tracks, but better?”. If for instance, the album after this is the Origin to Simulation‘s Showbiz (we’re on like, fifty layers of Muse here), the band can essentially start life all over again, and enjoy a later stage career that few bands would dare to dream of.
History may judge this album kindly, and regard it as the start of something magical, but we can only work with and judge what we have in the now, and that’s something that works in places, but sorely lacks in others.
Oliver Butler – (@notoliverbutler)