Review Summary: This is Muse in 2018 – take them or leave them.
I’m still convinced that Muse’s decision to soundtrack the Twilight
saga is what singularly led to their downfall. That’s obviously a baseless accusation on its face, so allow me to explain. The first movie in the series debuted in 2008 – right after the release of Black Holes and Revelations
, but before its futile successor, The Resistance
. Prior to heavily involving themselves in these soundtracks, they were widely regarded as one of the best and most entertaining rock bands in the entire world. Their cornerstone releases, Origin of Symmetry
, were not just fundamentally sound – featuring gorgeous and lush classical piano sections alongside complex electric guitar riffing – but they were also wildly entertaining and accessible. Their live shows drew massive crowds as well, and Muse basically had the entire world at its knees.
Enter ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, a single taken from their 2006 synth-rock album Black Holes and Revelations
but applied to the eponymous 2008 Twilight
film. According to a 2010 NME article, the decision to soundtrack that song was an attempt by Muse to push their music in North America, where they were on the verge of becoming well-known, but were still a far cry from the rampant popularity that they enjoyed in Europe and other areas of the world. It worked like a charm, as the Twilight
films skyrocketed in popularity with Muse’s songs tied to them at the hip. This placed Muse on the wrong side of an artistic transformation that saw them devolve from an electrifying rock band to one more concerned with expanding its influence. They delved into even poppier terrain thereafter, offering the bouncy piano ballad ‘I Belong To You’ to New Moon
and then ‘Neutron Star Collision (Love Is Forever)’ to the third installment, Eclipse
. Their music became more about appealing to a particular fan base than it did creating the kind of paranoid, political statements that exploded out of Absolution
It’s more than just a far-fetched assertion, too; bassist Chris Wolstenholme was quoted as saying that being on the Twilight
soundtrack felt like “selling their soul.” The subsequent drop-off between Origin of Symmetry/Absolution/Black Holes
and Resistance/2nd Law/Drones
was more than just your average band selling out though, and fans felt the impact of that freefall. It’s clear that whatever Muse once had is now gone – and they either can’t regain that spark or are willfully refusing to even try. It’s truly one of the most prolific wastes of musical talent in recent memory, as the band continues to parade highfalutin concepts that bare practically no instrumental or lyrical substance.
That may have seemed like something of an extraneous rant, but it informs where Muse is at with the release of Simulation Theory
– a synth-pop album co-produced by Timbaland and that loosely pays homage to 1980s sci-fi concepts. We’ve reached a point where Muse no longer cares what their original fan base thinks, and in a way, that’s a burden lifted – both for us and them. No longer do we have the indecisiveness that plagued The Resistance
, where the band was clearly still trying to appease the “old school” while also perusing a more glamorous, modernized agenda. Simulation Theory
resultantly feels far more confident and emboldened. With Muse no longer coy about their objectives, they’ve finally let some of their crazier ideas see the light of day…and they’re not all bad.
is best when it’s at its strangest. ‘Propaganda’ immediately comes to mind, with its bizarre, pro-pro-pro-propaganda
introduction and funky, rhythmic verses. Something that feels like it should be cringe-inducing ends up sounding intoxicatingly original, a perception only bolstered by the detuned guitars that play – brilliantly in context – throughout the background of the song. ‘Break it to Me’ is paired with ‘Propaganda’ and rightfully so; they feel like sibling songs that share identical core traits. ‘Break it to Me’ continues the groove-laden, detuned electric guitars but turns them into a focal point. There’s a moment a little less than a minute and a half into the song where Bellamy’s vocals are electronically contorted to sound as if he’s been absorbed into some kind of alternate virtual realm – like something out of The Matrix
series. To boot, the entire outro is an eerie brand of pitter-patting, funk-infused electronics. It’s hard to imagine something so off-the-wall and over the top being a highlight, but it unequivocally is
. Muse could make an entire record in the same vein as those two tracks, and they would be breaking new ground.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Simulation Theory
’s low points come when they default back to pop tropes. The whoa oh
’s on ‘Thought Contagion' could be seen coming from a mile away, and even though Muse is now unabashedly mainstream when they want to be, the track still feels a little too Fall Out Boy-ish for their own good. Likewise, ‘Something Human’ isn’t necessarily a poor effort, but the absurdly peppy beat is reminiscent of Imagine Dragons’ ‘Top of the World’, and that style just doesn’t complement Bellamy’s falsetto (as we’ve witnessed numerous times in the past, notably on ‘I Belong To You’ ). ‘Get Up and Fight’ is an equal mixture of that same syrupy style and out-of-place optimism, to the tune of ‘Invincible’ or ‘Guiding Light.’ The fact that all three of these songs follow each other in succession does little to help the album’s momentum late in the stretch, especially when they follow the aforementioned boundary-pushers.
The remainder of Simulation Theory
feels a lot like what we got on The Resistance
’s more accomplished tracks. There’s still a clear inclination towards the band’s sleek and accessible side, but the songs are well-written and at times very catchy. ‘Algorithm’ is one of the best tracks on the album (or from the last three albums for that matter), and it really doesn’t do anything atypically Muse. There’s a steady uptempo beat, a moment of lush classical piano, and menacing synthesizers that drive the whole thing forward. Throughout Muse’s ups and downs over the years, Bellamy has mostly remained on-point as a vocalist (although the lyrics are a different story), and he again delivers a solid performance here. ‘The Dark Side’ is another album highlight, sounding a little bit like a more complicated ‘Starlight’ – it retains that beautiful atmosphere, but there’s a lot more going on rhythmically and melodically. ‘Blockades’ is one of the heaviest songs on the record, thriving on the space-rock sound that Black Holes
mastered only with a frenetic synth/percussive mixture and a well-placed guitar solo.
Unfortunately, there are just as many songs here that essentially feel like retreads. ‘Dig Down’ does that annoying Queen cliché thing where Bellamy intermittently bursts into falsetto out of nowhere, kind of like he did on the “Sia!” portion of ‘United States of Eurasia’, or basically half of Drones
. ‘Pressure’ feels phoned-in, employing the most basic of beats (oh, and drummer Dom Howard is noticeably absent from about half of this entire album), while offering nothing more than “don’t push/stop/choke me” in the way of a chorus. It’s entirely uninteresting and forgettable. When it comes to album closers, we’ve come to expect a lot out of Muse (‘Knights of Cydonia’, ‘Ruled by Secrecy’, ‘Exogenesis’), but ‘The Void’ really just floats by undetected. The lyrical content deals with questioning authority/government/conservatism (“They believe nothing can reach us, and pull us out of the boundless gloom / They're wrong”). It’s an interesting concept for a song, but for such a rousing message it feels utterly uninspiring. Bellamy sounds disinterested and that’s the tone that resonates, ending Simulation Theory
with a damp, muffled thud.
is the most honest album that Muse has created in quite some time. It’s clearly leagues below what they’re capable of, but they’re at least moving forward with the styles of music that they want to create, uninhibited by expectations rooted in the past. This is essentially a synth-pop album, one that is at times exciting and unconventional and at other times tasteless and rudimentary. There are certainly moments from this record that Muse can take and run with, especially their experimental electronic work. At the very least, Simulation Theory
makes it clear that Muse actually does have some worthwhile ideas outside of strictly rock
. If they’re not going to play to their obvious strengths and fully invest in a return to the days of Absolution
, then they should continue to submit to their whims and explore new territory – as they do here. Simulation Theory
is still a massive underachievement with respect to the band’s talent level, but at least they’re not lying to us about who they are anymore. This is Muse in 2018 – take them or leave them.