When it comes to Muse, I have a love/hate relationship with them. On the one hand, they have moments of absolute genius, and can create genuinely stunning songs. However, this is heavily contrasted by poor decisions, and some odd musical directions. Three of the Devonshire trio’s earliest albums (Origin of Symmetry, Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations respectively) are what I class as the ‘golden era’ of the band. This is by far their strongest material, and when they were at their peak. In more recent years, things haven’t been as good. The Resistance was a fun album, but still didn’t hold a candle to their previous work, The 2nd Law was a messy abomination and Drones felt very uninspired, depending on nostalgia to drive it forward. Sure, each of those releases do have some absolute stand-out tracks and moments, but it’s not a patch on the Muse of old.
This leaves their eighth studio album, Simulation Theory, in a very awkward position. Even a glimpse at the cover art is enough to raise eyebrows, with it’s cliched, cheesy 80’s inspired theme, and the band featuring prominently within it, as if it were some trashy pop record. However, I’m not here to judge by the cover, so how about it’s overall sound? In the lead up to it’s release, the band opted to sneak out singles for about a year. The quality of these have ranged from not-so-great to legitimately great. Oh and that retro themed cover art? The 80’s style also translates heavily into the music, with frontman Matt Bellamy stating he was inspired by the era at the time of production. Maybe hearing these amongst the rest of the tracks will change things?
“Algorithm” is a very strong start to the record, and probably one of the best openers to a Muse album ever. Dark electronic synthwave builds, melding with a dramatic piano melody. Matt Bellamy really belts out the lyrics here, his vocals in top form. Orchestral elements become more prominent, giving this an epic mood, as if it were the soundtrack for a motion picture. This bleeds seamlessly into “The Dark Side”, continuing the synthwave themes explored in the opener. It’s a genuinely great track, blending rock and electronic perfectly. These two songs in particular ooze the classic Muse feel, all whilst trying something different. It’s dark, haunting, and is what I feel ‘new’ Muse should sound like. I can’t help but get slightly wacky vibes from “Pressure”. Maybe it’s the marching band that backs the main riff? Either way, it’s surprisingly fun and catchy. It would have benefited from being slightly more beefed up, particularly in the chorus, but some gritty riffage more than makes up for it. Then again, if you thought that was crazy, wait until you hear “Propaganda”! A robot voice spouts out the chorus to EDM gunfire, and builds with the expectations of heavy rock… but then it becomes a slow sexy song, with a killer acoustic melody, mimicking RnB styles. This is the band at their most flamboyant, and it’s clear they’re taking the piss, yet it’s shockingly good. “Break it to Me” feels like two songs mashed together. A bulky riff is backed by funky sounding synths, before it gives way to Bollywood vibes. The track switches between these constantly, and it is extremely unpredictable. The chaotic scratching of the Kaoss pad at the end makes for a great finish. It’s quite possibly the biggest surprise on the record. “Something Human” has layers of electronic elements that create an highly enticing ambience, and the acoustic melody is rather pleasant. “Thought Contagion”, on the other hand, has echoes of older songs, and could perhaps be mistaken for something from the Black Holes and Revelations era. Chris Wolstenholme’s chunky bassline is the main driving force of this one. There’s a fantastic guitar solo from Bellamy, but it’s too short-lived. Sadly, this track suffers from being too repetitive, not really going anywhere. “Get Up and Fight” is probably the most generic stadium rock track on the album. It’s not terrible, it’s just that, compared to the rest of the wonderfully insane things going on, it feels mundane. It’s a shame, as the lyrical themes, combined with Bellamy’s performance, are the most sincere on the album. Dare I say, this would probably work much better live? “Blockades” has a grandiose feel to it. Dramatic aperigos roll in the the background, there’s galloping drumbeats, and some massive riffs to boot. A thundering solo is thrown in for good measure too. It’s extremely energetic and captures Muse’s rock sensibilities whilst keeping to the electro themes. “Dig Down” was first of the tracks to be released as a single, and it had me fearing what was to come. It’s pretty dull and repetitive, not really evolving much. I do admit, the synth hook is pretty catchy, and the guitar work at the end is brilliant. However, it works well as the penultimate track, as it evokes feelings of closure. It’s acually a lot better than I remember it being, or maybe it’s just grown on me a bit. Closing off the album is “The Void”, and it’s magnificent! An eerie synth melody kicks in, continuously becoming darker and more sinister in tone. Whilst the lyrics can be interpreted as positive, one can’t help but get a hint of sorrow in this one. The piano introduced later on adds to the haunting nature of the track, as heavy synths take over, consuming all other sounds, before fading into nothingness.
And with that, Muse’s transformation into a pop band is complete. It’s hard to be denied here, but is that really a bad thing? It’s probably the most outlandish, bizarre collection of songs they’ve ever concocted… and it’s glorious! There are a couple of notable let-downs, but even they work in context of the whole package. The main reason these few miss the mark slightly, is only because they feel tame compared to the insanity and experimentation of the rest of the album. For the most part, it’s gold. The issue I had with more recent releases, was the fact that it felt like they were imitating the very inspirations they were utilising, and had lost their way. The Muse of old were a band that took a style, and melded it into their own. The former is exactly what has been done here, and it not only feels like the creative spark has once again been rekindled, it’s ablaze. It travels to many weird but wonderful places throughout it’s journey, yet somehow remains coherent.
It’s not the revelation we were expecting, and still doesn’t reach the greatness of the holy trinity of the golden era. However, as a whole, it’s better than their last few albums, and the high-points soar. Simulation Theory feels like rediscovering Muse. For the first time in a long while, I’m optimistic and excited about what the future holds for them.
Final Verdict: Muse feel creative and fresh again, delivering a gloriously bizarre pop album that treads brave new ground. Not entirely the revelation we were expecting, but is their best album in a long while!
- The Dark Side
- Break it to Me
- Something Human
- Thought Contagion
- Get Up and Fight
- Dig Down
- The Void