BOSTON — It was a cold night in March, but the TD Garden in Boston was full, and the crowd had put Matthew Bellamy of Muse down onto his knees. Or maybe it wasn’t his fans causing the singer, guitarist and primary creative force behind Muse to move as if overcome by emotion. It was the music, a metallic groundswell with frothy classical overtones and the heavy pull of a groove.
He careened around a high-tech stage set that put him and each of his band mates, the punchy drummer Dominic Howard and chill bassist Chris Wolstenholme, atop a mini-skyscraper, meant to evoke the menacing buildings in George Orwell’s “1984.” The setting, combined with the music, felt as visceral as a blow to the head.
The nearly 15,000 Muse fans absorbed the energy. Near the front rows, two sorority types danced as some bookish-looking indie dudes snickered behind them. Within minutes, though, the know-it-alls had lost their composure, pumping their fists and mouthing Bellamy’s every word.
Muse is one of those bands that zeitgeist-obsessed tastemakers don’t notice until they’ve become superstars. The populist art-rock trio from the English seaside hamlet of Teignmouth has topped charts worldwide for a decade and, after a slow start in America, is finally achieving real visibility here.
The band has spent the last six months on a tour that included Madison Square Garden and climaxes with a Saturday night headlining spot at the Coachella festival.
The Boston show’s effect was classic rock, but it didn’t feel old-fashioned, even if one aspiration recalled another era. “We’ve been on a bit of a quest to bring back stadium rock, for a contemporary band at least,” said Howard backstage before the band performed. “It’s not just about the music when you go to a gig that size; it’s also about looking at 80,000 people and going, ‘Bloody hell, this is good.’”
What kind of band can compete with grizzled stadium kings such as the Rolling Stones? One whose leader plays Liszt for fun and whose songs have titles like “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist”?
Staking out the ground where art rock becomes radio-friendly — and danceable — is Muse’s contribution to the unexpected resurgence of that subgenre and its long-haired, 1970s-born cousin, prog rock.
The 2000s have been a boom time for classically tinged, conceptually high-flying rock fantasias. Radiohead remains the era’s most influential guitar band; indie stars like the Dirty Projectors, Joanna Newsom and the National showcase classically trained artists creating music for outside the concert hall.
The question has been who would bring this kind of ambition to the mass audiences who turn out for heartland acts such as Nickelback or elders like U2, whom Muse supported on tour last year.
Stadium-band status, in fact, is already a reality for Muse. In the last half-decade, the group has headlined England’s massive summer fest, Glastonbury, and gigged twice at London’s Wembley Stadium. Intensive touring has built up its fan base in the States, and combined with “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer’s advocacy — the band’s been featured on both “Twilight” film soundtracks, and she has said they have inspired her work — and increasing radio airplay, Muse has become hugely popular without needing any “band of the moment” buzz.
By the time the crowd has sung along to the cybersex come-on “Plug in Baby,” the balloons have been released and the Queen harmonies have been executed on “Knights of Cydonia,” Bellamy has played the guitar hero, the piano virtuoso and the front-wolf howling at the moon. Howard and Wolstenholme have locked in and never let go.
The show ends, and the lights come up on a demographically varied crowd composed of emo-looking teens, beaming dudes in gray ponytails and young women whose Forever 21 outfits are now slightly askew. Muse had brought the rock, without embarrassment, and without surrendering its smarts. It was just as Bellamy had said it would be in an interview before the show.
Bellamy was sitting next to a clothing rack full of glittery T-shirts in a darkened dressing room, but he seemed more like a New Yorker writer than a rock star. You could call him dapper. He showed me what he was reading (Richard Dawkins on evolution) and mentioned his fondness for Mendelssohn. He really lighted up when talking about heady stuff such as corporate capitalism, the spiritual effect of social media or how strange it feels to be a conduit for the kind of obsessive fervor that epic rock can inspire.
“I do feel sometimes that it’s other people’s feelings that are coming into me and I’m trying to tune into it and express it back,” he said of the spirit that infuses him. There certainly are a lot of fans trying to get inside his head.
In fact, Muse’s rise feeds on the Internet’s weird combination of solitude and hive mind. The band’s intricately built songs reward unraveling, are perfect for mulling over alone and sharing conclusions on a message board.
The trio has played together since its members were young teens and has that tight, insular quality of a self-taught unit. Bellamy’s vision, which steers the whole thing, is both grandiose and obsessive. His impulse to build worlds, exemplified by the 13-minute long space odyssey “Exogenesis: Symphony” on 2009’s album “The Resistance,” repays the attentions of obsessive fans.
Call it prog rock for girls, or art rock for making out. By injecting sexuality and over-the-top emotion into the progressive rock framework, Muse heats up what can often be an insular musical style.
Tom Whalley, former Warner Bros. Records chairman and chief executive who signed Muse to the label, sees the group’s eclecticism as its key. “They have a makeup that broadens their appeal,” he said in a phone interview. “The prog-rock sensibility as we once knew it, in the 1970s, was all about a guitar player or a drummer ripping as fast as he could. These guys create a sound that you can dance to.”
And then there’s Bellamy’s voice, a defining characteristic of the band, which has both the abrasive force of a rocker and the clarity, roundness and vibrato of a bel canto tenor, and is the reason why Muse is so often lumped in with Radiohead and Coldplay. Like Thom Yorke and Chris Martin, Bellamy can really open up and wail.
The introspective Bellamy might have become just another bedroom-crooning auteur, writing symphonies on a laptop, if not for his lifelong friends Wolstenholme and Howard, his sole band mates since the trio solidified the Muse lineup as teens.
“To me music is about the overall effect,” said Wolstenholme, an affable father of four who puffed a pipe while chatting in a dining room in another corner of the TD Garden’s maze-like backstage. “And that’s how we operate when we’re making music. It’s nice to have the odd moment where you can show off for five minutes or five seconds even, but music shouldn’t be about one instrument.”
It’s an approach that has worked well for the band. “The most powerful weapon Muse has in its arsenal is its live-performance prowess,” wrote Laura Ferreiro, the former West Coast editor of England’s NME music magazine, in an e-mail. “U.K. audiences recognized this long ago. I thought they were going to take the U.S. by storm following their explosive Lollapalooza performance in late 2007. The timing was off ... but I believe Muse is poised to become as huge in the U.S. as they are overseas.”
What happened when the three mild-mannered members of Muse stepped onstage at TD Garden gave credence to Ferreiro’s prediction. The show began at full force and kept building, the set list sampling from throughout Muse’s career as the crowd answered Bellamy’s grandstanding gestures with a roar that peaked once the twists and turns of “Exogenesis: Symphony” gave way to the sexy crunch of “Stockholm Syndrome” at set’s end.
“There are some Spinal Tap moments,” Bellamy had said with a smile. “It’s not like we’re telling jokes. It’s more like a lack of shame. We let ourselves go in certain songs where you allow certain melodramatic or erratic, hysterical emotions to express themselves without embarrassment. That’s quite a liberating feeling, actually. And people like that.”
// Notes from the Road
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