Does Muse seem as relevant as ever? In a year that marks the 60th anniversary of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four while pregnant with reinvigorated conspiracy theories, books on paranoia and worries about Google surveillance, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? Alas, their latest album doesn’t rise to the occasion.
The Devonshire threesome are best known for setting their anarcho-paranoiac thrills alight with sonic extravaganzas that beg to soundtrack a version of We Will Rock You if it were modeled on War of the Worlds and starred Winston Smith as protagonist. The wonder is why so many critics likened Muse to Radiohead rather than to Queen. Indeed, the group is to progressive rock what Green Day is to punk: a self-aware caricature of that genre based on their indulging in undying schoolboy fascinations with OTT (over-the-top) sounds, OTT ideas and OTT arenas. Yet unlike Green Day, no band has had the audacity or skill to copy them. In fact, with listeners allergic to purchasing music but never to seeing their fave rockers on stage, Muse are with the enviable distinction of being this decade’s most outrageous stadium-fillers. If it weren’t for those pesky health and safety regulations, the band’s frontman Matthew Bellamy would have had acrobats hanging off helicopters at their (double sell-out) Wembley gig in 2007.
At that time the group were touring their fourth album Blackholes and Revelations, which was critically feted as a more polished and overblown version of their previous masterpiece Absolution. Packed to the hilt with alien invasions, cosmic deathtraps, and good old human megalomania, not to mention strands of Phillip Glass, U2 and Erasure, it was somewhat surprising that Blackholes didn’t sound even faintly ridiculous.
So how to follow that without piling on senseless amounts of absurdity and risk remaking “prog” into a four-letter word? At first sight, the answer provided by The Resistance doesn’t seem promising, what with one-man-meets-the-Earth 2001: Space Odyssey-style art gracing its cover. In fact, the album is one of the band’s least innocuous, not counting that while it rails against the rule of shadowy entities like corporations, it will be a buck-raking juggernaut for arch Big Brother Warners. Indeed, rumours of an In Rainbows-type release were wholly wishful. Instead, Muse held a competition in which five lucky users of their website were selected to preview the record and write a review.
Unlike the rock opera of Blackholes, in which the band really came into their own, The Resistance seems to have the band replacing any lingering comparisons with Radiohead with the much less flattering one of My Chemical Romance trying the concept album on for size. On “Resistance” and “Guiding Light”, Bellamy inexplicably assumes Gerard Way’s earnest top-of-his-thin-lungs bellow over pummelling guitar riffs resplendent with all the tragic melodrama of Twilight. Gone is the intricate layering of “Butterflies and Hurricanes” and “Knights of Cydonia”, where each instrumental and vocal, with suitable waxes and wanes, is a painterly contribution to a sound kaleidoscope, rather than an indiscriminate paroxysm of thrash metal (lite). On “Guiding Light” and the Cure-meets-Jesus and Mary Chain “MK Ultra”, Mark Stent’s wall-of-sound production does Bellamy’s delivery little justice when he might have had something interesting to say. On the latter, Bellamy sounds like he’s singing with a mouth full of metal and an acquired lisp. For the kind of musical bravura we’ve come to enjoy from Muse, the listener has practically to wait to the three-part concluding symphony “Exogenesis”.
“United States of Eurasia” goes for the jugular in a more obvious way than “Knights of Cydonia”. Its premise is that we are all marionettes, scammed into buying iPhones, Facebook, subprime mortgages and whatever else, and we can’t do anything about it. The premise is channelled through the ghost of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Shiny guitar work, pompous drumming, portentous strings, the odd burst of vocal harmony… you get the idea. Lead single “Uprising”, easily the best track on the album, is a terrific hacking away at the theme from Dr Who by a Glitter stomp powered by quasars galore. Like the faintly Beck-like “Supermassive Black Holes” on Blackholes and Revelations, it’s the album’s one pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, the listener is fooled into thinking that both “United States of Eurasia” and “Uprising” set the scene for something epic, the way “Apocalypse Please” did on Absolution.
All in all, The Resistance lacks the kickass histrionics and monumental spectacle of previous efforts that kept imitators away with a 10-foot obelisk. It has neither the graphic intensity of Absolution nor the graphic momentum of Blackholes. Instead it sounds like a lazy attempt at a concept album written by a bunch of ‘90s alt-rock musicians, with Bellamy bookending their efforts with “United States of Eurasia”, “Uprising” and “Exogenesis.” This wouldn’t be as disappointing if there weren’t so many songs in the middle that require the aural equivalent of an acrobat hanging off a helicopter to make them stick. Reprisals of Bellamy’s neuroses, too, seem almost quaint when most everyone’s been shocked out of complacency with the near self-destruction of world capitalism, the anticorporate nature of the online media world, etcetera etcetera. In the end, far from making “prog” a four-letter word, Muse have done worse and opted out of the playing field altogether.
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// Notes from the Road
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