As renowned for being Radiohead impersonators as they are for providing extravagant music delivered with the intensity of religious zealots, Muse has always stood in other musicians’ shadows. Whether this explains why the group, which is successful in other parts of the world, including their native England, has had such trouble breaking through in the United States is debatable. Some attribution rests in the relative youth of the trio, which is audible in their recordings. In fact, singer/guitarist Matthew Bellamy, bassist Chris Wolstenhome, and drummer Dominic Howard formed Muse at age13. Coming from the English hamlet of Teignmouth in quaint Devon, the group’s original incarnation was called Gothic Plague. Eventually, the three changed their name to Muse and released an EP on Dangerous Records. In 1999 they signed with Madonna’s Maverick Records after playing an industry festival in New York. Before the end of the year, the angst-ridden Showbiz was released. Critics described the group as a heavy dose of Radiohead, with Black Sabbath’s boom and Queen’s extravagance.
Now, the members of Muse seem eager to break out of this mold with their third full length album. Perhaps this explains why they named the release after a form of religious pardon. If their critics won’t give them absolution, the group is ready to bestow forgiveness upon themselves, and move on.
Never having apologized for wearing their musical influences on their sleeves, the members of Muse clearly reflect the brooding style and severe sensibility of Radiohead. It can be heard in the cataclysmic epitaphs sung by lead singer and guitarist Matthew Bellamy in a falsetto more than reminiscent of, well, Thom Yorke. But this is not to say that the group is merely a pale imitation of its influences, with a slightly heavier guitar sound. Muse is trying to formulate a sound that’s different from that of their countrymen. Their songs are filled with hooks in the tradition of some of the ‘80s most popular progressive rock bands, including Styx, Boston, and Asia. But, for the time being, the subject matter Muse chooses to sing about possesses a gravity that some mistake for pure arrogance. As Bellamy, who handles song writing duties for the group, learns how to craft a better song, fewer critics will mistake his message for melodrama. Such a compliment to songs that already feature powerful, hypnotic hooks would be a formidable combination, pushing the group out of the shadows and into the light.
From the start, Muse makes no bones about what type of ride Absolution is going to be. A gymnasium full of stomping feet (think Queen’s “We Will Rock You”) fades in and quickly transitions into “Apocalypse Please”, which sounds as much like a track off of Jeff Buckley’s Grace as it does Kid A. The tumultuous opener is glued together with the sound of standup a piano being pushed out of a second story window and a church-like refrain. As over-the-top as the message is, “Declare this an emergency / Come on and spread a sense of urgency”, you have to admire Bellamy and company’s rancor. Bellamy explains that this is “the end of the world”, with the sequencer building and racing against itself to remind you that there’s still a chance to escape before everything comes crashing down.
With all of the musical acts currently trying to bring prog rock back into the mainstream, such as the Mars Volta or Godspeed You Black Emperor, Muse might have found the most palatable combination of pop and composition. This has a lot to do with the catchy hooks that nearly every song on Absolution features. Part of the credit for pulling this off must be given to the group’s new producer, Rick Costey. He replaces John Leckie, who worked with Muse on previous albums and whose experience includes stints behind the boards with Suede, the Stone Roses, and Radiohead. It is that last entry in his resume that most likely got him excused from the recording of Absolution. After all, if you’re trying to differentiate yourself from Radiohead, you don’t want one of their producers mixing your record.
You can hear Costey’s influence in tracks like “Stockholm Syndrome”, a song titled after the unusual tendency of victims in hostage situations to form tight emotional bonds with their captors. In this case, it’s clear that Bellamy is writing about a romantic situation where he’s being held as an emotional hostage and treated unfairly by his love. Yet, the worse he’s treated the harder it is to give up his feelings. As with many of the songs on Absolution, the insinuation of the title far outweighs the quality of the lyrics. Although it sounds like a recipe for mediocrity, the arrangements that Muse and Costey put together more than make up for the corniness of the words. The use of speed metal guitar to open “Stockholm Syndrome” is complimented brilliantly by synth chord progressions that change every time the song’s chorus repeats, coming earlier and becoming more intense as the song progresses. Somehow it all works, placing the listener right inside Bellamy’s tormented head.
The same is true for “Hysteria”, which actually begins in a preceding track with an interesting fuzz guitar amalgamation that might have been an extra scrap the group was unsure what to do with, but wanted to salvage anyway. This quickly shifts into Rob Zombie-style techno metal that turns out to be one of Absolution’s catchier tunes. Bellamy is no Jonny Greenwood, but he’s not a bad guitar player either.
“Sing for Absolution” sounds like a Travis rip-off at the beginning, but once again, its juicy hook makes it difficult to pass up. Disintegrating into a heavy, nebulous distortion bridge, you get the feeling that Bellamy is standing outside of someone’s window, pleading to them in song. “Blackout” does the same thing, getting off to a slow, lumbering start with a goth feel. Soon, strings are added, giving the piece a bittersweet feel. Of course, halfway through, a killer bee storm of guitars enter, reminding the listener that this is a Muse song. The group can never completely get away from their sound, although they try on a few cuts. “Falling Away with You” has more in common with Norah Jones than its title, with its obvious resemblance to “Come Away with Me”. Soon, the high-energy bridge rears its head, although in this case it sounds more like Mister Mister’s “Kyrie” than Metallica’s “One”.
When pressed to describe the song writing process the band goes through, Muse lead singer and front man Matthew Bellamy states that, “The songs are always a reflection of what we’re feeling personally and what’s happening around us. I think because we’re a little older, we’ve had a chance to experience different chapters of our lives closing and others opening up. It’s how you deal with those changes that is at the core of these songs.” If change is upon Muse, and the group is, in fact, beginning to grow up, they should have no problem with music fans confusing them with Radiohead, Coldplay, or any other British power group. Absolution could very well represent a transition in Muse’s career as they come into their own as a force in the music world. Perhaps that will be enough to prevent listeners from asking: if Radiohead didn’t exist, would Muse be revered, or sound different due to lack of influence?