To some, they were the band that would have been king. Just over a year ago, the now-defunct British music magazine Select boldly went where no other major publication had gone before by devoting its cover to the brash newcomers Muse. The coverage was the sort that editors are wont to discuss with a satisfied “Gotcha!”—congratulating themselves for eons to come on how they unearthed a surefire, up-and-coming It Band.
But a few months later, Select was no more, and many devotees knew that its faculties of prophecy (and sensibilities of taste) had long since gone awry. That proves more than enough to explain why the trio’s cookie-cutter sound and predictable nihilism were held up as some sort of innovation. Though the emotional rawness of 1999’s Showbiz had led some to compare the band to early Radiohead, Muse were more closely aligned with some of the most pathos-ridden grunge/metal outfits of the early 1990s. (Think the love child of Silverchair and Bush, singing Trent Reznor songs in the key of A minor). The fast numbers wailed, the slow ones whined, and the whole thing mostly wallowed. And though it garnered respectable sales worldwide, it was hardly the sort of record that sticks in your stereo the way gum sticks on your shoe.
Apparently, in 2001, the Teignmouth, England band (who have sported monikers like Gothic Plague and Fixed Penalty in the past) have largely returned to their old tricks. They’re still trying to sell their drama in a wash of devilish mania, wrought with overzealous gasping, Eddie Van Halen guitars and halloweenish piano solos. In some ways, they’ve evolved—bigger words in the song titles, for instance, and more digital and electronic experiments overlaying their traditional instrumentation. But the terrain that they occupy is a dank, dark, and dastardly one—and unless you’re already inclined to visit that scene, you’re probably not going to want to live there.
Origin of Symmetry is like an 11-track trek through the scary levels of a video game, with just as much menacing content and fantastical imagery. Opening with the foreboding “New Born”, the album quickly plunges into the nether regions of the psyche, the supernatural, and the human experience. At first listen, you’re bombarded by a Beetlejuicy melodic line, plunked out on piano as lead singer Matt Bellamy sings, or rather, howls. His vocal style is strained and gaspy—think Tori Amos as a boy—but its nasal timbre and tendency to pubescently break make it so much less ethereal. After about a minute, all that’s been pent-up comes loose, into a fast-paced, guitar-heavy clamor of the number’s heart. It’s right into Dante’s Inferno, as you listen to the tale of how the wrath of a person can grow out of control, like the steady growth of a big, hungry, drooling infant. Frankly, the vision is sick.
By track two, the initial fear-factor tones down a bit, into the much more glam “Bliss”. Though ridden with pain, the song toys less with horror-movie analogies and more with the frustrated envy that can send a person spiraling into despair. And believe me, for Muse, that’s an absolutely sunny topic. But most tracks are so gloomy, you’ll swear you’re at a funeral march on a rainy day in winter, just after you’ve lost your job. “Citizen Erased”, with its opening line of “I’ve exposed your lies, baby”, makes you feel as if all your friends are out to get you; “Feeling Good” frankly makes me feel pretty bad; and I can’t even listen to “Space Dementia” in my house without the doors locked and shutters pulled tight. And overall, after a short while, their gimmick becomes trite, and you’ll want to go running out for the latest issue of Now That’s What I Call Music!.
True, balls-out agony in a let’s-do-downers-and-watch-The Dark Crystal way is unconventional in British indie, since aching American artists have largely cornered that particular schtick. And in that market, a product that’s culturally novel has more than once resulted in success in other media—hell, take the shoot-‘em-up movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as a case in point. Still, the Origin of Symmetry‘s sound is best reserved for those who want to embrace despondency and depression without the burden of stylistic diversity. Or those who, like yours truly, can be duped by a flashy magazine cover and Radiohead comparisons.