Muse: H.A.A.R.P.

[27 April 2008]

By Jarrett Berman

Until Muse hit the airwaves, 21st century rock sounded nothing like I’d imagined. Perhaps I had simply been thinking too far ahead, but bands like Linkin Park and Fall Out Boy just seemed predictable, while others were needlessly Byzantine (Mars Volta), or pretentious (Coheed and Cambria). Where’s the progression of style, I wondered, the evolution of sound? Apparently, it’s overseas.

Despite having sold out Europe’s hallowed halls, and headlined Lollapalooza, many Americans haven’t even heard of Muse. But rest assured Britain’s revered trio is quickly assuming the throne of post-rock. Think of them as a more muscular Radiohead (minus the melancholy), churned with a dollop of ‘80s synth-pop, and Zeppelin’s instrumental wizardry. Comparisons to the Thom Yorke Show are inevitable (vocalist Matt Bellamy sounds like his stunt double), but Muse has chops that will make your ears bleed. One need look no further than 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations, a downright combustible album that’s arguably one of the century’s best so far.

With HAARP, the band storms London’s Wembley stadium for consecutive sold-out performances (itself a milestone), unveiling an audiovisual spectacle not witnessed since Waters-era Pink Floyd. Named for America’s High Active Auroral Research Program, an Alaskan facility dedicated to investigating irregularities in the ionosphere, HAARP is also the band’s nod toward X-files conspiracy. The project’s mandate is ostensibly to improve radio communications, but some suspect the Pentagon of weaponizing this array to superheat space above the Earth. Hey, if paranoia is the band’s muse, so be it. What results is a mind-blowing sonic aurora, pulsing with two hours of the decade’s most intoxicating rock. And fans won’t need a NASA bootleg, as both Wembley shows are delivered in all their grandeur on this double-disc release.

The set opens on an early June evening, with ambient daylight still pouring through the stadium’s vast center skylight. Skirted by a dozen tethered weather balloons and towering transmitters (like those from the HAARP base), Muse has sculpted a visually arresting stage, beyond even the scope of U2, or the Stones. A canned symphony of Romeo and Juliet’s Dance of the Knights bellows through Wembley, as Bellamy, drummer Dominic Howard, and bassist Chris Wolstenholme, rise amidst the fans, onto a runway that protrudes like an airstrip 100 feet from the stage. In a clever use of video manipulation, the DVD’s production team has colorized only the band and their hazmat-clad security detail, isolating them from 75,000 screaming black-and-white Britons. Moments later, Bellamy plays the famous notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind before ripping into the opening flamenco-surf riff from “Knights of Cydonia”.

The epic intro serves as an overture, promising majestic arrangements to come. With the trio in a lockstep groove, and the fans frenzied, Muse delivers their first surprise of the night: Faster than you can say ‘mariachi’, a trumpeter (guest Dan Newell) is blowing the lead notes right over Bellamy’s power chords. It’s thrilling. The move showcases Muse’s uncanny ability to mix sounds you’d least expect to hear; provocative tangos which actually enrich the overall composition.

Backed by a pixilated screen 30 feet high and one 100 feet across, the band is dwarfed in a sea of inventive digital imagery (like dancing automatons!). But the puckish Bellamy is an electrifying performer, rising above even this monster stage. When he launches into a scrambling guitar solo on Supermassive Black Hole, notes screeching in an otherworldly banshee wail, it’s clear that the 29-year old Cantebridgian has practiced his entire life for this moment. He doesn’t miss a trick, fingers dexterously tearing up and down the neck. “Come on England!”

Audiences new to Muse (or those who’ve never seen them live) will delight at the band’s versatility. Bellamy’s an accomplished pianist – his Kawai grand sits as a permanent fixture onstage – who segues from guitar to keys, then back again, mesmerizing even this staggeringly large arena. Meanwhile, the underrated Dom Howard elicits such thunder from his drum kit, it’s blurring. Howard’s deployment of a Roland sampler alongside his uniquely transparent Tama four-piece (made of clear acrylic) is further proof of the band’s technophilia. And while these two employ more gadgetry, the undeniably talented Chris Wolstenholme may just be Muse’s MVP. Admittedly a drummer first (but forced into the role of bassist), Wolstenholme logs time on bass, keys, and backing vocals, throughout the show.

The band also rolls out guest musician Morgan Nicholls on keyboards (though sparingly) when both Bellamy and Wolstenholme are tied up on their primary instruments. And once again, the transition is seamless. While Nicholls sits in a cave of synthesizers, most eyes will be transfixed on Bellamy’s two-wheeled, mobile guitar rack that rolls out toward the vocalist, its orange hazard light flashing like a work truck on the highway. Bellamy grabs an axe and the robotic dolly obediently retreats offstage. There’s no fuss, it’s just cool. New-century cool.

The set list draws heavily on favorites from Revelations and 2003’s Absolution, and yet each song feels like a musical sketch, evolving as you listen. There are spiraling bass lines, unexpected bridges, digital screams, and amidst it all, hooks that won’t let go. Muse has a knack for spiking arrangements with improvisation, without veering far from the core composition. And their influences are wildly eclectic: From Beck-like falsetto (on “Supermassive Black Hole”) to synth-fuzzed bass a la Depeche Mode (in “Map of the Problematique”), the band sounds convincing. Even “Soldier’s Poem”, a quietly haunting ballad that winks with irony, holds the audience rapt with its gloomy indictment: “There’s no justice in the world… and there never was,” Bellamy croons plaintively. It’s like a soft kiss on the cheek, followed by a stinging knife to the ribs.

Muse’s greatest trick may be that amidst the pomp and circumstance, beyond the political jabs and technical chops, they are one of the most engaging acts around. The atmospheric guitar phrasing on “Invincible” proves just how expert these musicians have become. Bellamy’s pedal and slide effects are bled into the song effortlessly, evoking ponderous whale song, ala David Gilmour, that’s sure to stand the hairs on your neck. And just when the anthemic piece seems to reach a bright zenith, Wolstenholme’s bass drives it downward into a moody jam. The band then counters with radio fave “Starlight”, an infectious clap-a-long anthem certain to win new fans. Its Coldplay-soaked piano melody and soaring vocals would cheer even Bono, illustrating how easily these three can knock you down, and then pick you right back up. There are a handful of catchy singles sprinkled throughout the set, but these fist-pumping tracks feel more like snacks than showstoppers. HAARP is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Co-directors Matt Askem and Tom Kirk occasionally submit to quick-cut MTV editing during the shows’ rocket-fueled moments, but they also sample liberally from an arsenal of angles. Through helicopters, jibs, and indoor cranes, we’re treated to high-altitude overheads and dizzying descents. But the real prize goes to HAARP’s vivid zooms. From crystal-clear arpeggios and pedal POVs, to a casual grin between band mates, the Steadicam captures all the intimacy onstage. Wembley itself is also filmed lovingly. With sweeping vistas worthy of the Western world’s top concert venue, England’s newly rebuilt mother ship becomes the band’s fourth member.

A sharp eye might wonder if producers spliced both nights (June 16th and 17th) into the DVD release, grabbing the best material for visual consumption. Truth is, HAARP teems with so many lighting, costume, and equipment changes, it’s almost impossible to tell one performance from another. Everything here is richly textured, and masterfully mixed, and while the double disc is noticeably absent any special features (other than a stills gallery), it really makes no difference. There’s enough juice here to light London for a month. In fact, the DVD menu opens with bursts of chatter and white noise, mixed intermittently with sound bytes from the show. It’s as if we’re scanning through celestial radio stations for intelligent signals. Fans can then choose to watch the concert in its entirety, or skip to individual compositions. And a helpful scrollover tool plays snippets from each song, for those who can’t seem to recall a melody from its title.

The CD offers a virtually identical soundboard recording from the first night’s show, so addicts can rock HAARP in the car, while tucking the DVD into their video library. Crowd noise can be distracting (there are some ear-splitting shrieks), but it’s hard not to break into goose bumps when 75,000 fans roar in unison: “No one’s going to take me alive!” Otherwise, the audio is clean and balanced, with a big bottom end (trios always get the best mixing). Every one of Bellamy’s riffs – even the subtle harmonics – is discernable, and Howard’s snare snaps like a rattlesnake. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, the CD omits six tracks from the live set (Hoodoo, Apocalypse Please, Feeling Good, Soldier’s Poem, Blackout, and Plug in Baby). Still, the Wembley shows hold an embarrassment of riches, and are a must-own collection for audiophiles.

Muse wows on headphones, but live, the band occupies rarified air, and HAARP is among the greatest shows on Earth. Twenty foot orbs rise like miniature suns around the arena, glowing yellow, then blue, some with female acrobats suspended from them; satellite dishes shoot beams of light from their centers; and the band is perpetually ensconced in a Tron-like background of racing visuals. Nothing the band does is half-measure, and Wembley is their most ambitious effort to date. The three close with the appropriately titled “Take a Bow”, which serves one last volley at the powers-that-be: “You must pay for your crimes against the Earth”, wails Bellamy, before a cresting tide of keyboards. Aglow in a matrix of green light, the stage transforms into a finale befitting these new Earls of rock. When Bellamy sets his guitar down at the end of the runway, sizzling with feedback, it’s a resounding sacrifice to his audience; to Wembley; to Hendrix and Page and the gods who’ve come before Muse. There’s a fiery sincerity in his eyes, rather than some detached rock star glaze.

Muse puts on a show unlike anything else you’ll see this year. From “Feeling Good’s” soulful stadium sing-a-long, to the blistering prog extravaganza of “Stockholm Syndrome” HAARP is a hugely wrought production that spits in the face of lo-fi. Is it indulgent? Sure. This is art rock at its most manicured. But it’s also a sonic kick in the nuts from England’s hardest working band, at the apex of their form. Welcome to the 21st century.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/muse-haarp1/