Call it good timing: but the photograph on the inside cover of the new Muse album shows a magnified image of Mars. You may have received the email forward: This month and next, Earth is catching up with Mars in an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history. That’s true — August 27, 2006, Earth — Mars = 34,649,589 miles, closest for the next 60,000 years at least, a moon-bright, red ball of fierce bravado. Of course Mars is an appropriate planet for a Muse-led soundtrack — combative, belligerent and ultimately glorious. Muse has been all of these things over the course of its history, and the band is free now to relax into its songs, comfortable with melodic tropes and familiar, apocalyptic imagery. Yeah, black holes, revelations.
Album number four from the other Oxford band finds Muse not so much pushing forward as exploring edges of an already established sound. Perfection of something as yet half-formed? Not quite, since Black Holes doesn’t have a supermassive hit like “Muscle Museum” or “Sing For Absolution” — and Muse’s MOA is generic enough to promise a continued generation of the kind of orchestral hard rock anthems that has characterized Showbiz, Origin of Symmetry and Absolution. Instead, the pianistic virtuosity has been somewhat replaced by orchestral-melded electronic synths, disco-goth beats, and political truisms.
Maybe it’s over-exposure, but most agit-pop that seeks to express outrage through bombast somehow is survived more by its feeling than by the content; but lyrics like those from the incendiary opener “Take a Bow” (“You corrupt & bring corruption to all that you touch… cast a spell on the country you run… you will burn in hell for your sins”) — or the call to “Aim, shoot, kill your leaders” on “Assassin” — are likely to peg the album to its time fairly tightly. In this context of political outrage, you’d think love/out-of-love songs like “Starlight” or “Map of the Problematique” would sit awkwardly, but Muse’s approach to love is as theatrical and underlined as the band’s approach to politics.
None of this is entirely a bad thing — not a bad thing at all. Muse impresses, and continues to impress on Black Holes, not only because they have the Romantic classical harmony-fueled huge stadium sound down pat, but in the details that show a band mature and talented: the way the string arpeggios morph into electronics on “Take a Bow”, for instance, or the way singer Matt Bellamy’s voice floats in multi-tracked prog splendour in the chorus of “Supermassive Black Hole”. First listen to that song and you’re thrown almost completely off — all processed beats, wailing Justin Hawkins-with-a-throat-lozenge vocals, swish-swish nu-metal guitars — not the best first impression. But second or third time, Muse’s little excursion has a familiarity, in the way the bassline splinters and blossoms into chorus (despite the vocals).
Elsewhere, classic Muse themes and tropes resurface in a fresh way. “Starlight” is all wide-open harmony, huge-arena pop prog; a triumphant tenor melody; and Bellamy’s floating-in, floating-out falsetto (backed by those familiar string arpeggios). “Invincible” takes military drums to a swirling organ line, and a classic Muse chorus (but compare the verse to “Stop Whispering” off Pablo Honey). And “Knights of Cydonia”, the lead U.S. single, is a fittingly massive send-off; though it’s not the CD’s best song, it evokes a grand riding-song (I was picturing the riders of Rohan), until the heavy guitar solo towards the end yells Wolfmother, that whole set of influence.
The limited edition CD also comes with a DVD of Muse’s performance at the Glastonbury festival in 2004, a mammoth of a show that plays like a greatest hits reel — typical festival show, but it just demonstrates perfectly what we mean by a ‘stadium sound’, what oversized melodies and wall of sound means blasted across tens of thousands of jumping heads. Professional and isolated on the huge stage, the trio lets the songs speak for themselves — “New Born”, “Sing For Absolution”, “Muscle Museum”, “Apocalypse Please” (of course it continues) — a mammoth show.
At this point you probably fall into one of these three camps:
1. You like Muse, perhaps somewhat shamefadedly.
2. You hate Muse with a fashionable passion (that you’ve made it this far in this review, well done)
3. You’ve never heard of Muse.
Not such a tricky segmentation. Well, if you’re a #1 you’ll probably enjoy this album — it’s interesting, and entertaining as well. If you’re a #3, well, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Black Holes as an entry-point for determining if you’re a #1 or a #2. Check out Absolution; this new album’s a solid second. If you’re a #2, well, you may just be ignoring a band that’s outgrown its influences, into a really solid, if somewhat theatrical, hard rock band.
Muse – Supermassive Black Hole