The fact that they chose to title their new live album H.A.A.R.P. (that’s High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program for anyone without a passing knowledge of the US Air Force’s investigative jaunts into ionospheric processes) won’t be a surprising to anyone accustomed to Muse. Not just because in Matt Bellamy, the band have a leader whose global conspiracy theories have a heavy influence on his lyrical stylings, but because it is strangely fitting that a trio who have comfortably established themselves as behemoths of international music should so allude to the power of sound. Likewise, that the British threesome have opted to release a third live CD/DVD package will seem excessive only to those unfamiliar with the nature of the show(s) contained within.
Yes, three live albums (Hullabaloo‘s performance in Paris dropped in 2002, the Absolution tour’s the following year) amid four studio efforts might seem a little like a neat money-making venture (though it’s nothing compared to Pearl Jam’s output), but then the duo of shows from which H.A.A.R.P culls its footage were special to say the least. On Saturday, June 16th of last year, the Devon trio become the first artists to sell out London’s newly-constructed, still-glistening 90,000 capacity Wembley stadium (beaten only to the honour of first headliners by the pesky George Michael earlier that month); on that Sunday, they did it again. It’s hardly surprising that the three lads from an unremarkable small town cowering in the bottom corner of Britain might want this documenting; it doesn’t really get much bigger than this.
Indeed, the magnitude of the shows is patently clear from the off. Rising unexpectedly from some hidden underground bunker in the midst of a fountain of confetti, Muse stride toward the stage with the aural drama of Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights” straining to be heard of the screams of 90,000 devotees. If, by some miracle of modesty, it had thus far eluded them, this would have been the ultimate “we’ve made it” moment. But of course, they’d made it long ago, and as such the Muse backlash seems to have been around almost as long as they have. Yet while haughty contempt of the indier-than-thous is an inevitable ever-presence, Muse have always largely escaped the derision that many of their mainstream rock peers receive, and it’s obvious why.
As the material on both these discs (spanning all four studio albums, but largely focused on the latter three) showcases, the threesome have never compromised their integrity or ambition to achieve the global stardom they’ve landed. As such, their music has remained inventive and distinctive even as it has scaled ever-higher peaks of mainstream success. While the arguable pinnacle of 2001’s sophomore Origin of Symmetry has perhaps remained unsurpassed, its two subsequent successors, while hardly Radiohead-style reinventions, were both commendable refusals to cash in previously successful formulae. The three musicians themselves, meanwhile, have remained modest and media-shy (notwithstanding Bellamy’s public conspiratory paranoia), so there is in any case little to aim bile at.
Nevertheless, the relative ubiquity of some of their more famous offerings (“Time Is Running Out”, “Supermassive Black Hole”, “Feeling Good”), means that the CD edition of H.A.A.R.P doesn’t quite thrill as it should. Part of the problem is familiarity, particularly for the weaker songs — give “Plug in Baby” a few years and it’ll be a classic, but it’s difficult to see “Starlight”, for instance, attaining that sort of status — but Muse’s sheer professionalism also means that some of their less malleable tracks aren’t a whole lot different from their studio versions, rendering their release here a little redundant. The addition of two members into their live set-up, while admittedly allowing for the guitar-keys interplay of their records to be reproduced live and often lending a fuller sound, only adds to this. Credit where it’s due, the band address the problem when possible, replacing the previously serene ending of “Newborn” with an improvised wig-out of Bellamy’s trademark Drop-D riffing and opening several songs with teasing alterations that keep the baying legions on tenterhooks as to what’s ensuing. Likewise, Bellamy’s solos are rarely the same as on record, with the whole band clearly delighting in expanding upon their already impressive foundations.
In any case, gripes with the CD version only remain valid until you see the accompanying video footage. Indeed, given the sheer scale of Wembley and the visual emphasis of the Muse live show, the DVD was always going to be the big draw of H.A.A.R.P, and it doesn’t disappoint. The vast, satellite-adorned stage set-up is as impressive as you’d expect from a band who clearly the take the time to make their live show an event, rather than just a gig, providing the back drop for three men who, surrounded by giant screens and all manner of explosive lighting, suddenly seem very small.
Small in stature, that is, but not in status. Indeed, there’s something slightly endearing about seeing the trio walk out, clearly awe-inspired and humbled in equal measure, through a sea of adorers, looking by all accounts like three ordinary 20-something men. Then, of course, they pick up their instruments, and it’s another matter entirely. Because the Muse live show is massive, in all possible senses of the term. Their sound, embellished by Bellamy’s trademark licks and Chris Wolstenholme’s pulsating bass, and reinforced by the five-piece line-up, is grander than ever. Indeed, Bellamy’s writhing falsetto is in its element in the stadium environment, where it is lent the space to reverberate and resound; a big sound needs a big setting. In fact, if there’s any problem with H.A.A.R.P, it’s that it is difficult for any number of cameras to truly realise the sheer scale of it all. As the shot looms over the swaying seas of heads, glimpsing only a fraction as it is, the masses already seem multitudinous before you release there’s yet more, out of sight, filling row upon row of the tiered stands. Only during “Feeling Good” is the size of the venue finally realised as we cut to an airborne camera high above the stadium.
With such a vast audiovisual playground, with so much to see, it would be easy to get the balance of the footage wrong, to spend too much time pawing over the thousands of fans or the admittedly effective backdrop. Happily, though, H.A.A.R.P plays it pretty straight in this department, focusing on Bellamy et al. for the most part, and splicing in other shots at appropriate moments. The eruption of the frantic outro of “Knights of Cydonia”, for instance, begs for tides of bobbing heads, and duly receives it (though the textual accompaniment of the song’s “no one’s going to take me alive” refrain on the big screen receives only a cringe). And for the duration of one of the disc’s musical highlights, a frenzied rendition of “Stockholm Syndrome” complete with a fantastically strident improvised finale, the camera flickers claustrophobically between Bellamy, Wolstenholme, and drummer Dominic Howard for the hyperactive verse, before panning out to a long shot to make room for the glacial chorus. It’s the perfect framing to what is already pretty much a perfect live show.
And if there’s an ideal way to illustrate the magnitude of Muse’s live show, then it is with H.A.A.R.P‘s encore performance of “Blackout”. Here, a pretty, but hardly essential, album track is accompanied by trapeze artists, strapped to balloons, gliding and somersaulting hundreds of feet above the eager eyes of fans below, while Bellamy rips out a tremolo solo ten times as powerful as it was at home on Absolution. Ironic that perhaps the highlight of the show is a moment where barely anyone so much as glances at the band, but it’s impressive nonetheless that a previously unremarkable track can so easily be reinvented to such great effect. It perhaps also raises the question of where Muse can go next: the only way is up, but what happens when you’ve reached the top? It would be foolish to write off them topping even this, though, so maybe the bigger question is whether all 180,000 jaws will have been picked off the Wembley floor in time for their return.