Blustery and bludgeoning, young English trio Muse is unafraid to take chances. Built up from saccharine piano wanderings and roaring merged guitars, Muse’s sound nicely fits the aims and aesthetics of charismatic leader Matt Bellamy, whose voice is both tender and audacious. While seemingly in the process of evolving from what was once operatic Radioheadedness to brighter, cleaner shoegaze, Muse can lapse into grandiose silliness; still, the pontificating vocalese and trendy gimmicks can’t keep Muse from its passionate rhapsodies, like an Anglican tent revival full of hand wringers and the recently converted. At once droll and harrowing, Bellamy’s singing takes seriously Muse’s citizenship in the community of progdom; even amid soaring, grinding crescendos, the band’s homage to guitar rock strikes an occasionally hollow, mimicking pose. When Muse breaks free of afflictive sycophancies, the music can punch and startle, but the trio is, for the most part, conservative and spinsterish, paleontologists of stadium cock rock of the mid 1980s.
Drummer Dominic Howard, bassist Chris Wolstenholme and guitarist/keyboardist/singer (and primary lyricist) Bellamy began playing together at the age of 13 in Teignmouth, Devon. Mainstream and groping, Showbiz is satisfying and invigorating. Though a few years away from melodic confidence, the sturdy, churning rock vacillates between pretty boy theatrical ennui and urgent and evocative cacophony. Every time over-the-top bloat or trite dullness weighs it down, either a striking symphonic surge or a joined heavy rhetoric of guitars pushes the band beyond mere imitators or parody. Produced by John Leckie, the album is both overwrought and fascinating. The frenetic “Fillip” and the lugubrious weeper “Falling Down” are fine specimens, confirming that Muse has much to say with youthful chutzpah. The problems are more of exuberance and idolatry: the ballads are too plaintive; the keyboards wail like jingles from discarded Romanticism.
Origin of Symmetry is a ramped-up and felicitous improvement. The songwriting is less meandering; the drumming is solid and taciturn; Bellamy’s vocals are pockets of anxiety-ridden narcissism. Leckie captures a warm shower of sounds, cascading torrents of distinguished climaxes. The opener, “New Born,” is a knockout: as on their many live recordings, the guitars are turned up past 10, the keyboards resemble cranky church work, and the bassist is creatively anchorless. Song structures adapt to the disorder of the singing: Bellamy’s elusive tenor attempts to reclaim heroic status for lovesick youth.
Half of the two-CD Hullabaloo collects up the band’s B-sides; the songs play the uniformity of the singing against the plastic, intimate chamber pop concerns. The tones are introverted and convoluted: this amiable choppiness suggests the band’s voracious appetite for experimentation, and the songs are the freest in Muse’s oeuvre. The second disc, a live 2001 Parisian outing, although expert in musicianship and channeled with great emotion, seems shackled by the albatross of drama. All that’s missing from the torrents of meaningless art are spontaneity and humor.
Two of the live songs reappear on the unimportant Dead Star EP; the Japan-only triple EP collection Hyper Music mixes curios, videos, repetitive sonic fanaticism and live performances. Amid a few highlights (the live “New Born,” the cutthroat “Bliss”), the kaleidoscope spectrum of assaults is a wild ride that fails to grab the elusive ring. At every threat of something delicate or whimsical, Muse dips into a bag of slick clichés to produce sounds and textures, not songs and sense. The technique is vast while the compositional fortitude superficial.
Absolution is Muse’s best album. The singing has more gravitas; Rich Costey’s production balances the band’s operatic tendencies with a raw rock foundation; the songs, although a little longish, are much stronger: strident apocalyptic visions of paranoid excitation. If you’re going to fixate on hysteria, asphyxiation, stormy weather and stalking death, then it makes sense to borrow riffs from Wagner — this music doesn’t so much as develop as it erupts. And don’t mess with the singer: you may tire of his declamatory mountain-top ranting, but as the songster/jester at the court of the crimson king, Bellamy warns, “And I’m going all the way / And be my slave to the grave / I’m the priest god never paid.” The great “Stockholm Syndrome” is named for the reversal of feelings kidnapped victims have for their captors, from fear to sympathy; the song captures that tremendous emotional re-adjustment. It pounds and soars; Bellamy’s guitar work is tense and prodding, coming in and out of range: this is the music Rush can only hope to make: synth-driven metallic celebrations of rock’s empowering heaviness.
Much as Rush did following its ’70s prog phase, Muse begins to streamline its sound on Black Holes & Revelations. With Rich Costey back on the board, the music develops more conventionally rather than progressing in bursts. The disc opens with “Take a Bow,” a steadily building waltz-time number in which Bellamy condemns some corrupt national leader (or perhaps all of them) with “You bring death / And destruction to all that you touch…You must pay / You must pay for your crimes against the Earth…You will burn in hell for your sins.” After that grandiose start, though, the band compresses its approach while showing its influences more clearly. “Starlight” and “Map of the Problematique” are closer to ’80s techno-pop than ’70s prog: the former could have been lifted from an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album, while the latter sounds like a rewrite of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” The vocal harmonies on Black Holes show a pronounced Queen influence, especially on “Take a Bow,” “Assassin” and “Soldier’s Poem” (which borrows its rhythm and plaintive acoustic guitar from “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”). And if one royal influence isn’t enough, Bellamy turns his falsetto (and lyrics) to more Princely aims on “Supermassive Black Hole,” singing a lusty ode to “the queen of the superficial” over a funky groove, as the backing chorus moans about “Glaciers melting in the dead of night / And superstars sucked into the supermassive” (just in case the funk makes you forget that it’s, y’know, Muse). Bellamy applies a touch of flamenco to “Hoodoo” and a ’60s surf guitar riff to the album-closing “Knights of Cydonia” — possibly in homage to (or borrowing from) his father, guitarist George Bellamy of the Tornados, the first British group to score a Billboard number-one single (“Telstar”). Black Holes & Revelations may not be as overtly adventurous as Absolution, but by holding back just a little, Muse ends up delivering the goods more consistently.
HAARP was recorded during Muse’s June 2007 two-night stand at Wembley Stadium in London. Augmented by touring keyboardist Morgan Nicholls and, on two tracks, trumpeter Dan Newell, the group adds a few contemporary touches to its Wagnerian drive. Over the course of 14 songs (half from Black Holes & Revelations), the group blends in musical extrapolations from Rage Against the Machine, Average White Band and, on an overpowering rendition of “Knights of Cydonia,” the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (The package includes a DVD of the entire second-night performance.)
With The Resistance, Muse inverts the approach of Black Holes and Revelations. The self-produced album opens with “Uprising,” easily the most straightforward tune Muse has yet released (and its first US number-one). The second single, “Undisclosed Desires,” is another Depeche Mode sound-alike. For the rest of the disc, though, Muse reclaims the sense of exploration that marked Absolution — even if it’s just a deeper exploration of its own musical reference points. Apparently not satisfied with pilfering Queen’s vocal harmonies, the trio backs a truck right up to Freddie Mercury’s old mansion and steals everything that isn’t nailed down — the choral vocals, the romantic piano stylings, the dramatic orchestral flourishes, even a few spare guitar riffs that Brian May must have left in the den. “United States of Eurasia (+ Collateral Damage)” is like a six-minute primer on all things Queen, right down to the closing line, “There can be only one.” (Somewhere in the great beyond, Mercury is undoubtedly grinning ear to ear at this homage.) “Unnatural Selection,” the pounding “Guiding Light” and the urgently hurtling “MK Ultra” all show a strong glam-rock influence. “I Belong to You (+ Mon Cœur S’ouvre a Ta Voix)” starts out as a cabaret trifle before taking off into a florid interlude from Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Delilah (credited in the liner notes). Bellamy has apparently been re-reading Orwell since the last album, judging by his lyrics in “United States of Eurasia” (“And these wars, they can’t be won / Does anyone know or care how they began? / They just promise to go on and on and on”), “MK Ultra” (“All of history deleted with one stroke / How much deception can you take?”) and the title track (“Kill your prayers for love and peace / You’ll wake the thought police”). Muse ends the disc with the three-part “Exogenesis: Symphony,” bringing together its classical influences — the orchestral overture, the peaceful coda, Bellamy’s spot-the-reference piano playing — all in service of a charge to space explorers to leave Earth, colonize a new world and get it right next time. Like those explorers, Muse may never reach its destination (wherever it is) or “get it right” (whatever that means), but these three musicians clearly have signed up for a long-term mission.