I have not been paying attention — Muse, one of my all-time favorite bands, and common musical topic on this very blog, just released their eighth studio album, Simulation Theory on Friday, and I had no idea until after it happened. Sure, I listened to “Dig Down” when it came out last year, but after that… just nothing, even as the band posted video after video on YouTube. I’m not sure how I didn’t notice, or why I never kept up. Heck, I thought Drones was decent, if inconsistent. Well, now we’ve got another ambitious release from the art rock trio, and if the ridiculous cover art is anything to go off of, this will be chock full of synths, electronic drums, and dystopian lyrics straight out of 1984, literally. As always, I’m intrigued to hear what these three come up with, especially nineteen years into a storied musical career. Let’s have a listen:
- Algorithm: Thump thump. A very electronic start, as expected. The deep pounding synth gives us that trademark unease, while also sounding a bit like the soundtrack to a retro sci-fi movie trailer. A morphing synth riff briefly reminds of Doom 2; at the very least, a MIDI file. We’re in very different territory here. But suddenly: classical piano, flowing like a river up the keyboard — it’s officially Muse time. We’ve got strings too, and all of this before the vocals even show up. As always, Matt Bellamy’s lyrics are a Dystopian, paranoid, conspiratorial salad, but at least his voice is as sharp as ever. This song is an extremely slow burn, an epic dirge on the back of a solid foundation of bass, chugging along with musical aplomb. The last minute is especially wonderful as the soaring I-iv-II-V progression takes center stage. It’s a tone-setting opener, engaging and unique, albeit somewhat short and anti-climactic. I like where this is going. I’m a bit concerned about the near-lack of interesting drums, though. Where is Dom?
- The Dark Side: Here he is, kicking off this next wild one with a count off. Something something something, steady kick, dance-able hats and a swirling synthesized guitar and/or bass combination continue the trek back into the 80s. With another progression that evokes the Muse of old, we’re somewhere between Absolution and The 2nd Law. So far, we’ve not have a lot a lot of dynamic shifts as this song has held mainly steadily driving forward. Muse is really pushing those synths on this album; they slightly overwhelm what traditional instruments are present. For a genre shift though, this is a pretty good fit. After a reserved guitar solo that sounds vaguely sitar-esque, the chorus returns with thundering drum fills ala “Resistance,” and closes with blasts of simulated strings. It’s a tight little song — catchy and well-produced.
- Pressure: Okay, it seems on their past few albums, the band has used the third track spot to try something new (see: “Undisclosed Desires” and “Panic Station”). In this one, we’ve got hand claps, brass, a stuttering guitar riff and a post-emo rock feeling falsetto vocal. It’s not at all like the previous synth 80s vibe; to me this feels almost at home in the mid-00s with a band like The Killers or The Strokes. That said, it’s got energy for days, as subtle synths flutter beneath and the drums carry on with myriad toms. However, it goes a bit longer than it should. An extra chorus repeat isn’t really necessary, in my opinion — it would have been more solid as a compact three-minute rocker. The last minute doesn’t add anything new.
- Propaganda: Chunky! Fret noise? A collage of different percussive sounds in concert? It feels un-mastered. There’s a bluesy guitar hidden below the falsetto, mimicking along. The vocals are somewhat unintelligible. The verses are kicked off with blasts of distortion and chopped vocals, but their content is minimalist. Only occasional bluesy pops and overdubs really interrupt the space. In the bridge a twangy pedal-steel guitar wails? That’s new and extremely welcome! In fact, this song is so short and subtle, that that is easily the most memorable part of it. That said, it’s not my favorite and I’m not even sure it has much potential to grow on me.
- Break It To Me: These drop-detuned, palm muted guitars are awesome. Off the bat, with the stop and go rhythm, it’s Nine Inch Nails, somewhere between The Fragile and Hesitation Marks. But, the shift to a rapid, Eastern-tinged vocal melody accompanied by strings and a flat, yet tight drum track makes this something else completely. There aren’t really synths here and vocals are heavily processed. The spastic “guitar solo” is just scratches and loops subbed in lieu of anything truly melodic; naturally, there’s a creepy whistling immediately following up to the end of the track. It’s Muse at its weirdest — not because they’re changing genres and experimenting, but because they’re combining a whole host of dissonant styles into one bizarre mixture. This is a good one.
- Something Human: Hollow synth pipes are joyously joined by acoustic Travis-picking in another bizarre combo. It’s a laid-back and upbeat song, which is obviously very unlike the paranoid musings of earlier on. It’s almost groovy, as the acoustic guitar plays a toe-tapping George Michael-style shuffle in the latter verses. This summery romp is inevitably Muse-ified with arpeggios and fuzzy bass punctuation, but they also include a Rhodes piano, organ, and the aforementioned pipes that sound almost like a steel drum. It’s weird, insofar as is kind of a normal ballad. It doesn’t seem to fit onto this album at all, and I’m struggling to think of anything like it within Muse’s repertoire.
- Thought Contagion: This song debuted in a video way back in February, and as I mentioned above, I completely missed it. I love a good bass riff driven song — Muse has a knack for coming up with earworm riffs and this is no exception. This one’s also got either a theremin or some facsimile on the guitar to play an alien hook. To keep things weird, a speak singing verse with a hip hop hi-hat breaks into an enormous, chanted chorus of woahs straight out of latter-day U2 (?). I don’t get it either. Amidst heavy drums in the pre-chorus, we finally have another appearance by the piano. It’s been only a few songs but its absence was noted. Synths are reserved here, with a fuzzy bass doing most of the heavy lifting. Aside from the stylistic departures in verse and chorus (ie, the majority of the song), the instrumentation here is fairly traditional.
- Get Up and Fight: There hadn’t been a female vocal on a Muse album before, neither live nor sampled — here, without warning, they’re treading perilously near EDM territory with Tove Lo, to say nothing of the quick, simple drums. The bouncy bass leads steadily, undulating along a narrow chord sequence; it turns Muse-y at the chorus with a few upturns. The booming, fuzzy, major-key chorus with a layered vocal calls to my mind 30 Seconds to Mars, so I guess in a way we’re moving the musical genres forward an era every track or so. There’s eventually some more piano here, but it’s still not enough for me, even if the romantically flaired transition back to the chorus is awesome. Overall, I’m not a super fan of this song. It’s another one of those upbeat anthem attempts that falls rather flat. Muse is best in riffs and minor keys.
- Blockades: Speaking of, this song is exactly what I’m looking for. Kind of a hybrid of “Map of the Problematique” and “MK Ultra,” we have a spacey and twisted progression, with clashing electronic drum sounds, galloping bass, and endless guitars. There’s a chorus that takes its time, supplemented by a swirling maelstrom of arpeggios and I’m hooked. It shifts from chaos to peace and back. The alarming progression, featuring a hair-raising major key insertion, along with these dynamic and rhythmic changes make this song instantly one of the more memorable of the record. It faithfully carries the “Bliss” feeling forward as the solos play nicely against the arpeggios. An abrupt end has me wanting more; upon first impression, this is easily my favorite song of the album.
- Dig Down: Again, this song was released well over a year ago, but I never really caught on to it. It’s a thickly padded affair, a definite “Madness” sequel feeling with stammering synths forming the base here. Matt’s vocals are crystal clear and undisturbed floating on this wubbing sea. The choruses feature blasts of Queen-esque self-harmonized vocals, of the sort we’ve heard from Muse for years now. Lyrically and melodically, it’s exceptionally optimistic, which would be rare in Muse’s catalog, however it’s not even the first song of the sort we’ve had on this album. Another catchy sing-along outro of woahs leads us out, done before it’s got a chance to go anywhere crazy. It’s definitely a strong song; not too grandiose or up its own ass. I didn’t like it at first, given the complete divergence from Drones, but it absolutely fits on this record.
- The Void: We close with an emotionally distant song potted with a light choppy synth and, soon enough, darkly hammered electronic keys. Weepy strings bring us down into the second verse — I really like the orchestral arrangement here. The choruses are dark, pessimistic, and foreboding. Thick morphing synths in the bridge bring back the Doom 2 feel from “Algorithm,” establishing a subtle book-end. Unfortunately, this song takes a brief turn toward major key. It’s unwelcome at this point, when I’d rather be swallowed in the dark soundscape of the awesome first half. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happens in the form of a mournful piano and vocal solo. Chillingly, this motif is augmented by a throbbing claustrophobic synth. It makes me feel uneasy, but just like that it’s over. Damn, that’s a frightening way to end.
As is usually the case, I’m not quite sure what to make of this new Muse album. Simulation Theory is a concept album, loosely tied together lyrically, but less so musically. Overall, there are definite common threads between songs — the ubiquity of synths is the most obvious. Strangely, it’s almost as though Muse just kind of skipped past Drones… This record has tons of clear influence from The Resistance and The 2nd Law, but its stripped-back predecessor is neglected. I miss the chaotic riffs and shredding that made Muse such a treat back in the day; indeed, the piano is relegated to a frustrating degree here as well. That said, it’s overall a pretty decent album and an enjoyable listen. There are far fewer filler tracks than Drones, and its 42 minute run-time is just enough, though that also makes it their shortest album. I don’t think this yet breaks into the top half of Muse’s discography for me, but we’ll see. Several songs have already started to grow on me after only a couple listens — I can see the potential of this album soon eclipsing The 2nd Law, possibly even Black Holes & Revelations. Its lows aren’t that low, but it’s highs aren’t that high. Overall, it’s just solid.