English rock band Muse released their 8th album Simulation Theory this November to both the delight and dismay of their die-hard followers and experts. They’ve gone from the alternative rock of their debut album in 1999 Showbiz, featuring lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist Matt Bellamy’s melancholic falsetto voice, to more instrumental experimentation on Origin of Symmetry (2001), and Absolution (2003), highlighting their classical leanings in orchestral arrangements on tracks like Butterflies and Hurricanes.
While they’ve always tinkered with electronics in previous releases such as Black Holes and Revelations (2006), The Resistance (2009) and The 2nd Law, which took on government oppression and civil uprisings, this new offering Simulation Theory, dives head first into electronic/rock soundscapes, mesmerising guitar licks and brilliant lyrics that to some seemed foreign, and to others, pure Muse.
The other ⅔ of the talented trio are Chris Wolstenholme on bass/vocals, and Dominic Howard on drums. The album hoses 10 tracks introduced to the world with the single Dig Down and its engaging “violent, kung-fu filled” video, Bellamy describes the vibe, “I was looking to counteract the current negativity in the world and give inspiration, optimism and hope to people to fight for causes they believe in - that as individuals we can choose to change the world if we want to”.
His abilities on guitar and piano are remarkable, with a vocal range peaking 3.7 octaves, which peak for themselves. (ahem) The man has used Gibsons (SG Standard), Fenders and Gretsch models, but his main tool of employment has been his beloved Manson guitars like the DR-1, DL-1 Signature, and 007 to mention a few. He often uses arpeggiator and pitch-shift effects to get a more ‘electronic’ sound like his heros Jimi Hendrix and Tom Morello.
The second single released before the album was Thought Contagion, an electronic/rock serum giving voice to the idea that thoughts are contagious like viruses, illustrated in another graphic video directed by Lance Drake who also shot Dig Down, splashing scenes of vampires drenched in neon hues dancing to what seems like a Thriller (Michael Jackson) improv, yet very innovative and daring, which can be the backdrop to the entire album.
Some of the better examples of their musicianship appear on tracks Pressure, where Bellamy rips his Gibson SG at the top, opening the lid to a full-blown dance number mixing subtlety with a deft rock and electronic rhythm section provided by Wolstenholme and Howard. The video for the song stars American actor/ex-footballer Terry Crews, and countertenor/actor Chance Michael, in a Ghostbusters type sci-fi faceoff with demons which is ‘Tarantino’ entertaining, but leaves room for a bloody sequel. The Dark Side offers tried and tested prog rock Muse formulas that allow the ear to enjoy Bellamy’s voice and fret-wizardry that long-life fans love to hear.
Their style has been described as not just alt-rock, electronic prog-rock, glam-metal, space rock, but also soundscape motifs, film scores and dubstep, they enjoy a widely recognised reputation as keen composers and lyricists, as expressed by Brian May of Queen, “...they are extraordinary musicians, who let their madness show through, always a good thing in an artist”. A kickass example of this madness is on track Break it to Me, with a booming rhythm beat and scratching riffs over an easily recognizable mid-Eastern groove; risky, unexpected territory performed to pinpoint perfection in production sound quality, thanks to the tech savy of co-producers Rich Costey (Interpol), Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple) and Timbaland (Jay-Z, Missy Elliott). The title Simulation Theory is actually based on the theory that all reality, even Earth and the universe, is artificial simulation, (as in the film The Matrix), a theme often reflected in the band’s material; impending peril, dystopia, and psychic dislocation, over sci-fi panoramas as depicted on the album cover, a creation of Kyle Lambert, known for his work on Netflix’s Stranger Things.
So while this solid album from the 2-time Grammy winners is somewhat polarising at first look, it doesn’t alienate fans, it just keeps them wondering what will come next.