Love is our resistance!
Tom Morello riffs, Primus rhythms, operatic cabaret vocals and the sort of subject matter otherwise found in the pages of Fortean Times, and the darkest corners of YouTube.
Muse were always destined to be a cult band. It probably surprised them more than anyone that this cult would grow to include literally millions of acolytes.
But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Muse are so massive. They have a way with melodies, and the melodies they specialise in are the sort to make you feel unified, energised and amplified. Matt’s riffs are tricky enough to be engaging, but not so tricky that they’re impossible to play. How many guitarists have learned to play with him?
The rhythms are scuzzy and tight, yet you can still dance to them. They’ve got the funk and the crunch; they’re groovy and heavy. And beyond all the talk of Exo Politics and Simulation Theories, people come first. They might sing of hard sci-fi ideas, but their approach is always to explore how these ideas affect ordinary people like you and me. There’s always Something Human about their songs.
But in the joyless world that music critics seem to inhabit, these are all Bad Things, and people who like Muse are suspect individuals. How can anyone find value in anything so inherently ridiculous?
But the thing is, Muse take all of this stuff just seriously enough that you can believe in them, but not so seriously that the whole thing becomes laughably po-faced. Recently, Matt subtly acknowledged just how “bizarre” some of their more out-there songs can get. Of course they realise it’s ridiculous to have a robot scream UNSUSTAINABLE over a dubstep breakdown. But it’s also a lot more fun than anything self-consciously “cool” will ever be.
Muse have never been cool. But I don’t think they’ve ever tried to be. They are true to themselves; a law unto themselves. They don’t care what anyone thinks about them, as individuals or musicians. But they value their fans and they are committed to making every show they play the best show they’ve ever played.
And speaking of their shows…
Muse play a lot of shows, and every single one of them is a big, big deal. They seem to set themselves a challenge with each successive tour – how can we make things bigger, better, bolder, brighter? I’ve seen them with choreographed drones and giant inverted pyramids that eventually enveloped poor Dom. Lord knows how they’re going to top their current tour…
The single biggest screen I’ve ever seen. A troupe of Muse dancers. Onstage robots and arcade machines. Matt singing to a metal skull. Light up jackets and weaponised power gloves.
A giant puppet robot (robot puppet?) called Murph who people seem to fancy!
It’s not all smoke and mirrors though. Maybe it was the venue, or maybe it was a super deluxe PA system, but live music has rarely sounded so good. So crisp! So balanced!
Muse always look like they’re having dangerous amounts of fun onstage, and their joy is infectious. Plus, 20 years or so of playing rock on the biggest possible scale has made them masters of the build and release. And like all the best stadium bands, they have a knack for making every single one of the 10,000 or so people watching them feel included, like they’re part of something bigger.
But all these theatrics, with tight routines for each songs, means there’s very few surprises with Muse shows. They’re going to play pretty much exactly the same set every night of their tour. This is fine for most, but we usually go to multiple shows each tour. Things don’t exactly get stale, but it would be nice if each show we saw promised fresh madness.
Also, Muse take the Manic Street Preachers approach to setlists. Their show is dominated by whichever album they’re touring, and the rest is made up of reliable fan favourites, two or three of which seem to survive each tour.
You’re more-or-less guaranteed to hear certain songs every time you see them. It’s a shame that the plodding Uprising is here to stay, but at least they’ve dropped their awful cover of Feeling Good. They’ll always close with Knights of Cydonia (with its unbearably-exciting Man With a Harmonica intro), and I’m pleased as punch that beautiful songs like Madness and Mercy seem to have become setlist staples.
It would be boss to see them do a more stripped-down show. Not acoustic, no, but free from all the robots and the dancers and the tightly-choreographed light shows. A night where they’d be free to be spontaneous, to take a deep dive into their formidable back catalogue, and perhaps even to take requests! They do shows like this sometimes, and it’s an ambition of mine to see one.
But the grand space operas they specialise in are fine too. This is who they are, and I want them to be true to themselves. I recently read a 2010 article from Spin, written when the band was on the cusp of breaking America. The writer sits with the band as they listen to the final mix of United States of Eurasia for the first time. Apparently once it finished Dom and Matt burst into laughter. “A nice subtle number,” said Dom. “It’s taken ten years,” said Matt, “but I think we’ve learned how to be us. It’s more of an innate guiding principle. I can’t quite articulate it.”
This music, exploring these concepts with these visuals – the sort of thing that critics bizarrely insist are Bad Things – is exactly the sort of music they always wanted to make. I can’t put into words just how much I respect that, how happy that makes me.
Because they have to make room onstage for their weighty concepts, Muse will never be able to please every fan. They simply don’t have the time to play the songs that everyone wants to hear. So they’ve had to come up with clever ways of pleasing their old-school fans. One is to rethink old songs to fit new concepts. On their latest tour, for example, the extremely naff intro to Psycho is no longer barked by an angry drill sergeant, but by Murph the Robot.
On The 2nd Law tour, the stage transformed into a giant roulette wheel to determine whether they’d play New Born or Stockholm Syndrome each night. This was interesting, but it did mean that whoever wanted the other song was going to be disappointed. So for their latest tour, they’ve decided to experiment with medleys. Presenting 15 Minutes of Metal:
And it works! At least, it does for me. Some will be irked to not hear the full songs, but this is stunning virtuosity – a great bunch of lads performing at the peak of their powers. And Matt still does that thing where he builds the tension to fever pitch by holding his hand aloft before launching into the mega riff from New Born.
A great bunch of lads, indeed. I feel strongly about many bands, but I feel genuine affection for Muse. Watching them onstage you can tell that they’ve remained good friends all these years, and it’s endearing to see them look to each other and smile.
Matt has that impish look about him of someone who can’t quite believe what he’s been allowed to get away with. And yes, he also has that look about him of someone who frequently spends entire evenings staring wide eyed at his screen having tumbled too far down a YouTube rabbit hole, but we all have our foibles. Dom looks like the sort of person who frequently gets into scrapes. And everyone loves Chris. He’s the strong, stoic, gentle giant, the most down-to-earth element of the whole interstellar enterprise. An ordinary man thrust into the spotlight, coping magnificently.
I’ve never felt too strongly about the song, but it’s my affection for the band that makes seeing Supermassive Black Hole such a joy to see live. They all sing on this one! Matt croons the falsetto, Chris intones and growls the chorus, and Dom does the weird robot voice at the end of the bridge.
It’s three friends who have built an unstoppable monster, working together to keep it fed and vibrant. Long may the experiment continue – may they voyage into ever stranger and more endearing frontiers of naffness.