Watching footage of Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar onstage, 15-year-old Devon schoolboy Matt Bellamy had an epiphany: "I suddenly realised that music didn't have to follow rules but could be full of chaos," Muse’s frontman recalled. "Essentially, we approach music the same way Monty Python did comedy."
Six consecutive UK number one albums testify to Muse’s mainstream appeal, but not since Queen has there been a major league British rock band so wholly unfettered by notions of taste and restraint, an attitude wholeheartedly endorsed by Brian May, a long-time fan. "I like the way they let their madness show through," the guitarist once stated. "That's always a good thing in an artist."
Ahead of the release of the trio’s forthcoming ninth album, Will Of The People, due in August, here are Muse’s eight studio albums ranked from worst to best.
8. Drones (2015)
With famously-disciplined studio veteran Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange (AC/DC, Def Leppard) hired as co-producer with a mandate to curb Matt Bellamy’s more outlandish flights of fancy, the advance word on Muse’s seventh studio album suggested that Drones would represent a ‘back to basics’ approach for the Devon trio following 2012’s dubstep/electronica-influenced The 2nd Law.
Such talk was relative: the ten-minute The Globalist opens with whistling and Ennio Morricone atmospherics, segues into a thundering heavy metal midsection and closes as a grandly ostentatious piano ballad. Good luck pulling that off around a campfire on an acoustic guitar.
The Devon trio’s first overt concept album, Drones is a none-too-subtle meditation upon authoritarian repression, political manipulation, militaristic aggression and the struggle for personal liberty – familiar Bellamy obsessions unlikely to give Noam Chomsky new food for thought. Fortunately, the bombastic, gleefully raucous energy harnessed on the riff-heavy Reapers and The Handler over-rides trite lyrics such as ‘I’m just a pawn, and we’re all expendable.’
Elsewhere, on nodding terms with Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms and U2’s One, Aftermath is the album’s twinkling, phones-aloft stadium ballad, while Dead Inside is a feisty opener, with obvious allusions to the break-up of Bellamy’s marriage to actress Kate Hudson.
7. Simulation Theory (2018)
Following on from the heavy-handed Drones, Muse allowed a little light and levity into their relentlessly pessimistic world view on Simulation Theory. From its Tron/Stranger Things-inspired artwork through to its emphasis on pulsing synth-rock, the band’s eighth album is an unashamed tribute to the 1980s, a sci-fi diorama concerned with the quest for human connection in an increasingly cold digital world.
Featuring retro production from Timbaland and Swedish pop producer Shellback among others, this on-brand Giorgio Morodor-soundtracking-Black Mirror approach is a little too pat, and only fleetingly successful. Bellamy’s attempts to channel Prince (on Propaganda) and Janelle Monae (on Break It To Me) fall flat, but the slick AOR of Something Human and the snappy Pressure suggest the trio's decision to reset the dials and pivot away from riff-rock isn’t wholly without merit.
6. The 2nd Law (2012)
As Muse commenced the recording of their sixth studio album, Matt Bellamy teased fans by declaring that the trio were intent upon making a “Christian gangsta rap jazz odyssey, some ambient rebellious dubstep and face-melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia.” Truthfully, had they done so, at this point in their career no-one would have batted an eyelid.
Featuring the official song of the 2012 Olympics (the gloriously OTT Survival), two understated songs about quiet man bassist Chris Wolstenholme's new found sobriety (Save Me and Liquid State), Skrillex-style dubstep, slinky U2 knock-off Madness and a sweetly sappy lullaby for Matt Bellamy's new born son Bingham (Follow Me), the self-produced The 2nd Law is, respectfully, all over the place, an uninhibited, Jackson Pollock-esque gush of ideas which would have benefited from more judicious editing and tighter quality control.
5. The Resistance (2009)
Extrapolating upon the doom-laden warnings contained within Black Holes And Revelations' Invincible - key lyric: "During the struggle they will pull us down" - The Resistance comes weighted with exhortations to resist tyranny and repression in all its state-sanctioned forms, and dark prophesies of what "they", bastards known and as-yet-unknown, have in store. "Will they find our hiding place?" Matt Bellamy frets on the title track, seemingly not entirely convinced by his own insistence that love will conquer all.
Offering up a strong candidate for song title of the year, Muse's forthcoming album, Will Of The People, will conclude with a track called We Are Fucking Fucked. To be fair, that's an assessment they'd already reached here, with Bellamy's three-part, 12-minute orchestral masterpiece Exogenesis: Symphony, wherein our bold protagonists decide that our time on earth must, of necessity, come to an end, and we must "breach the outer sphere" in order to start anew.
Which is all very well, except that much of what precedes this epic climax - most notably the irresistible glam stomp of Uprising - serves up rallying calls for heroic stands against our shadowy oppressors. Cowards! Splitters! Traitors! Etc,.
Ludicrous and fabulous in equal measure, then, The Resistance is peak Muse, and an unmitigated joy.
4. Showbiz (1999)
Heavily indebted to Radiohead and Jeff Buckley, and by far the most restrained and 'conventional' album in Muse's catalogue, Showbiz deserves more love than it was afforded upon its release in September 1999. Consciously choosing to play safe by setting aside their more experimental early material for use as single B-sides, Muse ruffled few feathers with their debut album, but the quirky, hooky Muscle Museum, the gorgeous Unintended and the soaring, riffy Cave remain firm fan favourites.
Chosen as the album’s second single, Cave found favour with Type O Negative frontman Pete Steele, who told this writer, “That chick has a great voice." Informed that said 'chick' was, in fact, male, Steele said, "Woah, there goes my erection" but added "When I listen to his voice I feel like someone is tickling my penis with a feather.” Possibly not the impact Muse were hoping to make, but their caution here ensured they laid solid foundations from which to launch skywards with subsequent releases.
3. Absolution (2003)
Months ahead of the release their third album, Muse described their work in progress as "fat as fuck." Emboldened by the international success of Origin Of Symmetry, the Devon trio embraced the opportunity to indulge their most experimental urges in its creation, recording Dom Howard's drums in a swimming pool, and Bellamy's guitar parts in a field, then ransacking a castle to re-purpose cartwheels and cattle prods as 'instruments'. The result was the darkest, heaviest, boldest album of their early career.
From the apocalyptic groove-rock of Time Is Running Out to the extraordinary art-metal of Stockholm Syndrome, Absolution, the trio's first UK number one album, is the sound of an inspired, fearless, ultra-confident band who knew their time had arrived, and the world was listening.
2. Origin Of Symmetry (2001)
Well, who saw this coming? For those who had Muse pegged as timid, mannered Radiohead-copyists on the basis on Showbiz, and let's be honest, that was most of us, the band's second coming, heralded by the astonishing alt.prog thunderbolt Plug In Baby and its equally startling follow-up New Born, was nothing short of a revelation.
With the handbrake off, and Matt Bellamy given free rein to indulge his wildest Queen-meets-Rage Against The Machine-meets-King Crimson fantasies, Origin Of Symmetry was an adrenaline spike slammed into the heart of the British music scene. Even better, Bellamy now talked like a proper rock star, telling this writer, “What’s big in England is mostly simplistic bollocks." Such was the singer's new-found confidence, that he cheerfully told the band's US label, Madonna's Maverick Records, to get fucked when they demanded he re-record his vocals with less falsetto.
“I was pretty aware that this album was difficult to swallow compared to Showbiz and I thought we were taking a bit of a risk," he admitted, "but our success has given me the confidence to push things further.”
Muse would never look back.
1. Black Holes And Revelations (2006)
Having shed any lingering creative inhibitions with 2003's brilliant Absolution, Muse album four had to be one louder, more bombastic, more brazen, more bonkers. And when the release of Black Holes And Revelations was prefaced by Supermassive Black Hole – slinky, slamming eroto-funk, like Prince fronting Queens Of The Stone Age – any fears that the trio might shirk their responsibilities evaporated. Down the line, Matt Bellamy revealed that his band had actually ditched their first run at new material as "it was too mental, even by our standards." The mind boggles.
Muse's finest hour opens with Take A Bow, a dread-filled, chorus-free, space-rock symphony, all rippling synth arpeggios and multi-tracked vocals, with Bellamy warning “You will burn in hell for your sins…” Following such shock and awe, Starlight is an uncharacteristically straightforward piano-led love song, albeit one where the protagonist is being taken “far away from the memories of the people who care if I live or die.”
Less conventionally, the deceptively upbeat Exo-Politics muses upon the possibility of an orchestrated Zeta Reticulan invasion created by the New World Order, because that’s exactly the kind of subject that keeps Matt Bellamy – a man who maintains that The Beatles were a front for a clandestine think tank intent on brainwashing the youth of America – awake at night. Invincible, a rather lovely self-empowerment anthem, channels U2 circa The Unforgettable Fire, while featuring a guitar solo that sounds suspiciously like R2D2 completing a wank.
But all this, impressive as it may be, is a mere amuse-bouche for the album’s closing track, Muse’s own Achilles Last Stand. Knights Of Cydonia, the soundtrack to an imaginary sci-fi spaghetti Western, references The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, The Tornados chart-topping 1962 instrumental Telstar (on which Bellamy’s father George played rhythm guitar) and the Doctor Who theme tune, before climaxing with Bellamy repeatedly screaming “No-one’s going to take me alive!” It’s histrionic, epic and gloriously daft - quintessential Muse in other words - and the perfect climax to a magnificently realised career-best collection.