2. The Dark Side
5. Break it to Me
6. Something Human
7. Thought Contagion
8. Get Up and Fight
10. Dig Down
11. The Void
There’s clearly a glitch in the matrix. Muse, those dark, bombastic space-rock harbingers of war, global catastrophe and top-level corruption, have suddenly rebooted as a tongue-in-cheek retro synth-rock band. Recent videos spoof Tron, Teen Wolf, Back To The Future and Gremlins; the sleeve to eighth album Simulation Theory faithfully mimics a Blade Runner film poster. It’s as though Muse have re-skinned for a more fun, retro-comic play-through.
The wider concept – following albums revolving around mechanised remote control warfare (Drones) and global resource depletion (The 2nd Law) – is more knockabout too: the idea that we all actually live in a virtual reality simulation. And Muse twist the idea to create their own Sgt Pepper ‘character’ album. A virtual band-within-a-band, they’re 21st-century rockers transforming themselves into an 80s synth-rock simulation, and playing around with the sonic toys that entails: Vangelis synth throbs and sizzles; Jacko funk falsettos; the sort of gated-reverb drums you can’t hear without picturing an underlit Phil Collins.
Muse mainman Matt Bellamy characteristically used the conceit to explore the sinister side of the erosion of humanity. Algorithm, a krautrock-ish march merging symphonic menace with the proto-electro sounds of Jean-Michel Jarre, discusses the philosophical impact of mankind being superseded by technology: ‘Algorithms push us aside, render us obsolete,’ he wails. ‘This means war with your creator.’ Both the engrossing disco-Queen shimmy The Dark Side and Propaganda, a brilliant sci-fi R&B epic involving comedy Bee Gees backing vocals and an evil AI singing the chorus – speak of wanting to break free of a ‘dark fantasy world’, as though Bellamy feels that Simulation Earth has gone dangerously awry.
The pretence also gives Muse a postmodern excuse to have a crack at being the rock band that breaks back into the mainstream, integrity intact. So Simulation Theory treads a thin line between cheesy chart-chasing (Get Up And Fight’s Imagine Dragons buzz-rock; the EDM Winner Takes It All that is Something Human) and genuinely innovative pop rock: Pressure is a fantastic, hyperactive Supermassive Black Hole, while Break It To Me is a revelation, all junkyard industrial rock, R&B crackles, Arabian melodies and sci-fi DJ scratching bits.
Like Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino did for Arctic Monkeys, this sonic blue pill wipes Muse’s stylistic slate clean. Next time there’s no telling what avatars they’ll adopt.