Muse, a British three-piece band with tremendous following in the UK and winner of multiple “Best Live Act” awards in 2004 and 2005, recently topped the UK charts and further introduced itself to American audiences with its new CD, Black Holes and Revelations. The album surprised some by debuting at #9 on the Billboard 200 album chart — proof that its profile is increasing in the States.
Muse first gained radio airplay here with “Muscle Museum” from its first album Showbiz, which reached number 25. Its second album, Origin of Symmetry, showed a great deal of growth, and is probably its most cohesive and consistent record — although its American label allegedly considered the work “too European,” so it was not released Stateside until after its subsequent album Absolution, which reintroduced the band to America. The heavy hook-laden single “Hysteria” from that album broke the top 10 on modern rock radio, and the band toured small clubs followed by somewhat larger ones in an effort to bring its powerful live show to the audience and thereby to develop interest in its work.
Four years later, Black Holes is released and is easily the band’s most diverse and most developed work to date. It both shows the maturation of a gifted act and simultaneously overwhelms some listeners with its diverse instrumentation. Lyrically, the band continues on. It’s definitely worth ignoring the naysayers, as this is a brilliant work that establishes the band among the upper echelon of modern rock acts.
The first single in the UK, “Supermassive Black Hole,” is a sparingly-arranged dance-rock/disco tune sung in falsetto–which though debuting at #1 in the UK, was not chosen to be released here. This is perhaps due to the perception of singer Matt Bellamy’s high-register vocals as unpleasant. The single chosen instead is the epic “Knights of Cydonia,” which has thus far peaked at #19 on the Alternative charts. I find this a peculiar choice as the first two minutes are instrumental-only, reminiscent of early Genesis–its driving instrumentation is a good choice for heavy rockers among the audience, but the song lacks the sing-along chorus that gave “Hysteria” wider appeal.
The album starts with “Take a Bow,” featuring arpeggiated keyboard reminiscent of “New Born,” the concert staple that opened Symmetry. This song expands into vocal histrionics, an electronica break, and then heavy guitar — in essence a good introduction to the band. Other themes and sounds are explored as the album progresses, including some Depeche Mode-style keyboard riffs in “Starlight” and “Map of the Problematique,” some broad and precise Queen-like background vocals on “Soldier’s Poem,” military-march drumwork on “Invincible,” and an infectious flamenco rhythm on “City of Delusion.” In keeping with its modern rock roots, several other tracks honor the band’s alternative-rock influences, which are said to include Rage Against the Machine.
Muse has outgrown its earlier comparisons to Radiohead, and is no longer simply what Radiohead might have become had it continued in its OK Computer direction. Bellamy’s classical piano interludes, prominently featured in Absolution, are only the beginning of the band’s experimentation on this album. Muse has truly grown into its own.