International Tour Ends 19th August 2016
Muse will always be my favourite band. Despite having made, in my opinion, their last truly great album a decade ago in 2006, Black Holes and Revelations, the band are one of the few of the mid-00s British guitar band boom to have since sustained an enormously successful career. Only a handful of other bands could claim to fall into this category of singable hits alongside more subversive material. The list wouldn’t stretch far beyond Foals, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, and Biffy Clyro.
The demise of guitar music today has been well documented to the point of cliché – particularly when there are a wealth of exciting groups mixing mainstream sensibilities with a heavier riff-based edge, a combination which Muse began their career perfecting. Royal Blood and Wolf Alice are just two of the names that spring to mind.
It was with interest then, as a self-confessed ‘super fan’ who no longer wears thin a new Muse album with incessant repeat plays, I made my way into the O2 Arena on April 11th, in the company of two friends who were yet to hear the new album Drones, to which this tour owed its name.
The first thing you notice is the staging. Prior publicity for the tour billed it as an immersive experience which would place the audience inside the world of Drone warfare and 1984-esque surveillance which is the prominent subject of frontman Matt Bellamy’s lyrics on last year’s release. However, as a regular theatregoer, I found the main advantage of Muse ‘in-the-round’ to be that in an arena as big as the O2, regardless of their vantage point, every audience member had the opportunity to see the three band members and feel close to them. This was largely due to the main central stage being on an almost constant revolve and the added benefit of the two mini side-platforms to which Bellamy and bassist Chris Wolstenhome often ventured during longer instrumental sections. In truth, this set-up conversely made the epic themes and scope of the album’s themes, often dramatised in spectacular and typically bombastic projections, feel rather intimate. If you can call multiple orbs hovering over the audience’s heads to a cacophony of Gregorian chant intimate. That’s Muse for you.
Attending this gig with my best friend also made me appreciate the technical elements of a Muse show more than previously. He’s a fan, but knew far fewer of the songs than I did, so would often comment between songs how brilliant the lighting and visuals were. I had to agree. This was the sixth time I’ve seen the band live and with the hovering drones, near constant strobing in certain songs, and a particularly brilliant moment when, during the appropriately named The Handler, Bellamy and Wolstenhome appeared to be puppeteered by a pair of giant hands as they sang and played, it was undoubtedly the best technical display I’ve seen from Muse. Their design team should be applauded. When giant inflatable balls were released into the crowd, gradually moving towards the band, they also took a rare pause between songs to pop these with their instruments or drumsticks, eliciting laughs from the audience. It was a nice and too often missed moment of lightness amongst the heavy, well-worn themes of the tour’s aesthetic and message.
“If you can call multiple orbs hovering over the audience’s heads to a cacophony of Gregorian chant intimate”
It seems odd to have reached this far into my review without once mentioning Muse’s enviable back catalogue or supreme musicianship. I will always recommend them to a friend, even if they don’t care for Muse or rock music, purely because the band know how to deliver a live concert, even when their more recent albums don’t perhaps reflect that talent. The band opened with a double-salvo of towering highlights from Drones, lead single Psycho and album highlight Reapers, the latter of which is perhaps their heaviest track for a number of years. Both certainly seemed to convince the audience, many of whom I doubt were there to hear Muse’s newest material, that these fresher cuts were worth their attention. This was aided by crowd pleasers Plug In Baby and Stockholm Syndrome following thick and fast in the show’s opening half hour, although both seemed oddly premature. The latter’s climactic breakdown and series of Nirvana and Rage Against The Machine-esque outros were very much out of place this early into the evening; a time when the audience was just beginning to warm up. The set’s undoubted highlight was back-to-back Black Holes and Revelations-era classics Supermassive Black Hole and Starlight, both of which still contain a pop clarity and danceability which has escaped the band of late. Starlight, particularly, which I had long fallen out of love with due to radio saturation and bad associations with truly horrible ex-band mates, felt like an old friend reminding you of its importance, and chimed out across the arena with a harder, crisper edge than even the recorded version. It also delivered the biggest singalong of the evening.
The set’s second half shifted into an oddly disjointed place, veering between the heavy, hardcore fan-pleasing Citizen Erased to Muse’s more dance-pop output, such as Madness and Undisclosed Desires, oft-derided by the same section of their fan base. Again, Muse rescued themselves with a double volley of early-00s hits, this time from 2004’s Absolution, in the shape of the bass-tastic Hysteria and the evergreen Time Is Running Out, both of which allowed the band to stretch their wings and show how talented they are as individuals. Special mention should go to Wolstenhome and drummer Dominic Howard, whose mid-set ‘drum and bass’ jam, was a work of breathtaking virtuosity, demonstrating how they perfected that combination long before it
was popularised by Royal Blood. Unfortunately, the end of the set again fell away somewhat. I will never be a fan of the Doctor Who-ish Uprising and this by-the-numbers iteration did little to convince me otherwise. Likewise, main set closer The Globalist, which clocked in at just over ten minutes, felt like an amalgamation of all of Muse’s recent issues, attempting to blend the sounds of Hans Zimmer, Deftones and U2 into one consolidated mess. I could certainly identify with my friend’s confusion, who’d seen Zimmer in concert just two days earlier, when the song dive-bombed from gentle soundtrack material into punishing metal. Muse haven’t really captured that blend astutely since Absolution, and a song like Butterflies and Hurricanes or Apocalypse Please might have felt like a punchier and more memorable close, particularly as the band exited the stage leaving the audience to be plunged back into the world of Gregorian chant and pompously bombastic images of a futuristic city dematerialising. Muse had out-Mused even themselves. And I was not amused.
“…direct, relatable songs, followed by mid-set pretentiousness, saved by a return to classic material”
Fortunately, as the band seemed to have disappeared deep into the recesses of their nether regions, they returned for a two set encore and pulled it out of the bag once more, in what seemed to be the gig’s running theme: direct, relatable songs, followed by mid-set pretentiousness, saved by a return to classic material. In this case, the audience got Mercy and staple closer Knights of Cydonia. The former, one of the few keepers from Drones, is an unbelievable grower and unusual for Muse in its lack of guitar or bass solos. A close cousin of Starlight, the pre-chorus section broke like a wave across the audience as Bellamy beautifully keened ‘Meeeercy!’ as though a plea for us to forgive his prior indulgence. Ironically, given the failings of The Globalist, Knights of Cydonia showcased just how good Muse can be at blending multiple styles within a track. It’s one of the few songs where I can remember the time and place of hearing it for the first time and it remains special. Part-ode to Bellamy’s father, who played the famous guitar line of The Tornadoes’ ‘Telstar’, part-‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ choral breakdown, part-Led Zeppelin wig-out, the song was a perfect reminder of how good Muse were at their peak. I left the concert, not disappointed in any way, but reminded of how significant it is that Muse still close their gigs with a song they wrote ten years ago. This suggests to me that they have yet to better that material. Certainly this concert showed that, while the band’s best writing days may, for now, be behind them, they remain a live force to be reckoned with, tackling highbrow ideas for a mainstream audience with a combination of unrivalled musicianship and quite brilliant design and technical elements.
Images: Hans-Peter van Velthoven, Muse 2016; LizaVP 2016