Out Of This World: Muse & Space Rock
When I say galactic rock, what do you think of? Men with holographic guitars prancing around in the Milky Way? Sold-out stadium tours with drones? Black Holes and Revelations?
I think of Muse. With seven albums under their belts, the trio from Devon have reimagined the genre that calls itself alternative. They have created an entire subgenre of music; whatever your opinion on it, one thing must be accepted. And that’s their sheer imagination and originality.
My early teens were spent trawling Muse forums, keeping multiple blogs dedicated
to the band, and listening to their extended discography over and over. I freely admit with pride that, yes, Muse are my favourite band of all time. Perhaps it was because I got into them at just the right time, when I was ripe for, as the youth call it, “fangirling”. But maybe it was more. I’ve written stories since before I can remember, and the depth of the political landscape Matt Bellamy weaves in his often brief lyrics does give way to creative inspiration. As early as their second album, Muse had developed their own brand of odd rock, moving on from the conventional and comfortable yet slightly overdone tales of love and loss in debut Showbiz.
Origin of Symmetry is a minefield of scientific theories. Album opener 'New Born' gives the lyrics “You can't come down to earth/You're swelling up, you're unstoppable” and “Stretch it like it's a birth squeeze/And the love for what you hide/And the bitterness inside/Is growing like the new born”; here Matt Bellamy introduces the record with a newfound conceptualised abstract. Moving on from the “And I don't want you to adore me/Don't want you to ignore me/When it pleases you” themes of ‘Muscle Museum’, their major-label debut single, Bellamy clearly outlines to both new and old listeners that the trio have bigger fish to fry. Whether this record was influenced by the bands’ hallucinogenic drug habit or Bellamy’s burgeoning scientific and philosophical interests, it’s safe to say that it’s a stellar adventure. 'Micro Cuts', the seventh song on Origin of Symmetry, was the track inspired by a bad shroom trip. Bellamy’s lyrics “Micro waves me insane/A Blaine cuts in your brain/Sounds like forks on a plate/Blackboard scratched with hate” clearly mess with any sense of coherence; the distorted images constructed in these screeched lyrics conjure up tales of dystopian twisted landscapes. Think The Wasteland or Rick & Morty’s opening sequence.
In 2002, Kerrang interviewed the man himself, and reading the result seventeen years later is quite eye-opening. “Do you think you're a weirdo waiting to happen, Matt? 'Erm. I don't know what that means.' Well, do you think that you could turn into a rock star eccentric? 'I don't know. Isn't that for you to decide?' Could be. Or maybe the answers are already there, in the music.” Clearly, Kerrang magazine saw the mad scientist inside this tiny 25-year-old man.
With third record Absolution, Matt Bellamy, Dom Howard, and Chris Wolstenholme ramped things up a notch, while keeping everything under control. An album enveloped with military symbolism (overtly referenced with ‘Intro’, 22 seconds of marching and shouting), ‘Time Is Running Out’s music video, linked below, offers what that picture speaking a thousand words can’t. Lyrics ‘I wanted freedom/But I'm restricted/I tried to give you up/But I'm addicted’ tied into a catchy, groovy bassline are delightfully incongruous; but that’s what works about the song. Bellamy has layered a simple bassline and heavy guitars with lyrics howling for freedom, for contentment. The theme of freedom is furthered with ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, later on the record, with undisguised references to imprisonment. Bellamy’s lyrics, “This is the last time I'll abandon you/And this is the last time I'll forget you” speak of a character protecting his unnamed loved one, and this lack of clarity is poignant here. It’s not a stretch to imagine that this is a reference to the concept of society and government: when we take into account Bellamy’s obsession with conspiracies and religion, this develops a much larger meaning. Further lyric “Look to the stars/Let hope burn in your eyes” speaks for itself here. When listened to in its entirety, Absolution is one of those records that concerns itself with a myriad of subjects, developed through the piano-led unashamedly loud ‘Apocalypse Please’, the soft and orchestral ‘Blackout’, the sci-fi love story ‘Falling Away With You’, and, quite obviously, ‘Thoughts of A Dying Atheist’. The album’s finale, fan-favourite ‘Fury’, conspires about an empty heaven: “Breathe in deep, and cleanse away our sins/And we'll pray that there's no God/To punish us and make a fuss”. With the collapse of this song, Bellamy leaves the listener with a plethora of concepts, ideas, and questions, but boy does he answer them with the band’s next album.
Black Holes and Revelations is perhaps the first Muse record that outs itself as the bombastic, intergalactic, bold political rock that now so defines the band. With the album’s opener, ‘Take A Bow’, we are immediately drawn into the anti-government rhetoric of Bellamy and co. Bellamy has said of the track, “You can hear the people who are at the bottom of the pyramid, who haven’t got any power, and they have this feeling of powerlessness, a feel I have quite often, about some of these events – this sense of, “What can I do about this?” It seems like no one is listening. A million people protest, and nothing really happens.” In another interview, Bellamy has admitted the song is about Bush and Blair, and as the track builds to its explosive climax, we are drawn into this universe of anarchism: “You must pay for your crimes against the earth/Feed the hex on the country you love”, finally concluding with the tearing “You'll burn in hell/Yeah you will burn for all your sins”. The album is truly unapologetic, moving immediately into ‘Starlight’, which holds the title lyric of the album, the repeated “Our hopes and expectations/Black holes and revelations”. The crooning delivery of Bellamy’s words is highlighted with the morse-code inspired percussion and shimmery piano riff, showcasing elements of love and loss. Poignant lyrics “You electrify my life/Let's conspire to ignite/All the souls that would die just to feel alive” in the track’s second verse imply a sense of paradox and inspiration, with these characters risking everything to help their peers. Even with these somewhat dark lyrics, the sparkling pop of the record shines through; these first two tracks are keyboard led, with Bellamy’s falsetto vocal and groovy percussion notes bleeding into third song, the infamous ‘Supermassive Black Hole’. These lyrics are simplistic, instead the song relying on its deep guitar riff to lead the track, but god does it do well. Bellamy’s falsetto once again makes a confident appearance in this song, his crooning voice resounding over the track’s heavy guitars. Yet even so the concept of space and the universe is not avoided. “You set my soul alight/Glaciers melting in the dead of night/And the superstars sucked into the super massive”: while being topically vague, the images conjured here are clear. Bellamy is singing of the black sky, with the light quite literally being “sucked” from the universe by a villainous supermassive black hole. An actual supermassive black hole is the black hole found at the centre of all massive galaxies, so perhaps here, Muse are toying with the idea that the concept of stardom and fame is something so far removed from the necessities of human life, it is the destruction of it all. I could spend ten thousand words deconstructing every track on Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations; it is, after all, by far my favourite album of all time. But all we need to know to truly understand the influence Muse have had on popular music is the story behind the opening three tracks, and the closing one. ‘Knights of Cydonia’ is the big boy of Muse. So big, in fact, that my Twitter and Instagram usernames are directly inspired by the song.
‘Knights of Cydonia’ is a 6-minute Western science-fiction adventure. The track is named for Mars’ region Cydonia, famous for the ‘face of Cydonia’. Clearly, Matt Bellamy wanted to tackle something meaty to close his album of epics. The track opens with notes taken from Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind; this song is not to be messed with, clearly. Sonically, the track takes elements of Joe Meek’s 1960’s experimental sci-fi sounds, showcased in Bellamy’s father’s band The Tornados, with their 1962 hit ‘Telstar’. Joe Meek was a producer and sound engineer who pioneered space age and experimental music. During his career, he aided the development of overdubbing, sampling, and reverb, which are evident in his music. ‘Knights of Cydonia’ echoes the concept of space rock here, with the bassline mirroring the sound of horses running, and the web of brass sections and layered harmonies creating soundscapes of a post-sci-fi society. The guitar solo softens to reflect Bellamy’s voice and his lyrics, with the lyrics ‘No one's going to take me alive/The time has come to make things right/You and I must fight for our rights/You and I must fight to survive” permeating the track’s message. Bellamy is clearly singing for not only himself, but the rest of the people governed under unfair leaderships. When partnered with the outrageously intricate instrumental composition, ‘Knights of Cydonia’ is truly the magnum opus of Matt Bellamy’s songwriting career.
While the quality of Muse’s music has rapidly nosedived since 2006’s beyond phenomenal Black Holes and Revelations, the cultural resonance of the trio’s latter three releases must not be ignored. Orwellian The Resistance, 2009, is a Queen-inspired record consisting of anti-government tracks ‘Uprising’, ‘United States of Eurasia’, and ‘MK Ultra’, and closing itself with the monumentally ambitious symphony, titled ‘Exogenesis: Symphony’. This orchestral masterpiece is a tale of three separate tracks that amalgamate to describe a science-fiction concept of ‘Overture’, ‘Cross-Pollination’, and ‘Redemption’. I’ll leave the videos below, as this is a symphony even the classiest theatre couldn’t resist.
In 2012, Muse embarked on a journey of sheer experimentation on The 2nd Law. The dubstep of ‘Unsustainable’, the anti-capitalism ‘Animals’, and not-so-subtle climate change song ‘Big Freeze’ deserve a mention in Muse’s journey to the invention of an entire genre of music. 2015’s Drones is the final, so far, beat out of Muse’s so-called dead horse. The highly conceptual record saw the tale of a brainwashed soldier defeat his captors and revolt against a treacherous government. Matt Bellamy, the master of subtlety.
Space rock isn’t a theme. It’s not a subject. It really, truly is a mindset. How Muse, under the influence of the genius that is Matt Bellamy, went from being a Radiohead-inspired indie rock band to creating one of music’s most exciting new genres is simply unmissable. The politics and magic of their second, third, and fourth albums is something that will probably go down in the history books as a second-coming of prog rock. These are bold claims, I know, but I feel as if I have to do my boys justice. I spent an embarrassing amount of my mid-teenage years inhaling everything there was to know about the trio, and only now, once my understanding of the concept of alternative music has developed into what it is now, can I make these statements. You heard it here first: Muse have single-handedly invented a new subgenre of alternative, and man it sounds good.