In the 00s three rock groups have towered above anything else in the British rock scene: Radiohead, Coldplay and Muse.
Of this trio, Muse appear the poor relations. A lot less popular than Coldplay, a lot less acclaimed than Radiohead, but they pack stadiums and their albums aren’t panned; they aren’t innovators in any sense, but they fill an adolescent niche with a more straightforward, less dreary brand of riff-driven rock.
After reaching new commercial peaks with 2006’s Black Hole and Revelations you would imagine they would have the breathing space to indulge a little and follow in their peers footsteps, – perhaps not with a Kid A, but even Coldplay roped in Brian Eno and stuck a Delacroix painting on their album cover after the beast of X&Y – and here they do, to an extent, but unlike Coldplay, who tweaked so little that essentially nothing changed, or Radiohead, who managed to reinvent themselves, but retained the complex layering that made them great with guitars, Muse try a reinvention that falls between the two and still manages to come at the expense of what they do best.
Despite recent dalliances with a broader pop sound, they’ve always had riffs, and they’re good at writing them. Songs such a Plug in Baby, Citizen Erased and Stockholm Syndrome are, deservedly, rock staples. The riffs these songs are built around have been the catalyst for thousands of teenage boys picking up guitars and noodling away in their bedrooms – including, to an extent, me. A quick search for any Muse song will reveal – after the official music video or any significant live performance by the actual band – a legion of teenage boys and, in some cases, girls, offering their own slightly rusty, but spirited interpretation. The immediacy, grandiosity and, most of all, relative simplicity of these riffs means they occupy a special place in the zeitgeist of bedroom guitarists. They don’t have a Smoke on the Water, but people will more often than not play a Muse riif when they first pick up a guitar. They’re a wonderfully bombastic rock band. Matt Bellamy is arguably one of best riff writer’s of the decade. Muse own riffs. Why The Resistance has none is genuinely baffling.
The Muse of Citizen Erased or Micro Cuts is long gone, but that’s not to say their swing to the poppier extreme in recent years hasn’t been without moments of rock excess. Infact, they’ve usually done quite an admirable job of balancing out these two impulses. The disappointing and very pop BHaR had the wonderfully camp and overblown space-spaghetti western, Knights of Cydonia, whose whole existence is to serve as a platform for knowing crotch-thrusting guitar heroics and stadium packing chants.
The Resistance is without such self-effacing guitar heroics or self-awareness, and so the emphasis is switched onto the more nuanced aspects of the band’s songs. Matt’s paranoid rants about superstates and surveillance, or the eternal, angsty, struggle between the righteous ‘We’ and the Orwellian ‘They’ become cripplingly embarrassing when brought to the fore without any musical bombast to accompany it. Muse only really work in top gear. Matt’s lyrics are not what make the band great; they don’t really have much to say, the focus has always been elsewhere.
Due to the albums messy and confused sequencing (it’s essentially split into a pop suite, a rock suite and a ‘symphonic suite’ all of which could be unbearable and album-killing if you don’t like pop Muse, rock Muse or symphonic Muse) it takes four tracks and a good fifteen minutes before any kind of riffage is delivered, and even then it’s a rather tame imitation of Brian May; it’s an incitement of the albums problems that this isn’t the main problem. Critics will points towards the poppier intentions of The Resistance as its downfall – Undisclosed Desires inparticular – but it’s not the real problem. The opening pop suite isn’t great, but it does what it does well. Uprising is a mid-tempo electro pop stomp that evokes Goldfrapp without the sex-appeal; Resistance is synthy space-pop that continues the trend of the band doing their best Depeche Mode imitation; Undisclosed Desires is perhaps the highlight of the three, but it takes a while to stomach its heavily processed and sampled strings that initially make it sound like a poor attempt at Timbaland-esque R&B. However its stripped down, minimal production actually takes advantage of the technical proficiency of Bellamy’s voice which has never been particularly emotionally evocative or warm, but does sound right when placed amongst expansive synths and the mechanical percussion on display here. It’s also a bonus that he’s delivering some by-the-numbers tale of love and redemption rather than a vaguely embarrassing tale of black holes and Zetas.
The real disappointment of the album comes with the ‘Rock’ passage. I place Rock in scare quotes as it’s really a shockingly tame sequence for a band that prides itself on being pretty high-octane. The theatricality is there; the bombast and unapologetic bigness is present, but there’s really no riffs, no solos. Unnatural Selection comes the closest to providing the bedroom guitarists of the world with some new material; the guitar solo is the one instance when we get a taster of the wanky indulgence that make the band great, but it’s far, far too short, and the main riff sounds like they ate the notation for that riff in New Born, excreted it, and them awkwardly reconstituted it from the waste that didn’t take.
The whole album sounds like this to an extent, the influences are clear and sometimes border on near plagiarism, there’s the same old Chopin and Rachmaniov piano chops as there’s ever been, but this time we also get Queen, Depeche Mode, Timbaland, music from French Operas and well, themselves.
Barring a weird sequential blip with the French operatic car-crash that is I Belong to You/Mon Cœur S’ouvre à ta Voix, in which Matt proves he can sound even more mawkishly sentimental by singing in French, the album ends on the much hyped big ‘symphony’.
Those expecting a 25 minute piece with endless guitar solos, bass solos, drum solos, rich orchestration and perhaps some loose, stream of consciousness connecting narrative about the collapse of the European Superstate in the great Cydonian war off the shoulder of Orion, will be disappointed. It comes in at a slight 13 minutes and is quite, well, un-proggy. There’s very little overriding connection between the separate ‘movements’, instead we have Matt doing his Rachmaniov/Chopin shtick, slow, ponderous guitar arpeggios that go nowhere and some admittedly nice strings accompanying Matt’s falsetto gymnastics.
It’s a slight end of album lift, sure, but it’s symptomatic of the album’s larger problems: it doesn’t go far enough, it’s not loud enough, it’s underwhelming. When a symphony titled Exogenesis is announced by a band of Muse’s bombastic calibre, you expect more.
In the initial rush of opinion for this album there were a few snide remarks. Amongst those was the suggestion that this was the band cashing in on their new fanbase of Twilight tweens. This probably isn’t quite the case; there are elements of The Resistance that show a certain element of bravery and experimentalism, just into a pop landscape, which there isn’t anything necessarily bad with, unless you’re a snob about these things.
The Resistance isn’t the sound of Muse selling out, but it is a definite softening of their sound. In some cases this is a good thing; their pop stylings are far more streamlined, direct and un-confused, but it’s really staggering how much the heart of Muse is missing in this album as a result of this ‘feminization’ of their rock sound, and how poorly sequenced and messy the album is. It’s still exceedingly adolescent, high-octane and uncomplicated music, but in this case it’s edged a little closer to the Jonas Brothers rather than Led Zeppelin.