On first reading about Muse's latest album some months ago I noted that they were set to dispense with some of the orchestral excesses of recent releases and have some sort of back to basics experience, which I thought was a shame as I'd loved their increasingly mad albums which were all laced with great pop moments. I needn't have worried, this is the most insane album they've ever made, in fact you just can’t listen to it without a huge a grin at least, and actual belly laughs scattered freely throughout. Produced by Robert 'Mutt' Lange this is as big sounding as anything they've ever recorded. I first bought Lange productions nearly 40 years ago (Boomtown Rats and a one off XTC single), though as he moved into stadium MOR (Bryan Adams, he co-wrote 'Everything I Do', Def Leppard and one time wife Shania Twain. He also produced the fourth bestselling album of all time, AC/DC's 'Back In Black') it seemed unlikely his name would grace my music collection again. Then Muse got in touch with him. This album has his trademarks all over it, huge deep drums, and pulsing bass, everything up in the mix. In short, it's absolutely joyous.
And though Lange's presence is notable from the opening drum beats of album opener 'Dead Inside', let's make it clear, it's Muse who bring the madness to the proceedings. The opener though is a Muse pop moment, and one of the more straightforward songs here, and the the first hint that the warfare and releasing of drones sung about on this album are not necessarily about battlefield war, but war in love (singer and lyricist Matt Bellamy has recently split from his movie star wife Kate Hudson). 'Psycho' follows with all the sergeant major screaming and swearing that made the songs YouTube premiere such a thrill. Again, love is the first word in the lyric, though the song has comic book military soldier brainwashing connotations. The song is driven by a heavy rock guitar riff over the beefed up drums and driving bass. It's a classic. I found it funny on first listening and still do now. It's an 'Ah, Muse are back' sensation.
Mercy is much heavier in the military pictorial, and sees a synth hook as the songs main weapon, that and the drums, guitars and bass obviously. Other recurring themes are leaving their mark too, brainwashing, puppeteers of men and populace, war zones and killing fields, remote control killers. Yet there are always hints that something much closer to home is the real subject matter. 'Reapers' blasts off with those drums again and a mad squealing guitar (another big grin moment), yet the opening line is 'Home is the beginning, a killing field'. I really hope Bellamy's separation wasn't as messy and painful as this all sounds. The song is so over the top you just can't help smiling, Muse trademark treated backing vocals and filthy guitars paint the track mad. 'The Handler' similarly starts with 'You were my oppressor, and I, I have been programmed'. At least by the end of the song there is a Declaration of Independence, an I can stand on my own feet manifesto. This is another guitar and drum fest. But you can't bury Chris Wolstenholmes bass though, remember Muse are a three way fighting machine and it constantly sounds as if all three main instruments are fighting to be heard the most. Which is not a bad thing, it’s their character, it's what Muse are. After a short intro made up from John F Kennedy speeches (called....JFK) we’re into another bass, drum and guitar battleground, 'Defector'. There's also some mad Queen-like backing vocals, the lyrics are barking.... 'Your minds turned green and your belly is all yellow'. At end JFK pipes up again, not before we've had guitars trying to be bagpipes though.
Talking of Queen, 'Revolt' blasts in, a late era Queen like delve into a bloody, robot controlled, drone patrolled society, only far more panicked and confused than anything Freddie and co ever got up to. Already the album is coming to a close. 'Aftermath' is calmer, almost Floydian, a solider returning from war, an errant lover coming home. A welcome hello to an orchestra too, and chiming Edge like guitars. For all the madness that's gone before this is where the album gets strong for me, though it makes you smile less, for the time being anyway. Because just as you settle 'The Globalist' begins, a ten minute song in many parts. Starting with a spaghetti western whistled intro, leading into more Floyd guitar and late Queen beats, a song of survivors and a destroyed past, a call to rebuild and remodel, recode and prosper whether intentions are benign are otherwise. Halfway through and the Muse mental guitar smile is put back on your face, the bass heavy drums ignite, we have a guitar sound back from Muse's first album, then the orchestra and piano stealthily seize control, subsiding to a choral peak, and we slip into final track, 'Drones'. Vocal only, and based on 'Sanctus and Benedictus' by 16th century Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, this along with the mini rock opera of the preceding track make this the most mental point of any Muse album yet. Though it's sombre and doomy, 'Killed by drones, my mother, my father, my sister and my brother' and finishing with an ‘Amen', it's still a defining leave ‘em smiling moment. Whatever Matthew Bellamy is on, you want some.
At this point in their career Muse have never made a duff album. This is their seventh studio offering and if they stay this out there it's hard to see them ever putting forward something secondary. It's not their best album, but whether it about war, brainwashing, nuclear aftermath or love, breakup and painful domesticity, it's grand in every way. Where do they go from here? Jeff Wayne is probably sitting by the phone right now.....