Sunday, September 12, 2004

Muse's Maverick

Muse are the greatest British rock heretics of the new century. When they first cast strange and exhilarating shadows over the musical landscape at the tail end of the 90s, the cultural orthodoxy was not looking for an audacious, ambitious, heavy neo-classical metalcorepunk hyper-rock band, with a precocious, vocally soaring, 22 year old singer, apparently fallen from a distant galaxy. The times were seeking familiar, dependable sounds. Muse were neither, and yet by the time of their second album in 2001 they were playing European arena shows to 20,000 astonished onlookers, destroying extravagant amounts of equipment, filling the music press with tales of debauchery and crashing the pop charts. They must have being doing something contrarily right.

It's tempting to begin to explain Muse's maverick development as a consequence of growing up in the relative musical backwaters of Teignmouth in Devon. True, the knock on effects of mid 90s Britpop would be less powerfully felt in their small coastal hometown. To the schooldays phase of three friends trying out darkly rocking early versions of the band away from the pressures of scenes and tactics, you could throw in the now requisite information that singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist Matt Bellamy's father was in legendary 60s hit group The Tornadoes, and that his mother was a medium with a taste for the operatic rock of Queen.

That version of Muse's progress, where they fall in love with 90s alternative rock and cut the intensity with Matt's love of early 20th century classical music, does little justice to the vertiginously tiered inner workings of their music. Personal histories and genre reference points are unreliable signposts to the place that Muse have come to inhabit. Shouldn't the children of melancholy seaside resorts turn into sepia loving poets of yesteryear? Wouldn't it be normal to run in the opposite direction from parental influences? It would make as much sense for Muse to have turned into maudlin retro DJs as the vaulting psychotic metal balladeers that they've become. If the mechanisms within Muse are to be understood at all, the best we're going to get is glimpses via Matt. "Irrespective of whether I was doing it for other people, making music is something I would be doing anyway," he says "Because there's a unique feeling that I get when I'm playing music. I think it could be one of the most pleasurable things, in terms of whatever's going on. For me it's something that's always been good, something that makes everything else seem unimportant.

"It's not just a case of personal pleasure - that makes it seem like it's a pleasing activity which releases endorphins. It's not like that. Making music effects the way I perceive everything and it gives me balance in my own reality. It's something that I can't really explain very well."

While so much allegedly modern rock music has given up the struggle to express anything new or complex, preferring to stick with preordained codes, Muse persist in attacking the genre as if it was unbreakable. Happily steered by three musicians with extraordinary technical skills, Bellamy, bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard have been able to operate on a larger scale - a rock band with the cheek and grand foolishness to believe there are no restrictions, and few no go areas. They are the least mundane band on the planet. To the delight, perplexity and sometimes annoyance of the listening world, their records have consistently been extreme and extravagant flights of the imagination. Three albums down the line they show no sign whatsoever of bowing to the pressure of low expectation.

If 1999's 'Showbiz' was the initial unfiltered statement of intent and 2001's 'Origin Of Symmetry' was Muse finding their feet on a larger musical stage, now comes 'Absolution', the bands most fully realised work yet. "'Showbiz' was all constructed whilst we were in Teignmouth together without any schedule or record company, without any of that vibe, and so we were just making music as we liked making music," reflects Dom. "So I think the first album you can probably hear that represents us as we were and who we were. I think the second album was very much that stage of confusion of getting record deals and travelling everywhere and not really knowing who you are, I think 'Origin Of Symmetry' represents that kind of feeling of confusion and not really know what's going on.

"I think we knew that anything we were going to do after the second album we'd need to really find out who we are now, and to do that we needed to go back to making music for ourselves in our own space. And when you're making music and going home afterwards, or spending a few days a week here and then all going home, the music takes on a more personal feeling and I think you can hear that on this album." adds Chris.

Muse took a considered route to album three. After ending 2002's heavy touring at Reading and Leeds festivals they set up their own studio in Hackney, East London and gradually began writing songs. The first sessions for 'Absolution' took place at the end of 2002 in Air studios, working with Paul Reeve, who produced their first EPs. Here they brought in a full orchestra and after headed down to Sawmills in Devon for some finishing touches. Having then been contacted by US producer Rich Costey (Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave, Fiona Apple, Mars Volta, Phillip Glass) they moved on to Grouse Lodge in Ireland and eventually L.A., with Costey producing. The orchestras were set aside in favour of a less ornate approach and concentrating on song arrangements.

Having yet to reach a point of stasis in their own lives and finding that global events were changing the world around them, the band had no shortage of songwriting inspiration. Complete sonic re-invention could be thought about later. For album three there was enough to do, perfecting, enhancing and extending their body of work. "Everywhere you move you're taking into consideration loads of previous styles musically have existed, whether it was a hundred years ago or a few years ago or whatever, " says Matt. "You're assimilating all of those different paradigms and trying to make some kind of new paradigm that makes sense of all of them, of course mixed with modern ideas as well. I think that's what generally creating stuff is about for me.

"And I think we established a certain sound on the last album and I think on 'Absolution' there are some songs that are continuations, but we tried to take the ideas to a higher level. A song like 'Stockholm Syndrome' could be similar to stuff on the last album but it's more evolved. But there are also songs on this album that have completely new ideas. Songs like 'Endlessly', 'Blackout', 'Butterflies And Hurricanes', 'Hysteria' - those kinds of songs are definitely like nothing we've done before."

'Absolution' is clearly the product of three mid twenties musicians at the height of their powers, determined to push their aesthetic all the way. It opens with the Armageddon drums and crazed piano drama of 'Apocalypse Please', with Matt at full stretch, proclaiming the end of the world. From baroque panoramas depicting the madness of fanaticism they cut to slinky feline hyper emotional rock 'Time Is Running Out' and then part the curtains on the dreamy, filmic, macabre love song 'Sing for Absolution'. With 'Stockholm Syndrome' they lock into the cyber-punk-fugue mode, Matt hurling grand piano against the wall of guitars. The softly ticking tenderness of 'Falling Away With You' provides respite, before 'Hysteria's Bach-bassline'd haute grunge stomp.

With 'Blackout' they slide into an orchestral waltz fit for Covent Garden (in the year 2030), followed by an opening out into the synth and string driven optimism of 'Butterflies And Hurricanes' (featuring the world's only Rachmaninov style rock-house breakdown), and the warm organ groove of 'Endlessly', a song that you might think to be under the influence of electronic pop, if it wasn't by the 'doomy cyber rock band' Muse. From grooves and highly human emotions they take you on a thrilling ride down an Escher's worth of spiral staircase guitars - 'Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist', plunge into the dirty riffs and anger of 'TSP' and float to the fade with the eerie 'Rule By Secrecy', leaving in their wake just a dazed grand piano and sense of having travelled to the ends and back.

The musical intention for album three was to hone their art as a rock band and open up the possibilities of grooves and electronics (Matt: "I'm actually interested in the cheesier side of that area,") whilst also investigating where they could go with "large ensembles, orchestras, choirs." The thought processes behind the lyrics were more reactive, possibly more visibly reportage based than has happened before. If Matt's tendency to follow thought processes to the edge of reason, and then leap, had previously given the impression that warmth and humanity were not his style, there is much on 'Absolution' to contradict that view. Global wars and new emotional territory have their effect.

"I came out of a six year relationship and entered into a new relationship, that was a pretty major thing for me," he explains. "And world events played a reasonably large role too. There was a moment of panic and fear, and I think everyone that lives in London can probably relate to that. I think that was having an impact on what was happening with the album. We're not an intensely political band or anything, but when things like that are happening, you can't ignore it and it influences the way you feel about life and the world.

"It creates feelings of mistrust for the people in power, feelings of extreme mistrust of what is the media, government, secret government etc - that feeling of helplessness, that's where the more extreme moments of fear and panic and apocalyptic feelings are coming from. How that feeds into the other personal angle is that I suppose in that situation, you look at the things that are really important to you, friends, family, freedom of thought or whatever, and maybe you start to realise the importance of those things that maybe you didn't see before.

"At the same time listening to music by bands like The Flaming Lips and Romantic/Early modern Classical Music made me realise that it is possible to make music that goes beyond everyday life and beyond life in general, something timeless that speaks about existence and can still be related to after the composers death... I'm not saying that's we are doing, but maybe what we are trying to do. I think it is possible to find something on a more spiritual level, which is something I've never really considered before, because I'm not really a spiritual person, but I have started to consider those things maybe for the first time whilst making this album."

...And the 'Absolution' that's being sought? Musing on love, loss, finality and fanaticism may have brought Matt to a less science-fixated, empirical understanding of the world, but he is hardly ripe for conversion. "I think the absolution is not necessarily a religious word," says Matt. "It has meanings of purity, but its not necessarily talking from a Christian or any particular religious point of view. I think it's just suggesting that the act of making music is a way of understanding things."

Unwilling to settle for the option of being simply brilliant exponents of a particular genre, Muse insist that their music is a personal tool, a prism through which to make sense of the world. That doesn't mean they're unable to see the moments where (particularly on stage) the intensity touches on absurdity. They're intentionally over the top at times. But oddly for a band with serious thought processes behind what they do, they are low on contrivance. Muse are not acting rhapsodic mind-fire rock. They are not 'showbiz'. They were always like this. It's innate. It's meant. None of the genius in the earlier phases could have manifested itself without the attitude that pervades everything they do - an attitude of this could do more, say more, go further, faster, heavier, sweeter.

You can hear the will to push things further in all of 'Origin Of Symmetry'. It's probably what got that album's big single 'Plug In Baby' drilling into the album charts in spring 2001 and what lead them to cover the Nina Simone classic 'Feeling Good' reinterpreting the song for a new generation. Its why 'Sunburn' from the first John Leckie produced album 'Showbiz' grabbed everyone's attention, and first pushed the band in front of the UK media at the start of 2000.

The need to make something beyond what's expected was why they were plucked from gigging in bars and small clubs in Devon, given the keys to the best recording studio in the vicinity, signed a worldwide record deal with Taste Media, were flown out to America and penned a licensing deal within days. Its how it came about that Mushroom took them on in the UK, and Japan and Europe fell for them turning them into one of the biggest festival draws and arena bands. It would be the driving force behind live shows which make you think you've witnessed the start of a new era in extreme rock stagecraft, and conclude that anyone who can play uber-flash guitar as dazzlingly as Bellamy while bouncing off the drum kit must actually be an alien.

Whether it's ambition, hauteur, super-competitiveness, curiosity or just low boredom thresholds, Muse have always had it and for the exact duration of time that it's necessary to buy their records, they always will. Their heretical momentum is showing no sign of letting up. There they go, up in the sky, a silver flying v, on a mission to explode the myth of English meekness and reserve. "I think that the greatest rock music in the past has been from England, and I think that if I was going to say something positive or hopeful about Muse it would be that we want to be that, to do that, to prove that England isn't just about soft stuff, and that there's more to English life than that.

"I don't really know many English bands that do rock music of a relatively modern nature, and I think that we're definitely trying to, not necessarily go against it, but prove that there is a lot more to it. A lot of what has been rock oriented in the last ten years in England, the extremely original stuff has been very mellow, the rockier stuff has been old, 'dadrock', retro, and I think its about time there was an English rock band that was bold enough to actually be a rock band and not hide behind old established genres or hide behind self-consciousness."

Look no further. Muse are overhead now.

[quote, review from]


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