The venerable Shepherd’s Bush Empire is, for many bands, a sizeable venue. For stadium rockers Muse it is an intimate space in which to assemble competition winners – and a couple of us hacks – to witness the live birth of Black Holes and Revelations, the band’s spectacular fourth album.
There was no support at a gig billed with typical devil-may-care flamboyance as The Empire Strikes Back, just an hour and a half of the recently expanded four-piece with some of their most ardent supporters. At the entrance, some of the ticketless unfortunate begged to buy entry, offering stupid sums of money and looking as though their world would end were they not to be successful. There’s a reason why Muse usually play stadiums – they fill them. Those of us who were in could be forgiven for feeling rather fortunate.
Last time I saw Muse, they were a three-piece. Matt Bellamy stalked about the Earl’s Court stage with an angular pink coat and played a huge synthesiser contraption with lights called the Dalek. Here tonight the trimmings have been turned down a little. Bellamy’s only concession to colour is a red streak through his black locks, they in turn topping off his serious musician black outfit, while behind the visuals alternate from projected words to blocks of colour. It looks and sounds classy.
They waste no time in kicking off with new album opener Take A Bow, new keyboards man and sometime substitute bassist Morgan Nicholls creating colossally menacing electronic arpeggios, bass and additional drumming as Bellamy delivers his thinly veiled lyrical attack on certain political leaders. Impossibly the bass and electronics get bigger before exploding into a Queen-worthy prog guitar strut.
Half of the set is made up of oldies, and Bliss is the first of these, eliciting whoops from an audience already well enlivened. Another of Black Holes’ highlights, Map of the Problematique, follows and gets the whole place jumping. There’s scarcely time for Bellamy to gulp some water before Butterflies & Hurricanes, one of Absolution’s more unashamedly ambitious tracks, with Bellamy transmogrified from rock god to Rachmaninoff at his piano and back again.
Starlight, another new one, is a more prosaic affair, but Plug In Baby and Citizen Erased up the ante once more. By now the mosh pit is producing bruises by the second and the whole place is singing along, even to the new tracks.
Out wheels the shiny white piano bar-style electric piano-synthesiser, previously lurking in a corner, at which Bellamy poisedly parks himself for Black Holes’ quietest moment, Soldier’s Poem. This gets followed by the Origins of Symmetry cover of Nina Simone‘s Feeling Good. There’s even a spot of shouting through a megaphone – and it’s still sexy.
Time again to get the mosh pit frantic as Stockholm Syndrome sends the place wild, leading into military march Invincible – fists in the air for this one – and top five lead single from Black Holes, Supermassive Black Hole.
Bellamy, too often written off as a ridiculous fruit loop by some jaded hacks, shows himself capable of throwing love god shapes as well as rock star poses as he grinds against his guitar while crooning in falsetto worthy of Prince. Just when it seems it can’t get better, up pipes Hysteria. The mosh pit is now resembling a washing machine with humans as clothes set on the top spin cycle. Still it builds as frantic new track Assassin and old favourite New Born get aired.
No time to rest yet though as Absolution hit Time Is Running Out tops off a set that confirmed to any doubters that Muse remain a thrilling live act, a rock band perfectly happy to mine just about any style of music that takes their fancy and twist it into something unique.
A case in point is the encore, the sci-fi Ennio Morricone-meets-Flash Gordon canter that is Black Holes closer Knights Of Cydonia. An uplifting spaghetti western in space, it’s nothing short of sensational in a live setting.
So what if Bellamy hardly speaks during the show. Music this grandiose, ambitious, fully realised and uncompromising needs no introduction or excuse.