Two months ago, Muse, or rather their record company, had a party where hacks (like yours truly) and the odd fan (like yours truly) had the privilege of a sneaky preview listen of their third album. With the album played in its entirety as the seated audience beheld a dazzling laser show on the London Planetarium’s domed roof, and after being nearly scared to death by live actors in the Serial Killers exhibition in the Chamber Of Horrors on the way out, the evening was an experience that was space-age, theatrical, at times frightening, but ultimately unforgettable.
Which just about sums up this album perfectly. Absolution is, quite simply, the most mind-boggling, grandiose and dare we say it, important, record of the year; the sort of opus that Queen might have made had they been 25 years younger and brought up on Radiohead and Metallica as well as classical music and opera. It’s overblown, outlandish but utterly compelling; that it was created by three ludicrously talented 25-year olds from Devon only adds to its otherworldliness.
After a brief Intro of a marching army’s stomp, dissonant piano proclaims the announcement of Apocalypse Please. This bold, majestic statement of intent is like a 21st century rock equivalent of Holst‘s The Planets as keyboards swirl in a Yes-please fashion, and Matt Bellamy self-evangelises: “It’s time we saw a miracle. C’mon it’s time for something Biblical.”
More plonking piano leads into the current single, Time Is Running Out, a tub-thumping rocker that gets better every time you hear it and will have you clicking your fingers with the bass line, whether you want to or not.
Things move down a notch in terms of volume for the (almost) title track, Sing For Absolution. Bellamy’s piano leads the way, creating a haunting, nigh on spooky atmosphere as his effortless falsetto floats over the top, before some understated guitar leads into another huge chorus that will have worldwide stadia-full of people singing in unison.
If Sing For Absolution was the calm, then Stockholm Syndrome is most certainly the storm – a whirlwind maelstrom of blazing guitar riffs, operatic vocals, classical piano and an incendiary rhythm section, that reads like a Bohemian Rhapsody for the Noughties, albeit a heavy metal one.
And then they toy with our emotions again. Falling Away From You starts off like a lullaby on an acoustic guitar before shifting into another killer song with expansive, cosmic instrumentation. There’s a brief, guitar-feedback Interlude, and then we’re swept into Hysteria with its massive, fuzzed-up bass line, stampeding drums and an awesome guitar riff that prog-metal legends Tool would be proud of.
If that all sounds a little more musically ambitious than the norm, then wait till you hear the next two tracks. Blackout is a Viennese Waltz, with fully orchestral, lush strings and a gentle, swinging beat. On one level it’s barking mad for a band to put a song like this after the rock behemoth before it but on another it feels strangely like genius.
Butterflies And Hurricanes, meanwhile, is another theatrical monster with more well-placed strings and a concert piano recital bunged in the middle! Forget your scantily-clad Opera Babes and Linda Bravas – this is the way to bring so-called “culture” to the “heathens”. It worked for me, anyway.
So far, so faultless. If they’d been able to keep this standard going to the end then it really would have been the miracle that Bellamy sung of back in track two. Alas, although The Small Print manages to keep up the good work with a squirming guitar riff, a thrash-pop rhythm and a chorus that sounds like T-Rex boogying with a metal band, things do tail off somewhat towards the end.
If music was a road-sign then Endlessly’s scratchy electronica would be marked: “Radiohead Kid A weirdness. Do not enter!” On the other hand, Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist (adrenalised, upbeat rock) and Ruled By Secrecy (piano with falsetto vocal accompaniment), while both being perfectly acceptable, never quite manage to ascend to the peaks of earlier.
But in the big picture of things (and faced with an album of such vaulting musical aspiration, it really is a BIG picture), these quibbles are like minor ripples in a sea of creativity.
Absolution is the sound created by three young men who have imaginations that stretch beyond the boundaries self-imposed by most of us, and, equally amazingly, who have the skill to turn their vision into a musical reality. Best of all, they’re British – even though you may sometimes wonder what planet they’re really on…