Black Holes and Revelations – you don’t get album titles bigger than that. Muse, the most flamboyantly inventive band to emerge from the British isles since Queen, are well able to live up to their self-set high expectations. The band’s fourth record somehow is even bigger than its predecessor Absolution – a monstrously grandiose, ridiculously gargantuan and stunningly inventive work from start to end.
Take A Bow gets things off to a sinister, foreboding start with orchestral synth arpeggiations and Matt Bellamy’s distorted vocals, giving vent to lyrics that rail against leaders who send soldiers to die. “You’ll burn in Hell for your sins,” he informs them, and while the subject is serious its execution is not a little amusing. And then we’re in a 1980s film soundtrack as scored by Dr Moog for a verse or so, and then it explodes into huge guitars a la Queen circa Flash Gordon. As beginnings go, this is breathtaking.
Starlight doesn’t match it and sounds rather ordinary by comparison, but then comes the hip-grinding, super-funky Supermassive Black Hole, the band’s biggest hit to date, where bassist Chris Wolstenholme gets to underpin Bellamy’s Prince-like falsetto with treated backing vocals. The effect is of an opera diva trapped in a dalek costume. A huge, buzzy synth bass and extra drums back up the Muse rhythm department and it’s impossible not to sway along to Bellamy’s fruit loop thoughts of superstars being sucked into supermassive galactic phenomena… and of surreptitiously melting glaciers.
Map Of The Problematique maintains the quality barometer. A universe-sized anthem with a frenetic synth-led bass, whenever it could get a little samey something else happens, especially with endlessly inventive drum patterns. Lyrically it’s all about single syllable words though, an odd and repeating characteristic of a band so virtuoso in every other respect.
Soldier’s Poem reminds the world that Bellamy can do quiet and intimate as well as hollering bombast, with arpeggios played on acoustic guitar to the surrounding sound of warm, twinkly bells and Queen style backing vocals. It’s short and really rather sweet as he laments “there’s no justice in the world and there never was”.
Invincible takes the militaristic theme further with drumming that sounds like an approaching army’s march under lushly played floating electric guitar notes that call David Gilmour to mind before it descends into a pedals and FX created melee in the verses. Just when there shouldn’t be room for any more inventiveness in one song, Bellamy all but sets fire to his guitar, reminding the world that he really is a top notch guitar player in his own right (as well as singer, pianist, composer…).
Assassin is this record’s counterpoint to Absolution’s Stockholm Syndrome, the heaviest rock moment, while Exo-Politics gets perilously close to hair metal.
And then, extraordinarily, it all goes Tex-Mex, complete with mariachi style trumpet in City of Delusion. Ennio Morricone soundtracking an adventure in space, anyone?
A Muse album wouldn’t be complete without Bellamy reminding us of his breathtaking command of piano too – he’s obviously not forgotten Rachmaninov entirely as he unleashes piano beyond the bombastic on the quiet-loud of Hoodoo.
Aptly, the 45 minutes of music (it seems shorter) concludes with the most fully realised Muse vision yet, Knights of Cydonia. It’s that Flash Gordon space camp rock guitar again, but over what could be a soundtrack to a futuristic film of alien hordes overwhelming a baking hot border badlands town. Robert Rodriguez need only ask for a soundtrack.
To define Muse as a rock band is to neither do them justice or acknowledge the scale of the cranked-up musical achievement here, a vision that encompasses electro, classical and spaghetti western. Black Holes and Revelations is, lyrics aside, hugely energetic, inventive and entertaining, and a colossal candidate for one of the albums of the year.