Muse‘s eighth album is their first since the conclusion of their trilogy of ever more ridiculous concept albums – The Resistance, The 2nd Law and Drones – and it seems the perfect time for the band to tilt off on a new direction. For, in retrospect, The Resistance was where it all started going a bit wrong for Muse. It marked the point where things stopped being impressively ambitious, and just started to become a tad ludicrous.
For it may seem hard to believe now, but there was a time when Muse could be an exhilarating musical prospect, especially in the live arena. Origin Of Symmetry, Black Holes And Revelations and Absolution were the perfect marriage of Matt Bellamy’s pop sensibility and his more outré passions. Then along came The Resistance, with its Chopin-inspired instrumentals, titles like United States Of Eurasia and a three-part epic called Exogenesis Symphony, whose silliness of title was only matched by the dullness of its music.
By the time the trio were flying actual drones around arenas, and singing lyrics that even the most rabid conspiracy theorist would discount as being “a bit much”, it had all become a bit too silly, and maybe the world was starting to move on. So, it comes as a bit of a relief to report that Simulation Theory is something of a reboot – for once, it’s not a concept album, and for the first time in a while, they’ve toned down the bombast and some unlikely names such as Dr Dre collaborator Mike Elizondo and Timbaland have been drafted in to provide some lighter, pop sensibilities.
Yet this has produced a kind of halfway house, which sounds oddly flat – and absolutely everything about the album, from the horrifically garish cover art (designed by Stranger Things artist Kyle Lambert, which looks like a rejected blueprint for Ready Player One) to the tinny synths that dominate the record, is horribly dated. This may have worked a few years ago, when Cliff Martinez‘s soundtrack for the film Drive ushered in a wave of retro-futurist acts, but in 2018 it’s just a bit tiresome. So the opening to Algorithm ambles along like a rejected candidate for another Tron reboot, and a dreaded vocoder is resurrected for Something Human, a ballad about the trials that being a famous rock star touring the world can take on your romantic life.
There are some bright spots along the way though. Propaganda is probably the standout song, a monstrously shuddering slice of funk, with Bellamy adopting his best Prince-like falsetto, while Pressure will appeal to Muse fans of old, all heavy guitar riffs and big, spiralling choruses. The inclusion of Shellback among the album’s many producers will raise eyebrows amongst hardcore Muse fans, given that he’s best known for producing pop artists like Britney Spears, Ariana Grande and Pink, but his track Get Up And Fight is almost retro-Muse, an old-school anthem that could have come direct from Showbiz.
Yet much of Simulation Theory is very much Muse-by-numbers, from the hackneyed lyrics about possibly living in a simulation (which sounded out of date a year after The Matrix was released, never mind 19 years afterwards), and mentions of “true believers” and “revolution” on the dirge-like Thought Contagion, to the colourless filler of tracks like Blockades and The Void which make the album’s second half an especially trying listen.
Despite each track being relatively short (by Muse’s standards), Simulation Theory also seems to go on forever – and that’s without even venturing into the ‘super-deluxe’ version, featuring the album’s songs rejigged into ‘alternative reality’ versions, acoustic versions, and, ahem, ‘acoustic gospel’ versions. There’s obviously still an audience for Muse, given by the size of the venues they still sell out, and this will definitely please the die-hards, but most of Simulation Theory simply fizzles out without leaving much of an impression.