Album review: Muse reinvent themselves with the synth rock saga of 'Simulation Theory'
Muse return with a record that strays from the dark theme of their three previous concept albums and their typical sound, but pulls it off with unapolegtic swagger.
On the run-up to the release of 'Simulation Theory', Muse had no secrets about what this album was going to be about. They were feeling rather generous with the early release of singles and put out five (out of a total of eleven original songs). That's almost half the album right there. All five of them signaled the coming of a synth-heavy 80s styled record that had retro revolution written all over it. If that wasn't strong enough of a sign, each of the tracks came with a music video that echoed the same aesthetic, showing the band immersed in different realms of virtual reality.
Add to that the fact that the album art was helmed in by 'Stranger Things' designer Kyle Lambert, and it was perfectly evident what was headed our way. But do we really need another one of these circle-jerk obsessions that aims at the low-hanging fruit of nostalgia peddling?
You bet we do! And Muse's eighth studio album hits pretty much all the right sweet spots while doing so with its smart pop sensibilities, stadium-ready anthems, electronic gospels and energetic club bangers. On 'Simulation Theory', Muse takes a different route from their three previous darker themed concept albums. Following 2015's dark and dreary 'Drones', the new album is much more spritely, dancey and for the most parts, just all-out synth rock. While it still deals with a lot of heavy themes like the simulation hypothesis, the systemic oppression of the masses, and the mental exhaustion that comes with technological progress, this time, the treatment is entirely different.
The album opener 'Algorithm' is as good a start as any other Muse opener. It begins steadily with a thumping synthetic drum beat, complemented by blaring synths. Things start slowly, with frontman Matt Bellamy coming to terms with the fact that we are all living in a simulation. Dissatisfied with this life devoid of real meaning, he declares war on his creator, with thumping percussions like war drums in the background.
This slips seamlessly into the album's lead single 'The Dark Side', which immediately lifts the atmosphere with a faster tempo and winding riffs on analog synths. Bellamy's impressive tenor range shines on the catchy chorus as he cries: "Break me out, break me out / Set me free". It's the first taste of what's in store. A rebel yell against the grip of our technological overlords.
While carefully going about the "dissection of the idea that we're all just lumps of code in the shape of unusually lumpy sims", (as Bellamy put it in his own words), Muse does not leave us with a sense of defeat or anguish. Instead, the tone of the album largely remains hopeful. On the anthemic 'Thought Contagion', Bellamy references Richard Dawkins on a hook that is sure to be the new crowd favorite at future live gigs. (The Super Deluxe version of the album, in fact, has a live version on it and you can't miss the crowd's roaring singalong!)
On 'Dig Down', that hope turns to rebellion. "We have entered the fray and we will not obey / We must find a way," he sings on the chorus before the song bursts into a grand rock-operatic climax. The feeling continues with 'Get Up And Fight', which is one of the stranger offerings on the album - a carpe diem anthem drowned in the guiltiest pleasures of sugary pop goodness.
Stranger still is the Timbaland-produced 'Propaganda', the only song that feels slightly off-step with the rest of the album with its weird combination of EDM beats, R&B sensibilities, and a wild slide guitar. But Muse still pulls it off in a way that should just not be possible. A part of the credit should go to the super slick production courtesy of Mike Elizondo (Dr Dre, Eminem) and Rich Costey, and the care with which each track was handled is immediately noticeable. On the album highlight 'Something Human', Muse bridge the gap between the electronic and the human, the programmed and the organic. Fittingly, the production opens up to blend robotic synths and jangly acoustic guitars masterfully with Bellamy's croons. On listening to the stripped-back, acoustic version of the song on the Deluxe version, you instantly appreciate the production value on the original.
Although the 11 original tracks span 41 minutes, the Deluxe version of the album stretches the runtime to 1 hour with two "alternate reality" versions ('Algorithm' and 'Dark Side'), two "acoustic" reimaginations ('Propaganda' and 'Something Human') and a spellbinding "acoustic gospel" reworking of 'Dig Down'. The five extra additions are a pleasant and intriguing follow up to the slow-burning album closer 'The Void'.
Ultimately, although the band has adopted a new virtual reality avatar for 'Simulation Theory', there's no mistaking that it's still Muse underneath all the flashy embellishments. Matt Bellamy's distinctive vocal booms on the many earworm-inducing choruses is enough proof of it, especially on the 8-bit battle cry of 'Blockades', which has a hook that might remind some fans of the 2009 smash-hit 'Uprising'.
Comparing the album to Muse's canon of works would prove difficult and perhaps fruitless. That's because 'Simulation Theory' is a confident left-turn by Muse. One that says, "love it or hate it, this is what we're doing now." Many artists of their ilk have stumbled while trying to pull such a stunt (think Arcade Fire's 'Everything Now' from last year or more recently, Arctic Monkey's mangled attempt on 'Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino'.) But the platinum-selling mega rockstars have managed to pull this one off with unapologetic swagger.
And if you're still wondering why a Muse record sounds like it was put together in the 'Tron' universe in collaboration with Daft Punk, at least you can't say that you weren't warned well in advance!
Apple Music users can stream the Deluxe Version of 'Simulation Theory' in its entirety below: