Muse - Black Holes And Revelations

Holly Barnes 03/07/2006

Rating: 4/5

Muse. We know what to expect from the Devon threesome, right? Incendiary singles and reliably ostentatious live performances of space neo-prog-rock. So should Black Holes and Revelations be evidence of anything different? Well, take Muse as we know them, add galloping horses (of the apocalypse), more arpeggios than you can shake the proverbial stick at, Mexican trumpets (the best kind) and politics. Hold up, politics? Yup, there is some definite criticism of Bush and Blair here, men who must “pay for [their] crimes against the Earth”. The Iraq war and abuses of power definitely inform the mood, as do other 'big' themes: life and death, the afterlife, apocalypse, the universe and man's place in it.

According to Matt Bellamy, the original plan for Black Holes and Revelations was for it to be a grand-scale affair, but the decision was made to 'go back to basics'. Now, when a band goes 'back to basics', you might reasonably expect lo(wer)-fi production, less multi-layered songs and more minimal orchestration. Pfft, don't for one second assume this is what you will find with Muse: if this is a more stripped-back album than previously intended, the mind boggles when you think of what it might have been. With a frontman with his head firmly wedged in the clouds (literally, he owns a jet-pack fer chrissakes!) and production by Rich Costey, desk-man for Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave, Black Holes… was never going to sound like Iron & Wine. It is slick, tight and, well, ….BIG.

They've been a bit of an anomaly as a band; the influences de rigeur in the last few years have been The Smiths, Joy Division, post-punkers such as Gang of Four, etc. With no allegiance to any musical visionaries considered cool by 'the kids', what space is there for Muse in the current musical landscape? Well, if there doesn't immediately appear to be a particular NME-style 'movement' in which to box up and imprison Muse, then they are all the better for it; the band have created their own niche, become major players and remained free to adapt as a band. Current single Supermassive Black Hole is, as one fan described it, “pure sleaze: it makes me wanna fuck”. With Blue Orchid-esque falsetto vocals in the verses, distorted whispers and a sound that approaches electro, Supermassive Black Hole is self-assured, tight as hell and, yes, pure sleaze. Muse prove that space and sex go together like fish and chips, or Ant and Dec.

On first play, (excluding the single) I heard nothing that impressed me. But on fifth spin, a hand reached for the volume controls and cranked that baby up to where it should have been all along. Did I really believe I could appreciate a Muse album properly at a volume inoffensive to the neighbours? Fool, apparently I'd learnt nothing from 2001's Origin of Symmetry. It's tempting to comment that this album succeeds where it sounds most like their previous records; Map Of The Problematique and Soldier's Po em could fit well nestled into Absolution and Showbiz, respectively. The former is a catchy slab of dense sounds and driving rhythms and, not for the first time, I'm amazed at how three people can make so much noise. Map Of The Problematique should triumph at festivals, while Soldier's Po em is vastly different- a slow ballad with a clearly picked out piano melody balanced against vocals. Swelling del icate harmonies provide a more human element here, creating an intimate connection with the listener; beauty is valued over the bombast that characterises the remainder of the album.

There are a few standout tracks here; the four-song run from Starlight to Soldier's Poem provides the solid backbone of the album, but almost nothing here possesses the immediacy and excitement of prior singles like Newborn. Maybe it's the distance given by the production or maybe the band are relying on songs that slow-burn instead, perhaps into something more substantial than you realise at first. Needless to say, there is definitely filler: towards the close of Black Holes and Revelations, Assassin and Exopolitics pass pretty much without incident. I would say they are standard Muse fare, but although they tick all the boxes of the Muse-formula, they lack excitement and left this particular listener cold. Also, opener Take A Bow is underwhelming and immensely worrying as the band's introduction to a new album.

City of Delusion , however, surprises the listener after a slump in the record, with furth er muse-ing (sorry) on today's distrust of world leaders; Bell amy's lyrics seethe: “Can I believe when I don't trust/ All your theories turn to dust… Do not deny, that you live and let die”. The music is great too: it sees the diminutive frontman making the same amount of noise as a frantic string orchestra and contains a Mexican trumpet solo of which Cal exico would be envious. Things continue promisingly with Hoodoo- complete with fla menco guitar and fret runs, the end of Black Holes… providing further evidence of Muse's refusal to simply rely on their tried and tested sound. And the band are taken into Queen-type big leagues, with the galloping horses, melodramatic vocals and tremolo guitar of fan favourite Knights of Cydonia. Elsewhere, potential single Invincible builds slowly, leaning on Pink Floyd and Rick Wakeman for inspiration; mysterious keyboards and military marching drums combine in what is essen tially a love song.

Tell you what, Black Holes and Revelations might not be the album of their career, but it still has its fair share of classic Muse tracks. And I'd give my right arm to be at their forthcoming Eden Project gig. It'll be stellar, just the way they like it.