The inner sleeve of Muse’s second album contains an illustration by Darrell Gibbs depicting humans marching into a giant white cube. In tiny lettering above the door, a sign reads ‘CHAOS’. Welcome indeed to the beautiful nightmare world of the most distorting, cartoon intense, baroque’n’roll band that Britain has ever produced.
Here comes their razorblade stuffed-toy singer Matt Bellamy, hanging from the chandelier of his overblown musical ability, electrodes screwed into his brain, singing like a harpy on fire, playing the funeral mass organ with his toes. Here’s bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard sounding like Edvard Munch’s backing band. And here unfolds the profane, expressionist, hyper-thrilling vista feared by all those hoping the band were just Radiohead with a Freddie Mercury complex.
In two years of public life Muse have accumulated a high-pressured mythology. Half a million copies of their debut ‘Showbiz’ and one iMac advert down the line, they’ve strewn a totemic trail of destroyed equipment, confessed to a taste for mushrooms, seances and Hector Berlioz’s ‘Grande Messe Des Morts’, and announced, “If I couldn’t do this I would not want to live”.
The stakes were high. Their reinvention of grunge as a neo-classical, high gothic, future rock, full of flambéd pianolas and white-knuckle electric camp, is a precarious venture. Yet as the bloody abattoir riff kicks in on ‘New Born’, colliding with Bellamy’s fairy dreamtime piano, it’s apparent that Muse can handle their brutal arias.
Almost everything on ‘Origin Of Symmetry’ is overstated, but with Matt reined in by the constraints of a dirty rock three-piece, the operatic stuff is devastatingly channelled. ‘Bliss’ is all carnage riffs and a pleasingly corrupt lyric about innocence envy. ‘Space Dementia’ sets Bellamy’s grand piano mastery up against vaulting rock. ‘Hyper Music’ burns with a genuinely new, art punk rage.
Given the ultra-vivid tones of Muse’s palette – purity, insanity, corruption, virtual consciousness, Bach, metal and barking madness – it’s not surprising they overstep their overstepping. A happy Bellamy singing (literally) to the butterflies on ‘Feeling Good’ sits oddly, and the organ fugue finale is somewhat Hammer horror, even if the track’s called ‘Megalomania’. But relentlessly, on ‘Dark Shines’, ‘Screenager’, particularly ‘Micro Cuts’ and of course ‘Plug In Baby’, they add vicious, original serrations to the hysterical edge of extreme rock. It’s amazing for such a young band to load up with a heritage that includes the darker visions of Cobain and Kafka, Mahler and The Tiger Lillies, Cronenberg and Schoenberg, and make a sexy, populist album. But Muse have carried it off. It’s their ‘Siamese Dream’. Now begins the psychoanalysis.
Thom Yorke’s least favourite word is ‘angst’; Matt Bellamy’s is about to become ‘psychotic’. We’re the lucky ones who get to look at the pretty shapes as the blood hits the wall.