Muse - Download Festival, Donnington Park
Muse conquer the doubters with a dark'n'stormy set at the metal weekender
Earlier today, as Muse drummer Dom Howard excitedly snapped Instagram pics side-of-stage, Mike Patton of reunited alt-metal legends Faith No More wiggled his hips, pouted his lips and strutted down the Download catwalk. “Ego ramp!” he yelled gleefully, scarcely veiling his sarcasm towards self-serious metal artistes. Two hours later, Matt Bellamy bursts onto the same catwalk for his first ever Download headline set, pouncing and thrashing with such glamboyant fervour that he slips and falls in a heap mid-riff. And therein lies Muse’s wizardry: you want to hate them, ridicule their delirious hubris, but then, what’d be the point? They’ve already done it for you.
In Matt’s defence, it’s been pissing it down all day at Donington Park. Clasping amateur roll-ups and smuggled wine, sweaty teen metal heads stomp through the slosh, punctuating exclamations with hearty “sir!”s and “m’lady!”s. Joining the throng are weekend Satanists, antisocial renegades with goatees trimmed just so. Casuals and diehards wear hoodies adorned with anguished skulls, wraithlike figures and fiery orbs brandished by hellish messengers. A posse of grey-bearded overlords wander past in black ponchos, looking alarmingly like Death Eaters. It all feels strangely romantic, like a communion of misfits in love with their own mortality.
So what about Muse – illuminati fighters, glam-metal insurgents, a band whose chirpy, motormouth frontman once bought out his local shop’s baked beans supply, lest England’s oil suddenly run dry? Let’s be honest: the world’s their oyster. Fusing pop’s daring and reinvention with metal’s chronic heaviness, the Teignmouth trio confront childlike dreams of artistic glory with manic devotion, then become artists of those dreams. And when you’re in the fantasy business, the bigger the stage, the better.
Muse warned Download-goers this would be a “stripped back” set due to festival constraints, but that just means they’re not flying drones over everyone’s heads; with crossfire spotlights, fireworks and stagefront flamethrowers, nobody’s complaining. Bouncing onstage for ‘Psycho’, Bellamy recovers quickly from his fall, joking, “And that’s how you make an arse out of yourself!” Second ‘Drones’ track ‘The Handler’ goes down like an electric storm, its fusion of prog and heavy rock perfectly tailored to the longhaired crowd. For ‘New Born’, Bellamy grabs the guitar and assumes his trademark pose at the mic, back arched and chest tensed, as if primed for an energy ball to burst free. ‘Hysteria’ heralds euphoric scenes, before an epic suite of deep cuts – ‘Micro Cuts’, ‘Dead Star’, ‘Agitated’, ‘Citizen Erased’ – seals the deal for diehards.
A similar sense of rapture greets ‘Drones’ opener ‘Dead Inside’, a political mini-opera conspicuous for its Queen vibes even by Muse’s standards. Unfortunately, the big-screen images flickering between fighter planes and topless, robotic female bodies are far from revolutionary, and betray the pervasive sexlessness of latter-day Muse. At their best, the band mapped dazzling and contradictory extremities: alien yet primal, studious yet sexy. When the desperately seductive ‘Time is Running Out’ feeds into functional ‘Drones’ strut ‘Reapers’, you can’t help wondering if they’ve abandoned their demented flair to knock out commercial ditties for ‘Guitar Hero: The Riffening’.
After 16 years, innumerable festival headline appearances and seven increasingly batshit albums, we know the deal with Muse. They write killer singles about nebulous conspiracies, they tell interviewers that the president’s a lizard and Tony Blair did 9/11, then they walk onstage in glitter-suits and space boots and everyone goes home smiling. But there’s more to it than that, too. When Matt bows his head and sits at his chromatic piano for ‘Citizen Erased’, you glimpse the obsessive teen with a hyperactive imagination, living out a fantasy of total musical genius. As the band’s spaceship takes off into the pop stratosphere, Muse have two jobs: to keep that fantasy alive, but also to live out its absurdity, beaming back our own deranged, delusional desires. Right now, they’re making fine work of both.