Low-key? Pah! Even without their pyro and stage tricks Matt Bellamy and co are unbeatable. Royal Albert Hall, London (May 12)
Low-key? Pah! Even without their pyro and stage tricks Matt Bellamy and co are unbeatable Kiss without the make-up. Brandon Flowers without the moustache. Iggy without the waggled wanger. Panic At The Disco without the !. Intriguing ideas, but could they ever really work? The same could be thought of Muse without the flash and flam; the pixelised bells and inflatable whistles. Their immersion in technological blitzkrieg was realised fully at Wembley; think the screens the size of the Great Wall Of China blasting out futuristic hypervisuals that could frazzle the synapses of the blind, the ballerinas suspended from floating white moons. It wasn’t so much Dancing With The Stars as dancing on them, so the idea of Muse playing a venue too small to fit their entire touring HAARP installation and playing, ye gods, a stripped-down set is a bit like Elton John having a modest 70th birthday celebration with six close friends in Colchester Pizza Express.
Yet stripped-down this is. No hydraulic satellite drum riser, no laser-spitting radar dishes, no firework fountains, not even the bubbling neon test tubes from Reading ’06. Nope, the entire stage set for tonight’s Teenage Cancer Trust show comprises a five-foot strip cut out of their usual big screen wall and spread across the back of the drum riser, showing a sliver of their usual video display – a glimpse of star-map here, a shard of marching robot’s arm there. As Muse saunter from the wings, the brightest things onstage are Dominic Howard’s puke-green trousers. Perhaps they thought it crass, a bit distracting from the message of the event, to follow the heart-tugging video of teenage cancer patients with an eyeball-exploding onslaught of dot matrix dementia, but tonight it’s left decidedly to The Rock to provide the pyrotechnics.
And The Rock devastatingly delivers. Any suggestion that Muse might defer to the majesty of their surroundings, concede victory in the grandiosity stakes to the venerable old fishbowl they’re playing and break out the acoustics and string quartets for a humble mumble through the hits is blown through the dome by the opening sturm und drang of ‘Take A Bow’. Its smoking entrails unfurling with all the doomy bombast it can muster, it grows from a techno-throb intro seemingly played on a CD walkman behind Dom’s drumkit into an operatic rock wallop as apocalyptic as any Wagnerian busomfest that’s ever buried the Albert Hall stage. They’re out to match the RAH’s stateliness and grandeur in song and suddenly you realise that this historic place, not Wembley Stadium, was built for a Muse gig; this cataclysmic clash of the classical and the rock crunch of Rachmaninoff and Rage Against The Machine.
‘Map Of The Problematique’ and its stormtrooping (Depeche) modernity. ‘Supermassive Black Hole’’s loping space funk. The ecstatic clapalong of ‘Starlight’, the pogo rampage of ‘Time Is Running Out’. These are the pop moments between which Muse pull no punches, firing out a catalogue of the last decade’s most volcanic riffs, stomporific rhythms and hyper-soprano notes only previously reached by a castrated hyena. ‘Hysteria’, ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, ‘New Born’ and the monstrous ‘Butterflies And Hurricanes’ (complete with virtuoso Busby Berkeley piano interlude, as if they’ve trodden a bit of the stadium show into the RAH stuck to the bottom of their shoes): this is 90 minutes of being dangled into the brimstone flames of Hades and having the Devil’s best tunes blown in your face. Only, y’know, a rock gig.
It’s the close-up details that make the night magical, though, the minutiae usually lost beneath the audiovisual blitz. The way that, during ‘Feeling Good’, the transparent lid of Matt’s piano reflects the strings lighting up. The knee-slides and guitar spins at the crescendo of a gargantuan ‘Plug In Baby’ or the superhuman finger-tapping solo in ‘Invincible’ that’s surely played by no man of woman born. And the way that, during one memorable solo in ‘New Born’, Matt plays so many bits of his guitar from the glowing touch pad at the bottom to the headstock at the top that you almost expect him to get notes out of the strap. Then, as if arm-wrestling the RAH for ownership of the deeds, Matt plays the entire venue itself. Spotlit in a crevice behind the stage he charges up the gargantuan church organ that takes up the entire back wall for a billowing blast through ‘Megalomania’, a monolith of funereal Spanish guitars, haunted fairground atmospherics and organ blares like God’s own pan-pipes. And, having taught the place who’s boss, That Riff from ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ impacts like a molten meteorite on to the air-punching crowd, rendering the venue little more than a crater; its primary purpose fulfilled, ready for demolition. Last night of the progs? V Festival should be shaking in its Kickers.