In a bid to escape boredom in the early ‘90s, three awkward teens from Teignmouth, Devon, wearing Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Nirvana t-shirts, channelled their adolescent angst – and the drive to be as weird as possible – to form what would become the institution and stadium powerhouse that is Muse.
In those early interim days of artsy grunge experimenting, they went by the names Carnage Mayhem, Gothic Plague and Rocket Baby Dolls. Muse geeks will have experienced a titter of gleeful fandom when the band adopted ‘Rocket Baby Dolls’ as their moniker in the ‘80s pastiche-themed video for recent single ‘Pressure’. Given this self-referential nod, are we to assume that Muse are looking to rekindle their past?
With the artwork of ‘Simulation Theory’ designed by Stranger Things artist Kyle Lambert, and each of the videos so far showing them entering virtual reality recreations of different times and realms, Muse are very much decamping to the imaginations of their childhood bedrooms. Following the blacker-than-black war-mongering dystopia of 2015’s ‘Drones’, they have found an escape from the mire of the here and now.
Opener ‘Algorithm’ carries all the pomp and promise of the best Muse album openers (see ‘Newborn’, ‘Apocalypse Please’ and ‘Take A Bow’), questioning the reality of a world “caged in simulations”, “rendered obsolete” by “evolving algorithms”. It’s the stuff of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror nightmares, right down to the Tron-esque ‘80s computer game meets John Carpenter soundscape. The neon escapism flows through the Depeche Mode stomp of ‘The Dark Side’, the George Michael balladry of ‘Something Human’ and eight-bit battlecry of ‘Blockades’.
As is the case with anything Muse do, there are plenty of eyebrow-raising moments on ‘Simulation Theory’. With long-time collaborator Rich Costey on production duties – he’s been leant a hand from pop and hip-hop dons Mike Elizondo (Dr Dre, Eminem), Shellback (Taylor Swift, Britney Spears) and Timbaland (Missy Elliot, Justin Timberlake) – the band have altered the route of their bombast, stepping away from operatic prog. Instead, they indulge their guiltiest pleasures.
There’s the space-age rockabilly delirium of ‘Pressure’, while ‘Propaganda’ is Muse taking the piss to the Nth degree; it’s a vision that sees Matt Bellamy attempting to sound sexy atop EDM machine gun beats and Prince-esque liquid R&B. You’ll be too ashamed to tell anyone just how much you love it. Same goes for ‘Break It To Me’, which is the sound of KoRn covering the Pussycat Dolls. Who knew we needed that? Driven by a sugary hook akin to Ann Lee’s 1999 bubblegum hit ‘Two Times’, ‘Get Up And Fight’ floats with a lightness that Muse aren’t always credited for, before clobbering you with a shameless, monolithic Eurovision-style chorus.
“They’ll say the sun is dying, and the fragile can’t be saved,” Bellamy croons on the shimmering, cinematic closer ‘The Void’, an album highlight, before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel: “But baby, they’re wrong”. Muse have found hope in another world.
Overall, no, ‘Simulation Theory’ is not blessed with the madcap class of their 2001 masterpiece ‘Origin Of Symmetry’, or the pure rock abandon of ‘Drones’. Actually, though, it’s wrong to compare this record to the band’s back catalogue. Yes, this is still Muse, but here they’re trying to be something else – well, everything else. They are avatars in a ridiculous simulation of teenage nerdery, inviting you to steal away from the nightmare, and into an electric dream.