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Muse: Simulation Theory Review, Louis Key

Simulation Theory is the eighth studio album by British alternative rock band Muse. It was released on 9th November 2018, preceded by the release of five singles: Dig Down, Thought Contagion, Something Human, The Dark Side and Pressure. The album itself, although clearly influenced visually, and to an extent audibly, by 1980’s popular culture, revolves around the idea that we are all living in an artificial computer simulation—known as ‘Simulated Reality’ or ‘Simulation Hypothesis’; hence lyrics such as “life is a broken simulation” and “we are caged in simulations”. However, the album is not afraid to deviate from this theme with more generically themed songs and experimental sounds—with some much more effective than others.

The album has already stirred up much controversy and has seemed to polarise the band’s massive fanbase. Arguably, the divide between hardcore fans and casual listeners has never been so poignant. This divide is, in my opinion, not just a consequence of the release of Simulation Theory but the general shift away from their classic style in favour of appealing more mainstream algorithms.

Simulation Theory begins with the track, Algorithm, which like many previous Muse starting tracks, sets the tone for the whole album, with many synthesised elements and lyrics that introduce the premise of the album. I shall begin optimistically; the track begins with a harsh beat and swelling, rippling, throbbing synth layer that gradually climbs up in pitch before being plunged back down. This ascending synthesised section begins to sound more and more like 8-bit every time I give this track a listen, adding to the vintage vibe of the album as a whole. Also, the utilisation of piano in this section gives the song a raw charm, a refreshing authenticity. The track is masterfully composed and although the track takes an exhausting one and a half minutes to reach the first lyric, when the singing actually begins, my complaints seem to fizzle out into obscurity. Matt Bellamy’s vocals are tremendously powerful and genuinely iconic in some parts of this song—namely the falsetto in the last thirty seconds. Indeed, even the lyrics themselves, despite Muse’s track record of underwhelming, generic and often cheesy lines, were meaningful while also avoiding over-ambiguity. Such lyrics as, “we are caged in simulations” are clear references to the main theme of the album and when Bellamy belts out the line, “push us aside and render us obsolete”, this is a concept that most likely resonates with the band—the idea that society is becoming more and more automated and as a result dehumanised. There is also an alternate reality version of this track on the album and it doesn’t make any radical changes to the song other than making it more cinematic and epic-sounding. I could easily see this version being used as the soundtrack to a movie in the trailer or final credits. In fact, I think I might prefer the alternate reality version.

The second track on the album is The Dark Side—a song very similar to Algorithm in its aesthetics with both making extensive use of synths. However, the main distinction between Algorithm and The Dark Side is that the latter also makes use of guitar while the former seems to neglect it, for the most part. This also means, generally, The Dark Side has a higher tempo, and this fits well with the theme of escape suggested by lyrics such as “break me out” and “set me free” and even the official music video which features Matt Bellamy driving like a bad-ass in a Tron-like setting trying to flee from a colossal robot. The tone created by the mixing of electronic sounds and guitar riffs is unexpectedly ethereal and unsettling. This unnerving atmosphere is also a product of the tenuous, whispering echoes of lyrics throughout the track. Out of all the tracks from Simulation Theory, I think The Dark Side is the most memorable, solid and overall best fit into Muse’s impressive discography. I also think it is by far the least controversial track released by Muse in the album as it appeals to newer, more modern listeners with its of electronic facets, while keeping long-term, hardcore fans happy with the impressive bass work by Chris Wolstenholme and Matt Bellamy’s renowned vocal style and lead guitar talent. The alternate reality version of The Dark Side is a far cry from the original and seems to replace the iconic synthesised layers with a solitary, reverberated piano playing broken, arpeggiated chords. This emptiness gives this version a solemn, melancholy feel, further distancing it from the original—in a good way.

Then comes Pressure, another single already released before the rest of the album. Whereas the two tracks before it were very similar in their sound and style, Pressure sounds very different. Instead of a cinematic experience equipped with impressive falsettos and epic crescendos, Pressure is a much more light-hearted, fun and groovy track, with awesome guitar riffs throughout, showing why Matt Bellamy is widely considered a master with an electric. This song is much more rock and roll than retro, electric synthwave. Indeed, Pressure seems like a modern version of Supermassive Black Hole from Black Holes and Revelations. The alternate version of Pressure features the UCLA Bruin Marching Band and is a really fun song to listen to, though I wouldn’t pick it over the original.

The fourth track on Simulation Theory is unique to say the least. Propaganda is a funky, Panic Station-esque experimental effort. Experimenting seems to be a reoccurring theme in the album, like it was in their sixth studio album from 2012, The 2nd Law and to an extent their 2015 release, Drones. Muse’s fondness of experimentation in recent years doesn’t do much to mend the gap between their hardcore fanbase and new followers. The track begins with a jarring, stuttered lyric “pro-pro-pro-pro-pro-pro-pro-pro-pro-pro-paganda” steeped in distortion, with the words eventually degenerating into the original instruments used. This is especially apparent in the acoustic version of the song, which strips all the supporting elements and makes the chorus even more outlandish. I found this line, in both versions, to be extremely obnoxious the first few times I heard it, but I learned to tolerate and eventually appreciate it. The lyrics are quite bizarre and upon first listening, seem to have little meaning. I can’t say I have worked out exactly what they mean by some of their more cryptic lines at this point, such as “I’m the ocean, you’re an oil slick.” The song really oozes charisma though and I must admit, I couldn’t help but move to the infectious beat.

Following the idiosyncratic Propaganda, is the equally unconventional Break it to Me, which seems to resemble funk metal. It begins with a seemingly out-of-tune assault of a guitar, for want of a better word. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I really like the heaviness of the guitar throughout and I think it complements the lyrics almost perfectly. Some of the vocals in this track resemble rapping more than Bellamy’s usual singing style with their high tempo and erratic backing beat to accompany them. The use of the wavy, extraterrestrial-sounding synth in the background and melismatic vocals (which remind me of the melody of United States of Eurasia) is incredibly enjoyable to listen to and are, in my opinion, the highlights of this song. There is a remixed version as a bonus track, but it seems just to be a wild experiment, which, in my opinion, is not successful.

Next on the album is Something Human, a blend of acoustic guitar and light synth which truly is, as Bellamy himself called it, their “soft side”. Throughout the song, Bellamy’s vocals seem restrained and the sound effects especially in the chorus with the word “human” triggering a variety of electronic sounds.  This track is hugely disparate to the usual theatrically impactful style of Muse and has certainly divided the band’s fanbase since its release as a single some time before the release of the album. Generally, Something Human is underwhelming in its lack of substance, especially when considering its enthusiastic promotion as a stand-alone single. I prefer the acoustic version for its intimate, unaltered allure.

Thought Contagion is the seventh track on Simulation Theory, and like a handful of others was released as a single prior to the album’s release. This song, however, was met with much more of a positive reaction and that’s entirely justified. Thought Contagion is perhaps the most iconic track on the album and its unique and memorable sound is the reason for this. The descending chromatic scale, most prevalent at the beginning of the track, is reminiscent of gothic pieces such as the overture to The Phantom of the Opera. The use of the eerie, supernatural synthesiser throughout further creates a gothic mood and the tune is easy to hum along to, making this song one of the most accessible to a wider audience, including casual listeners. The music video that accompanies the track is also memorable and similar to Thriller by Michael Jackson, further adding to the nostalgic feel of the album and its promotional material. There is a live version of Thought Contagion as a bonus track, but it is nothing to get excited about.

The eighth track on the album is possibly the most controversial. Get up and Fight is essentially an inspirational pop song posing as a Muse song. The band has experimented with pop elements in the past with some significant success (Mercy, Madness and Undisclosed Desires come to mind) but this one was just too extreme a diversion from Muse’s classic style in my opinion. It still retains the quality of Bellamy’s vocals and is by no means a bad song, however Bellamy’s vocals are not what this song will be remembered and, in many cases, resented for. In fact, the track begins with backing vocals from Swedish electropop singer, Tove Lo, which to most fans is not something to appreciate. It seems like something one could hear on the radio on the way back from a busy day at work. Muse, in this track, demonstrate what they have to offer to a mainstream audience, and, to me, it lacks any of the band’s unique charisma which made them such a hit.

Then comes Blockades—one for the hardcore fans. The opening of this track sounds incredibly like that of Muse’s 2001 hit, Bliss with its use of synthesised arpeggios. The rest of the track resembles Knights of Cydonia in its build up, Map of the Problematique with its iconic drum beat and The Handler in some sections. The song also makes good use of impactful power chords where possible and that contributes to it being generally heavier than most of the tracks on Simulation Theory. Blockades isn’t anything groundbreakingly original, but it is definitely a powerful song which is well worth listening to with the lyrics, “these blockades must fall” and the repeated “crush” hitting the spot perfectly in terms of emotion and creating a memorable experience.

The penultimate song on Simulation Theory is Dig Down, another single previously released, this time back in May 2017, almost a year before any other song on the album. This notably early release meant fans already had a reason to love or hate Muse’s new direction depending on their opinions on Dig Down; it was, after all, released entirely on its own with no backup. The initial reaction was mixed, with the negatives tending to outweigh the positive reactions. Since then, the song has grown on me personally, and clearly on many others as it is not criticised almost as heavily as it was prior to the album’s release. It is a solid track, starting with trembling dubstep, reminiscent of the experiments of The 2nd Law, and building up into an inspirational call to “dig down and find faith”. The backing beat throughout remains pretty reserved even into the last chorus when Bellamy’s vocals pick up and become beautifully harmonic. Luckily, the problem of the majority of the track lacking in passion is resolved with the bonus acoustic gospel version. Not only does the use of acoustic guitar give the track a more relatable, raw emotion, the incorporation of the choir, ensures every chorus is powerful up to the final “faith”.

Finally, there is The Void, a spine-chilling, cinematic experience to end the album fittingly. This track combines reverberating electronic elements with deep, emotive vocals by Bellamy. Generally, The Void evokes solemnity and desolation especially with the repetition of the sombre-sounding, “they’re wrong”, with occasional, temporary bursts of optimism when, for example, Bellamy blasts out the line “it takes a leap of faith.” There is also an acoustic version, but it doesn’t add much of substance as the original is already extremely charismatic. Muse’s habit of ending albums strongly is certainly continued with the closing track of Simulation Theory and with the over four and half minute run time, this track is nostalgic in its similarity to the Exogenesis Symphony, which, ironically, also closed an album.

In summary, Simulation Theory seems symbolic of a new era of Muse. A Muse not afraid to experiment with new styles and instruments. A Muse that confidently dances on the edge of turning mainstream while also seeming to be ready to return to their classic sound any second. A Muse that intentionally polarises its fanbase and takes encouragement from controversy. Indeed, Muse has come a long way since their early grungy days. While some fans may say their evolution, with recent releases such as The 2nd Law, Drones and now Simulation Theory, has simply been an unoriginal shift towards the mainstream, like so many so-called ‘alternative’ rock bands before them, others would argue the band has just been trying to find their style and adapting to cultural changes to avoid becoming stale. And I must concur, stale is something Muse can never be described as.

Editor of LLR since 2005

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