Monday, January 17, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 90 - Muse

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Last week I lamented the fact that there's less crossover music between classical and popular than I would like. This week's artist provides another bridge between the two worlds, albeit in a completely different manner. Where the Moody Blues utilized immaculately produced orchestral flourishes, Muse is wilder, like a hunter in the Musical Jungles that grabs old classical themes by the throat and wrestles them to the ground. Their use of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D, for example, is filled with life and vigor, a nice change for a piece of music that has been utilized as cliched background music for the past 300 years. 

I can appreciate that. Muse doesn't mess around with any subtlety or restraint in their music - pretty much every song is balls-to-the-wall howling back by synthesized arpeggios and wailing guitar. Even the "soft" tracks sound like they're about to explode at any time.

Last Monday, this was great. By this Sunday, I'm a little tired of it. 

One of the things I've noticed during this project is that certain types of music are better suited for a week of sustained listening than others. A lot of music that I find boring or unremarkable upon the first spin grows on me throughout the week; in many ways, the parameters of this project reward those kinds of music with a lot to discover on each listen. 

Muse, however, is one of those bands (like the Smashing Pumpkins or Queens of the Stone Age) that leave me exhausted at the end of the week. It's not that I don't like them. I found the band's albums to be a lot of fun. But listening to Muse for at least an hour a day for seven days straight starts to take a toll. With music this big, sometimes you need a breather. 

So, in many ways, the band this week almost felt too big for me to swallow. But I'll certainly be returning at a later date, once the contents have had some time to settle.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Muse songs are on the radio every once in a while, and I think I played a version of "Knights of Cydonia" once on Guitar Hero.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Origin of Symmetry (2001) every day this week. I also listened to Absolution (2003) and Black Holes and Revelations (2006) three times each, and Uprising (2009) once.

WHAT I LIKED: There's a lot to like on the earlier Muse albums, which tend to be more oriented toward hard rock. The band does a good soft-to-loud crescendo on a lot of their tracks, and their heavy riffs are the perfect punctuation to to Matt Bellamy's impressive vocal talents (see: "Micro Cuts"). And, as I mentioned above, "Plug-In Baby" is a refreshing take on Bach.

But while there's plenty to appreciate on Origin of Symmetry (and the similar Absolution), I found myself really drawn to Muse's latest two albums, which move from hard rock into the realm of pompous grandeur.  Black Holes and Revelations is a bizarre album, ludicrously over-the-top. It's also a hell of a lot of fun, partially because it's pretty much impossible to take this album seriously at all. If bands are going to aspire to symphonic extravagance, I'd rather they go all the way. Muse certainly does.

Black Holes and Revelations takes the core of Muse's hard rock aesthetic puts it in different costumes; hence, the piano-pop song "Starlight," the monstrously bass-heavy disco-thump of "Supermassive Black Hole", the Morricone-tinged western "City of Delusion" all somehow sound like the product of the same band despite the hodgepodge of styles. This album finds the band reveling in their pretensions, truly embracing the overwrought and grandiose to the point that it's almost grotesque. It's the musical equivalent of a summer science-fiction popcorn flick (complete with the space-age sound effects), the perfect guilty pleasure. You can tell the band had a lot of fun putting this together, and I prefer the bizarre and inexplicable pieces on this album to the regular old hard-rock of the earlier discography.

If possible, The Resistance is even more flamboyant, with the album crafted around some sort of nerdy conspiracy theory that I can't even begin to unpack. "United States of Eurasia/Collateral Damage," a strange Queen-meets-Chopin epic, wouldn't be out of place in a Vegas lounge show, and with the final three-tracks, Muse tackles the final exam of all aspiring prog rockers: the multi-part suite. With song titles like "Exogenesis: Symphony Part 2 (Cross-Pollination)," I'd say they pass with flying colors.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Can I confess something? Especially on Origin of Symmetry and Absolution, a lot of Muse sounds the same to me. I listened to Origin of Symmetry seven times this week, and it's still hard for me to differentiate the tracks in my mind - each one has Bellamy loudly crooning over a similarly heavy bass-and-drums riff. Maybe I packed too much Muse into this week, but it all started to blend together, which could be why I preferred the later albums. For example, neither song is bad, but what's so different about the six-minute loud/soft variations of "Space Dementia" and the six-minute loud/soft variations of "Citizen Erased"? Muse almost has their formula down a little too well on the early albums.

Similarly, I wish the band had done a little more with structure. It's as if Muse hunts down these great hooks, but never manages to tame them. The band throws out riff after riff, but (especially on the early albums) never ties them together in a compelling way. Many of the tracks feel aimless - it's as if the band realizes that they can do whatever they want in the middle of a song as long as they begin with softly building arpeggios and end with a chord slowly dying away (see: "Falling Away With You" and "Butterflies and Hurricanes," among others).

So riffs are thrown out everywhere, but the band isn't really trying to tie them together to make a coherent song, as if the band is ad libbing as they go. It makes for a rather schizophrenic experience. (Here's guitar! Piano! More guitar! Synthesizers! Now there are laser sounds!) If they sat down for a five-minute brainstorming session and worked out bridges, segues and transitions (instead of jumping randomly from theme to theme), their songs would sound a lot better to my ears. If you're going to have these aspirations to be a rock symphony orchestra, you need to have the songwriting skills to back it up. As it stands, the band has good ideas that trickle out in a very messy fashion.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's Muse's first album, Showbiz (1999), but no one seems to talk much about that. If I go further into their discography, it will probably be to check out their live albums, as a lot of people seem to agree that the band puts on an excellent show.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Knights of Cydonia"


This is one of their early tracks that did stand out to me.