The Muse that drove out of Glastonbury 2004 was a very different one from the Muse that had arrived. Following seven years of near solid touring, buzzing with nervous anticipation; their escalation from being the biggest band in Teignmouth in 1997 to one of the biggest bands in Europe by 2004 had been a rocket ride but still, closing Glastonbury was a major step-up, a classic Eavis gamble, and with a weary, mud-drenched crowd facing a long Sunday night welly-trudge home even Muse themselves doubted they could pull it off. “We got offered the headline slot which scared the shit out of us to start with because we didn’t think we were big enough to do it,” says bassist Chris Wolstenhome. “The day was muddy and miserable, and as it was the end of the festival we thought people would be kind of jaded, but it was completely the opposite.”
Pull it off? They pulled it off, tied it down, strapped it to a space shuttle launch engine and blew it clear out of the galaxy. Glastonbury 2004 saw Muse storm troop onto the high table of classic Glastonbury headline acts and prove themselves a formidable force in British rock. It was only with that triumph fresh in their throats, they claim, that they realised they’d ‘made it’.
So the band that walked onto the Pyramid Stage that night was a phenomenon hitting its peak. A band that, at the age of 19, were swept out of decorating jobs into private jets and limos as the A&R pack-hunt hunt for Muse began, that spectacularly broke every rule of Proper Rock from releasing an Egyptian/funk crossover debut single (‘Muscle Museum’) to writing riffs so elaborate in their brilliance that they threatened to garrotte anyone daring to play them (‘Plug In Baby’) to rocking up Nina Simone (‘Feeling Good’). A band that have more than doubled their audience with each new album released (1999’s ‘Showbiz’ shifted 500,000, ‘Origin Of Symmetry’ hit the million mark in 2001 and 2003’s masterpiece of epic malevolence ‘Absolution’ sold twice that) and establishing themselves as the most thrilling operatic sci-fi carnival on the European arena circuit inside five years. A band that, by tearing up the Big Sheds of Europe, were themselves being torn up by The Road. “I’m sure we go through cycles,” says Matt, “like having a great time then getting jaded where the vibes are just a bit dark. But with the second coming of that cycle, we were like, ‘oh god, we’re going downhill again, we need to go home and not book a tour for a long time’.
But, “Absolution” was becoming a cult hit in the US so with the highs of Glastonbury behind them and with two sold out dates at Earls Court that Christmas to bolster their standing back home, Muse hit the mid West circuit, stripping away the arena flam and bluster and re-discovering the broiling, accident-prone three-piece beneath. “We went from playing these massive arenas in Europe to playing to 200 people in some pokey hole again,” Matt laughs. “That’s the price of getting too comfortable on large stages. But it was good to be treated like a new band over there and get that feeling of being discovered again.
Invigorated, Muse took a month off to work out where ‘home’ was - Matt relocated to a town just outside Milan, Chris and his ever-growing family remained in Teignmouth and Dom stuck about in London’s ‘trendy’ Highbury - before reconvening in summer 2005 in the bat-infested Chateau Miraval studio in a Knights Templar town in Southern France. Matt: “It reminded me, if anything, of Devon. Most of the writing process started out there, being a quieter place and truly cut off from the lifestyle we had.”
Their previous albums, they figured, were borne of necessity; hurried in the face of impending tour dates and hobbled by the need to ensure they could be played live. This time, they took a No Limits approach - no tour was booked, no studio tomfoolery was out of bounds; they were to explore the technological possibilities of the ‘studio band’. However, the equipment at Chateau Miraval was, frankly, not up to the job of recording a Muse album, so the band decamped to New York to complete the bulk of recording in the Electric Lady and Avatar studios and to soak the record with much-needed dance floor flavas. “Hendrix’s ghost was hanging around,” says Matt, “and Bowie came in for a day and said hello. That was good; to get the nod of approval from the old boy. If we’d stayed in France for the whole album it probably would’ve ended up real prog. Songs like ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ would’ve been twenty minutes long. Going to New York for some reason tightened everything up and it got more groove orientated. Songs like ‘Starlight’ and ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ and ‘Hoodoo’, they all had grooves that radically changed when we went to New York, I don’t know if that was the vibe of the city or what.”
If Muse sound like a new band on ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ it’s because, after Glastonbury, they are: expanded of mind, settled of spirit and anything but sedentary of sound. Still, some of this might come as a shock: after opener ‘Take A Bow’ takes over where ‘Absolution’ left off – all doomy celestial synths and Matt’s preacherish wails of “You will burn in hell for your sins!” – we suddenly rocket off into unexplored quadrants. ‘Starlight’ is an Abba gig on the moon, ‘Map of the Problematique’ is Depeche Mode impersonating Queen for a Bond theme and, most surprising of all, ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ is a dance floor electro-metal stomper, resembling Beck giving Marilyn Manson a helium blowback in Studio 54. Which is not to mention the triptych of Italian folk-influenced meta-country that closes the record in a flurry of flamenco frenetics and mariachi horns. ‘Absolution 2: Back To The Planets’, this most certainly is not.
For continuity, in fact, we must look to the lyrical themes, where fans of the apocalyptic soundbite, the madcap conspiracy theory, the revolutionary rabble-rousing, the weird stuff about aliens inventing all earthly religions and other such classic Muse concerns will not be disappointed. The idea that identity cards are the first sign of the onset of the end of the world? That’ll be ‘Take A Bow’, Matt: “There‘s definitely a connection to Revelations with that. It talks about a time when people will not be able to purchase anything without a number or exist without a number. Instead of going for a job interview they‘ll just swipe you. They‘ll get your medical history, your financial history, the lot.”. The theory that the Earth is actually an expanding sphere, being sucked towards the gigantic black hole at the centre of the universe (as emotional metaphor)? ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, mate.
The fear of our civilisation going the way of the Roman Empire? Check out surf-prog album closer ‘Knights Of Cydonia’. The loss of hope in the face of unjustifiable wars? It’s all there in the central duo of ‘Soldier’s’ Poem’ and ‘Invincible’. And as for ‘Exo-Politics’… “That’s about the possibility of an orchestrated alien invasion created by the New World Order,” Matt argues, utterly without the aid of hard drugs. “There are some people who think that in the next ten years there’ll be an orchestrated alien invasion. Not an invasion but aliens will appear. Not appear but there’ll be discussions about it. There are definitely some funny things going on. A whole load of things, which, if you add them all together, add up to the feeling that something big is going to happen in the next ten years. You can look at it all and get overwhelmed with fear or you can look at it all and say it’s all being orchestrated as a way to keep people down.”
Well quite. But whereas ‘Absolution’ gazed on helplessly at the subjugation of humanity by corrupt world leaders and encroaching environmental or galactic disasters (and certainly, ‘Black Holes And Revelations’ has its fair share of climate change/oil crisis/global inflagration paranoia), on the new album’s pivotal track ‘Assassin’ Bellamy appears to be calling for nothing short of a global revolution – “Shoot your leaders down/And join forces underground…. Destroy demonocracy”.
“I think we’re approaching that time,” Matt nods. “If you look at those protests in France, the size and level of protest doesn’t really relate to what they’re protesting about. I think there’s something underneath that people are feeling, particularly the younger generation. We feel like we’ve been born into some pre-created situation where we don’t actually have any control over anything. We’ve got an aging population as well and that control factor grates a little bit. I feel, through this album, that I’m feeling pessimistic and frustrated about it all but at the same time I’m not against revolutionary moves and I wouldn’t be ashamed to have incited a small riot, if it’s for a good cause.”
The time has come. The New Muse Order is on the rise.
Black Holes And Revelations is released on 3rd July 2006 (Helium 3/Warners)
TAKE A BOW / STARLIGHT / SUPERMASSIVE BLACK HOLE / MAP OF THE PROBLEMATIQUE / SOLDIER’S POEM / INVINCIBLE / ASSASSIN / EXO-POLITICS / CITY OF DELUSION / HOODOO / KNIGHTS OF CYDONIA
Muse take to the road for a series of prestigious festival appearances across the globe throughout the summer which ends with their debut headline performance on the main stage at the UK’s biggest festival, Carling Weekend: Reading and Leeds - Saturday 26th, Reading, Sunday 27th, Leeds.