Since Wembley Stadium re-opened in 2007, three bands that rose to prominence in the 21st century have headlined shows at the legendary London venue: Coldplay, the Killers and, most frequently, Muse.
The U.K. trio, which has found success in a less-than-favorable era to make rock music, has been part of a new prog movement, derived from 1970s progressive rock bands like Yes and Genesis.
Copying the genre note-for-note would be, somewhat ironically, the antithesis of the word "progressive." Instead, Muse blends sounds of now-stale '70s progressive rock with more fashionable modern alternative acts to create a sound which belongs solely to them.
The band has always talked about itself very seriously, but the actual production of the band is far more light (to its own benefit), and thus, far more accessible.
While Muse has released prog songs like 2006’s “Knights of Cydonia,” the band has never shied away from direct pop-rock, in the best possible sense. One of Muse’s breakthrough hits was a cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” and the 2012 single, “Madness,” a sincere bit of blue-eyed soul, went double-platinum. The new album, “Simulation Theory," reflects the band’s career of trying to find a balance between eternal art and fun rock and roll music.
The record opens with “Algorithm," one of those seemingly self-referential Muse tracks (and titles), which is armed with the pomp and grandeur of a big-budget Hollywood spectacular.
Matt Bellamy’s vocals are a perfect fit for what the song is, but it ultimately works, at best, as an intro track and, at worst, dips too far into parody to work as a stand-alone song. However, despite this, the album mostly avoids the concept-album format of the latter half of Muse’s discography, which is a positive in this case. Though, even a non-concept Muse album will inevitably sound more conceptual than most.
The LP’s early tracks vary more than precedent might suggest. ”Propaganda” and “Break it to Me” sound more like a modern Depeche Mode than a modern Yes. And just as that seems to be the direction of the album, the acoustic guitar-heavy “Something Human” breaks any sense of inevitability.
“Pressure” is entertaining enough, with its shades of Franz Ferdinand, while “Thought Contagion,” is less contagious, despite the name.
The second half of the 11-track album is highlighted by “Dig Down,” a vaguely political tune that was released as a single in May 2017. It is an attempt at U2-style inspiration, as well as glam-rock goofiness. The other four tracks aren’t without merit, but ultimately fall short. “Get Up and Fight” is a standard anthem, while “Blockades” has the build-up of “Knights of Cydonia” without the payoff that makes the ham-fisted attempts at opera worth the journey. Meanwhile, the album closer, “The Void,” is what “Algorithm” was to the album’s beginning. It’s a message of album sequence, rather than a song that works on its own.
And while deluxe editions were also released, the bonus tracks probably won’t have much appeal unless you’ve already bought-in to this album, as the releases feature alternate and live versions.
Additionally, if the record’s artwork looks straight out of “Stranger Things,” it is not a coincidence. The designer, Kyle Lambert, worked for the Netflix series, as well.
Overall, Muse’s eighth studio album doesn’t quite work as well, on the whole, as it feels like it should. Several of the songs are good or at least interesting, but on others, despite the band clearly attempting a synth-pop sound, they can’t help but sound like the new-prog Muse of old.
The band has long done an admirable job of avoiding becoming a clichéd version of itself. But Muse did release its debut album 19 years ago, after all. No band that lasts two decades, regardless of success, is able to find itself with wholly original ideas. And that seems to be the case with Muse on this album.