By JackSimulation Theory was the album no one asked for. Not the Muse faithful, who gratefully received the back-to-basics riff rock of Drones, and hoped the ‘fannying about with keyboards’ phase was over with. Nor the obscure synthwave community to whom this album is dedicated, from the Stranger Things album art to the synth arps and programmed drums which appear throughout.
Yet, here we have it. The results are exciting and frustrating. Exciting because there are moments of inspiration here. Frustrating because so many are wasted.
It’s undeniable that whole-cloth, this is a stronger album than Drones or even The 2nd Law. However the highlights don’t stretch quite as far. Fewer tracks on Simulation Theory constitute a ‘Panic Station’ or ‘Reapers’ – a shining gold prunable that can stand up with the best of the back catalogue.
Perhaps this is the wrong attitude to take, however. For there are some great tracks on Muse’s Eighth LP. ‘Pressure’ sounds like a White Stripes song performed by Marc Bolan. The central riff is golden, even if the riffs in the verses sound reedy, and the combination of horns and what sounds like vocal parsing in addition do not beef it up sufficiently. The result is a fun but slightly one-sided affair.
‘The Dark Side’ is a hair away from being a Muse classic. Even where bassist Chris Wolstenholme is left with naff all to do, drumer Dom Howard is able to conjure up a beat that is playful, tight, and also evocative of the machine-like 80s oeuvre of the wider album. These synth arpeggios have been around since ‘Bliss’, yet they fit perfectly here, with a wickedly twisted solo in addition. Bellamy himself sings the verses perfectly – but the chorus is swallowed by the hammy delivery.
Fans are comparing it to the Origin of Symmetry days. I see that. But here’s the truth – it would have sounded better back then.
Despite little fan reaction, ‘Break It To Me’ might be the best song here. It’s simplistic for sure, but it’s one of the few moments where a vision is captured uncompromised. This is a lean, dirty, dancey electronic rock song. A combination of harsh NIN style guitars and flashes of eletronica that dazzle. It sounds like ‘Sexyback’ and Muse at the same time, and benefits from the fact the lyrics are buried beneath distortion.
There are an abundance of good ideas and interesting left-turns, but these are too often undone by generic and lazy writing. A great example is ‘Get Up & Fight’. The verses are spritely and understated, a whispy female voice and squiggly electronics matching Bellamy’s softer register. But a standardised rock chorus arrives with a crushing inevitability, recalling the dreadful ‘Revolt’ from Drones.
‘Propaganda’ recruits Timbaland, of all people, to bring some R&B sheen. He manages this, and the song exhibits a really fat sound we’ve never heard from the band, along with a tasty acoustic solo. However the hook is absolute garbage, an earsore which will send a thousand forefingers reaching for the skip button.
Bookending tracks ‘Algorithm’ and ‘The Void’ are able to hew to the synth soundtracks which form the chief inspiration, but even these are let down by some truly dreadful lyricism. “You are the coder and avatar” – are you serious? ‘Thought Contagion’ meanwhile is still god-awful, and that “final solution” lyric is still in shockingly bad taste.
What’s more bizarre is the fact that the ‘alternate reality’ versions, essentially B-sides, are often better than those which ended up on the main tracklist. ‘Something Human’ in it’s alternate take finally becomes the ‘Invincible’ / ‘Guiding Light’ heart of the album it was intended to be. ‘Dig Down’ is stipped back with a gospel choir and sounds unlike anything the band have put to tape. The only fathomable reason why these are not on the album is because they don’t fit the theme. Here’s the key guys: just write the songs. Worry about the theme later.
Simulation Theory is a good album. The band who once won an Ivor Novello are gone. In their place is something cheesier, something gaudier. Old Muse is gone. This isn’t a phase. Yet the intrepid trio are still capable of exciting and adventurous sounds. However this obsession with theme and concept continues to dull their focus.
This album was very nearly a thrilling reinvention. It’ll have to settle for being a good Muse album.