Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Be Mused

I heard Muse's track "Knights of Cydonia" on the radio back in 2006, and because there are no vocals until two minutes into this almost seven minute track, I first thought I was listening to a twangy instrumental. Now, I love instrumentals, and often lament the dearth of musicianship in modern music, so this was all right with me. The twangy, spacy sound reminded me a little bit of "Telstar", an instrumental by British band The Tornados that I heard courtesy of my mom's 45. (Note to the kids: a 45 rpm record is how they used to sell single tracks of music before the internet. (Addendum: a record is a disc of pressed vinyl or wax that plays music or sound through a needle which traces grooves on it while it rotates.)) "Knights of Cydionia" was surfy, trippy and had a nice change up that made listening to it feel like you were getting three songs in one. The video is an even trippier piece which not only makes you feel like you are watching a terrible post-apocalyptic space western, but one that was filmed in Eastern Europe in 1981.

I picked up the album "Black Holes and Revelations" and fell for the band like a blind roofer. Three guys playing inventive rock with a progressive feel, solid musicianship and songwriting, occasional Queen-like harmonies mixed with Radiohead-like vocals and containing multiple science fiction themes and references? It's like a rock and roll wish list, as far as I'm concerned!

Muse is not a band for every taste, obviously. What group is? But I have pitched the band to a number of people as Radiohead on anti-depressants with overtones of Brian May and Freddie Mercury, and possibly the spiritual inheritors to Rush, another power trio with epic scope. (This is not meant to be a diss on Radiohead as I have mad respect for Thom Yorke and company, but they can get to be a bit much sometimes, can't they?)

The new album, "The Resistance", seems to be doing well; the lead single "Uprising" was number one on the local modern rock station for four weeks, and initial listenings place it very close to the previous album in enjoyability, which is great since "Black Holes" is one of my favourites. Their "Exogenesis: Symphony" in three parts still leaves me a little cold, but who knows, I may yet warm to it, and there are at least three more solid singles on this album or I miss my guess, and that is without counting the version of "I Belong to You" they recorded for the soundtrack to the "Twilight" sequel, "New Moon" .

The real revelation for me, though, came when I got Muse's concert album and DVD, "HAARP" from the library. I can recommend viewing this concert for just about anyone who likes rock and/or roll. I had heard from a number of sources that Muse's live shows were really something; in fact a British magazine listed them as one of the 15 bands one must see prior to dying, and that is probably a very reasonable position to take.

First of all, they have some serious presentation chops: good entrance (walking to the stage while flanked by stagehands in yellow rad suits and gas masks while accompanied by Prokofiev's "Romeo & Juliet", followed by front man Mat Bellamy ringing out the five notes of the theme from "Close Encounters" as a lead in to "Knights of Cydonia." Glee!), big satellite dishes on stage, an aerialist performing while suspended from a balloon directly over the crowd, excellent jumbotron usage, et cetera.

The energy ouput by this band is palpable even through as deadening a medium as television, for pity's sake. Watching the concert with someone who is not really a Muse fan, they noted the difference between the studio recordings and what was seen on stage as to be so significant they are practically different bands. Even as a fan, I find this hard to dispute.

Lastly, the musicianship, in particular, vocalist, pianist and lead guitarist Matt Bellamy. I've been listening to Muse for three years now, and while I have always regarded the band as being musically proficient, I never thought of Bellamy as a particularly gifted guitarist. A lot of this probably has to do with my ignorance when it comes to the actual mechanics of playing a guitar ("Oh, is that hard? He makes it look easy."), and also the fact that I usually hear music as a gestalt first and as components later, if at all.

I had no idea, for instance, that "Knights of Cydonia" is a featured track on Guitar Hero Smash Hits, or that Bellamy is an unlockable character in Guitar Hero V. Or that the song from that game, "Plug In Baby" features a guitar riff voted by readers of Total Guitar magazine as the 8th best of all time in 2007 (just to put it into perspective, "Smoke on the Water" was #17). It's a darned catchy riff, and I get sympathetic arthritis just imagining trying to play it in Guitar Hero. So Bellamy brings some serious guitar credibility to the table.

And that's just playing them, not playing around with them. Before kicking into "Plug in Baby" he exhorts a very convincing air raid siren out of one, and at other points in the concert he gets murmurs, rings, wails, rhythm and even a theremin effect out of them. Fancy pickin' doesn't usually generate a huge response from Audrey, but even she was mesmerized by some of Bellamy's antics. "That is one outside-the-box-playin' so-and so," she was heard to say. And the drummer and bassist aren't slouches, either.

Muse are currently touring as an opening act for U2, so the recent news that U2 is coming to Edmonton in June has me hoping that Muse might be coming with them, or perhaps showing up nearby on their 2010 North American tour, whoever it might be with. It's been a long time since I was excited about a popular modern band, which makes the idea of going to a full-on arena rock concert feel a little strange, to be honest. Not strange enough to stop me, but still.

Oh, and it turns out that my "Telstar" association was probably not accidental: Matt Bellamy's father was the rhythm guitarist for The Tornados.

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