Most reasonable civilians already agreed that war was bad without a word from Muse. Still, the trio insisted on violently driving that point home with 2015’s Drones, a concept album about drones. For over 50 minutes, we follow a brainwashed psychotic soldier (“Psycho”) who decides to be unbrainwashed and defect from the military (“Defector”), leading to the album-closing epiphany that drones are no-good death machines (“Drones”). It’s pyrotechnic prog-rock as protest music.
Muse’s aesthetic centers on making a spectacle out of all their ideas, and Drones exemplified this sensibility at its worst. There’s no guitar riff or drum downbeat anthemic enough to compensate for frontman Matt Bellamy, who was out here hysterically letting lines like “Your ass belongs to me now” and “On the outside, you’re ablaze and alive/ But you’re dead inside” into the world. Drones offers about the same obvious righteousness of a Dead Kennedys anthem, where a worldview as reasonable as anti-Nazism is sold as punk.
This isn’t the first time Muse have tripped up. The Resistance, their 2009 effort, begs us to rage against a They that’s somehow even more ambiguous than DJ Khaled’s They. Three years later, Muse dropped the wildly experimental romp The 2nd Law; whether the suavely emotive “Madness” cancels out the Skrillex impersonation depends on who you ask. Muse’s most recent singles, “Dig Down” and “Thought Contagion,” are synthetic gospel rock and a song about fake news, respectively. In the future, there’s also going to be some tribal drums, according to Bellamy’s slow-mo footage of bandmate Dominic Howard at work.
But that Muse even has the real estate to miss so ambitiously speaks to their cultural cachet, which is still large 20 years after their self-titled debut EP, released 20 years ago this month. Rick Rubin once believed that the trio were the next Beatles — a prediction that was well off-target, but at least within the bullseye’s margins; they may not be a generation-defining band, but he was right to peg them as a huge success. After their forgettable 1999 debut album Showbiz, Muse — composed of Chris Wolstenholme’s muscular bass, Bellamy’s weaponized falsetto, and Howard’s chest-caving drumwork — would start earning full-blown adoration with what’s considered their creative peak in 2001’s Origin Of Symmetry, a project propelled by the frothing aggression of cuts like “Plug In Baby” and “Citizen Erased.” Two albums (the 2002 compilation Hullabaloo Soundtrack and 2003’s Absolution) and three years later, they’d be headlining Glastonbury.
In retrospect, Muse seems like the sort of success that’s built to happen: The UK was starving for rock stars following the late-’90s implosion of Britpop, and art-minded bands like Coldplay, Radiohead, and Muse filled that void.
“There’s this sci-fi band full of ideas and conspiracy theories and things like that,” said journalist Mark Beaumont, who authored Out Of This World: The Story Of Muse in 2008. “I think being that ambitious and sounding that big, really made them stand out in the UK outside of Britpop.”
The late-’90s nu-metal boom showed that Americans, by and large, are allergic to nuance. Muse aren’t a British Korn, but that obsession with making everything arena-sized — as well as their theatrical, special effects-heavy live performances — ensured they’d find an arena-filling audience over in the States. It took them a little longer, but they did: 2006’s Black Holes And Revelations — which featured the grimy, R&B-inflected “Supermassive Black Hole” — became their first album to crack the Billboard 200’s top 10, and The Resistance’s “Uprising” got them their first Hot 100 single. It was on to Madison Square Garden gigs and Grammys from there.
Muse are objectively successful, yet they don’t have the same rarified air as their post-Britpop contemporaries. A good portion of Radiohead’s catalog (The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, In Rainbows) lives on critics’ all-time lists. Critically, Coldplay have their 2002 classic A Rush Of Blood To The Head to fall back on, while in terms of prestige, at least the Carters think they’re cool.
Muse don’t have that appraisal: “Origin Of Symmetry still bangs” is a fair statement; “Origin Of Symmetry is one of the greatest albums of all time” is a Britishism. Their early-career Radiohead comparisons didn’t help either. Showbiz, Origin Of Symmetry, and Radiohead’s sophomore album The Bends shared producer John Leckie, and you can confuse Bellamy’s misanthropic falsetto on “Muscle Museum” with Thom Yorke’s if you’re not paying attention. Still, Beaumont contends that the narrative just wasn’t behind Muse during their rise.
“If you look at OK Computer, Radiohead [lived down] their supposedly awful debut album — which I actually quite like — and sort of turned the critics around with The Bends,” he said. “The following album was the one where they were like, ‘You know what? We were actually wrong about this band. This record’s amazing.’ With Coldplay, they were critical darlings from the first album and their second album was seen as their creative peak.”
I couldn’t quite get on the Muse bandwagon myself when they went mainstream in the States. After growing up in a corner of Brooklyn that played Fabolous well past his prime, I moved to Buffalo for college less than a month before The Resistance’s release. As a result, some of my first IRL introductions to alternative rock culture were wild-eyed college boys enthusiastically twisting “Muse” into two syllables and … hey, hey, is that Guitar Hero? Does it have “Knights Of Cydonia”? The multi-section Black Holes And Revelations closer is space vigilante music, elevating from dusty acoustic strums to that climactic riff atop of a digestible world-beating chorus: “No one’s gonna take me alive.” I was never ensorcelled or inspired enough to rally against whoever this threat was supposed to be.
But I was definitely wrong to dismiss Muse as a passing fascination. They’re still a rock band of note after headlining 2017’s Lollapalooza as well as Glastonbury for the third time in 2016, while generating at least some passing interest in their upcoming eighth album. I spent the past few months making a genuine effort at understanding why. I listened to their entire discography four times over. I prayed. I did a three-mile morning run with The Resistance playing on my earphones, only to be winded by the time I reached “United States Of Eurasia” — which is “We Are The Champions” plus politics and even more glitter.
It was the nadir of a decade-long personal journey to “get” Muse. But after relenting and asking Muse fans about the band’s appeal, it slowly became apparent that there wasn’t a point beyond that obsession with grandness. Rather, the grandness is the point. Sizing it up and bearing witness isn’t enough — the ambition has to percolate from within.
Twenty-seven-year-old Muse fanatic Christina Ahlsen ties her come-to-Jesus Bellamy moments to specific life experiences. She was a depressed teenager alone on New Year’s Eve with a Baileys bottle in hand when “Knights Of Cydonia” came on during a Fuse countdown; got put on to Black Holes And Revelations’ “Hoodoo” thanks to a friend on DeadJournal, the emo version of LiveJournal; and listened to “United States Of Eurasia” through a guy’s car stereo system. Christina’s been to 12 Muse concerts and will not tolerate any ill talk.
“I do think it might be a reflection of a bigger societal issue of people just not being able to appreciate what it is,” she said to me over the phone, sounding audibly flustered. “I’ve kinda had to stop myself from defending because … what am I doing that for? I just end up getting in fights and stressed out. The band isn’t going to find me and be like, ‘Thank you, I saw what you wrote down.'”
“They are the stadium band for us,” Christina continued, citing the band’s intense concerts. “They follow in the footsteps of U2 and all the forefathers ahead of them, like Led Zeppelin — the big ones.”
Muse might have been the first band to birth an album concept from the second law of thermodynamics and the novel-turned-Brad Pitt-film World War Z, but they aren’t the first to go electronic. Yet, Joe Goodman, a 26-year-old from Long Island — not the UK — says The 2nd Law is his favorite album ever: “I’ll be honest. I think Muse invented their own sound. I think they invented a sound that’s different, very much dramatic. The album — you feel like you’re listening to a piece of art.”
Seventeen-year-old Alex Fairchild got addicted to Muse thanks to a car ride in which his father put on Black Holes And Revelations’ Latin-flavored “City Of Delusion.” Now he’s in a band that does acoustic covers of Muse songs, including “Plug In Baby.” He does get the occasional indignant “You listen to Muse?” when his friends see his bedroom posters. But his love for the band remains untainted: “Every single song of theirs is different. I think that’s what makes them special: You can’t pin a genre on them. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, Muse is a rock band.’ Well, no. They have symphonies. They do so much stuff.”
None of these explanations converted me. The talks were filled with broad assertions that can be apply to any major rock band of your choosing. But perhaps Muse’s charm is the unapologetic maximizing of those tropes, and the indistinction with which they employ them is what makes it work: It’s the access point for an audience looking for a means to push that inner angst, rebel, or sometime-conspiracist skyward. With this, Muse created one of the 21st century’s great Us against They formulas.