2009 / Music

Review: Muse’s New Album Seeks To Overcome Lingering ‘Resistance’

British Alternative-Rock Trio Release Sixth Album

As true in life as it is in the music industry, timing is everything.

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

The right song married to the perfect image, assisted by clever promotion and appearing on the scene in the most ideal conditions might help an artist skyrocket to stardom. Remove or alter any one of those variables and the whole endeavor could lead to failure. Or not. Superstars aren’t born full-formed, they’re forged by a series of circumstances. What that quote really says is that luck plays a larger role in our lives than any of us might feel comfortable with acknowledging. With one proverbial flip of the coin, an artist can be Michael Jackson. In another, they’re stuck working dive bars for peanuts.

Poor timing has unfairly tainted the fortunes of British alternative-rock group Muse, who have the dubious distinction of recording the greatest Radiohead record that wasn’t actually recorded by Radiohead. In any other time, the infamous album in question, 2003’s “Absolution,” might have propelled the trio into one of rock’s biggest acts. Instead, Muse was labeled as the noughties’ equivalent of Stone Temple Pilots, an ear-candy knock-off. The band now hopes its new album, “The Resistance,” will not only give it mass recognition in the U.S., but also the respect that has thus far eluded them.

Winning over new fans among those who’ve never heard of Muse really wouldn’t be much of an uphill battle if “Absolution” was their first introduction to this band. The album’s fusion of emo attitude with futuro-rock bombast offer many avenues to those with unfussy musical requirements as well as those with hidden love of out and out rawk. The songs’ explosive dynamics, instrumental hooks, melodramatic vocals and voluble guitar breaks should make conversion a fairly painless process.

And yet the easy-to-hear correlations between vocalist/guitarist Matthew Bellamy’s croon and that of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and the parallels between both band’s tastes made this record harder to swallow for important kingmakers. The sounds were just too strikingly similar and Muse’s music too satisfying for them to wear Muse’s T-shirts with pride. While Yorke and Jonny Greenwood were out to thwart their celebrity status by playing artiste in the years after the smash success of “The Bends” and “OK Computer,” the songs on “Absolution” seemed like a more natural follow up than the members of Radiohead would allow themselves. The Muse guys were willing to play rock star and sounded very able to fill any stadium with thrilling guitar thunder.

Overseas, “Absolution” faired well (as had the group’s preceding albums) and solidified the band’s entry into the arena circuit. In the U.S., the band earned notice, but couldn’t break through. Muse did earn top billing at various festivals, including Lollapalooza, but have remained a band to be suspicious of.

So, “The Resistance” is an appropriate title for Muse’s mission to overcome the sneers of the holdouts — although this is a seduction using sexy, almost R&B-ish pop hooks and New Wave sonic characteristics instead of aggressive, digital rock furor. The record, despite devoting its last third to a three-part symphonic piece, doesn’t have the majesty as Muses’ past releases. Most of the album just seems to want to skip over those who remember the ’90s guitar onslaught and instead insert itself into the consciousness of today’s MTV generation (for whom the band’s appearance at last week’s MTV Video Music Awards further signals the band believes its time is now.)

To that end, the band has frontloaded “The Resistance” with its two instantly catchiest cuts. “Uprising” sounds like what if a Marilyn Mason jam was taken to the light side. The rampaging rhythm drives Bellamy’s carnival barker vocals and the disco halo effect that wavers above. “They will not force us/They will stop degrading us,” Bellamy yells as his mantra becomes a chant perhaps to Muse’s snarky detractors. The track is followed by the slow-building pulse of “Resistance,” which has the same emotional tone as the “Uprising,” but it’s less immediately certain and only fully unveils itself for each chorus. The group keeps its rock impulses in check until its time to thrash listeners with hooks of amplified intensity.

Ditching their Marshall amps entirely, “Undisclosed Desires” sounds like it could have been a bonus track on hip-hop producer Timbaland’s ill-fated collaboration with ex-Soundgarden and Audioslave singer Chris Cornell. Staccato strings and funky electronic drumbeats transport the trio from a rock club into a post-modern danceteria. Bellamy’s preening vocals are a distorted whisper of a dancefloor vampire who curiously has his heart on his sleeve. The beginning of every verse implies a rapper will kick into his rhymes. Instead, Bellamy is begging like a more believably macho version of Justin Timberlake. Rockists might have a problem with this ditty.

If listeners fear Muse is auditioning to become a dance act, the album’s next track uses a power ballad to reestablish the band’s guitar bonafides. “United States Of Eurasia/Collateral Damage” begins as a simpering piano melody before Bellamy’s vocal sensitivity balloons into Queen-like pomposity with straight-faced vibrato hollering and abrasive guitar licks. The piano line becomes more interesting, suggesting a Middle Eastern origin. The choruses’ features the band members comically stacking their vocal harmonies (a la “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and Bellamy’s guitar accents quote Queen’s Brian May directly. And yet, there’s a charm to the track and a boldness of their strategy that make the song worth a repeat listen. At least they prove they can impersonate a ’70s band as well as ’90s ones.

Oddly, the mimicry rears up on songs throughout the album. The gritty guitar/bass rampaging of “Unnatural Selection” recalls Black Rebel Motorcycle Club while the cute piano funk of “I Belong to You/Mon Cœur S’Ouvre A Ta Voix” suggests Maroon 5 trying a ditty with a tango rhythm. The songs are fun although they don’t really cleanse the group’s reputation as also-rans.

Only when the band presents a multi-segment suite called “Exogenesis: Symphony” do we begin to hear an entirely new and completely unique perspective of the band. The three song-length pieces are snippets of classical music moodiness, the melodies swelling and cresting as the band and its string-section accompanists create the soundtrack for movie epics yet to be visualized. Bellamy sings in places, but it’s the beauty of the clashing of instruments — rock and classical — that make these songs compelling. This isn’t fodder for the radio. This is something arising from artistic minds allowed to run free. Perhaps Muse is beginning to catch a little of Radiohead’s ambition and again channeling their focus in more traditional directions.

An emphasis on traditionalism might have been Muse’s Achilles’ heel up until now. The band’s discography proves that they’ve usually conceived their songs as being opportunities to extend what they’ve heard before and to appeal to larger cross section of people. The trio has never committed itself to suck pesky concepts as breaking new ground or creating high art. This never won them much credibility, but has positioned them to this point in time.

And the timing now appears right for “The Resistance” to push the band to the next level. With most rock superstars underperforming or AWOL this year, most rock press and fan attention is focused on underground acts. This has left the audience fragmented and with little to rally around. Until now, that is. “The Resistance” might not be the masterwork on par with “Absolution,” but it more closely walks that line dividing the pop-material cues Muse has taken from others and what the group organically sounds like than any of their preceding records.

The conditions now appear ideal. It just has to happen.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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