Muse on Simulation Theory sounds like it belongs in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s roller-staking musical Starlight Express. There are guitars, but they whiz by in a neon-coated haze, covered and surrounded by blindingly bright synthesizers. And like the most outlandish of Broadway musicals, the music skews towards bombastic, veering from folk to classical to something that belongs in a video-game soundtrack.
As over-the-top as it all seems, Muse remains one of the few modern rock bands able to command arena-sized crowds—and there’s no denying the act’s impact. Once pegged as a louder, poppier alternative to Radiohead, the group continues to display a penchant for guitars, electronics, and hooks that influences much of today’s radio-ready rock. It’s present in Imagine Dragons and Portugal. The Man, bands that view computer wizardry as important as air guitar.
Muse makes Simulation Theory easy for its listeners. The album cover is designed by “Stranger Things” artist Kyle Lambert and done in the style of an 80s movie poster. Not-so-subtle references to Blade Runner, Back to the Future, Gremlins, Thriller, Tron, and Teen Wolf, and no doubt plenty other films adorn the image. One could sit down and spend the night playing a game of spot the homage.
Coupled with the album’s themes—much of the work appears to center on escapism via technology and the question of how we then escape from virtual worlds—the art dovetails quite nicely with Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. In fact, not a Muse interview goes by without the band being asked about the similarities.
While Muse has never shied from tinkering and experimenting with electronics and synths, the trio fully embraces them here, resulting in an album on which the guitar makes cameo-like appearances in each song. Not to say loud guitars and powerful riffs—check the Prince-inspired funk meets metal of “Propaganda,” for instance—don’t appear, but they function as texturing devices. “Break It to Me” goes after the rhythmic thrust of modern hip-hop and EDM, “Thought Contagion” saves the guitars for the angelic choirs of the chorus, and “Blockades” remains so chaotic it sounds as if it was recorded in a pinball machine.
If a cohesive gel exists, it comes by way of the relentlessly upbeat feel. While doom and gloom crop up in the lyrics, which vaguely allude to politics, they largely focus on mind control via media and pop-culture saturation (“You ate my soul like a Death Eater,” sings the always honey-voiced Matt Bellamy in an allusion to the stories of Harry Potter). Not surprisingly for a set on which dozens of computers feel turned to 11, the record’s more direct moments stand out and allow Bellamy and Muse to flex their melodic muscles. The lighthearted and hopeful “Something Human” evokes Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” in parts, as it goes down slick and easy. Likewise, the rock anthem “Get Up and Fight,” sure to be heard at a Sunday NFL game near you.
The no-frills vinyl, mastered by Capitol Records ace Ian Sefchik, gets the job done with little noticeable fuss. While the songs are so densely packed with synthetic sounds that zeroing in on any singular sonic strand becomes a virtual impossibility, the relatively quiet and flat LP possesses a vibrancy undetectable on samples heard via streaming services. The real shortcoming, however, resides with the packaging, which leaves much to be desired. The glossy, yet thin cardboard jacket boasts lyrics printed in pink or green on black, with the font designed to mimic computer code. A nice gimmick, but forget about reading them.
Last chance to change your mind...