Muse Draw From ’80s Decadence on Retro-Futurististic ‘Simulation Theory’

English rock giants Muse emerged at the cusp of the millenium with a hodgepodge of musical styles that demanded attention. They fit into the general post-grunge alternative rock mold, yet stood out for their blend of metal posturing and classical inclinations with the theatricality of Queen and vocals that drew constant comparisons to Radiohead. However, while bands like Radiohead appear ostensibly embarrassed by accessibility, Muse has always embraced it, growing more unabashedly commercial over time. They opt for immediacy, and aim to be bigger than life, always cutting to the chase, with little effort wasted on subtlety or ambiance. Some might consider this tasteless. However, a look at the artwork for Muse’s new record, “Simulation Theory,” will put things into perspective. It’s an ‘80s-inspired, retro-futurist design, so silly in its garish grandeur that it has to have been put forth with some levity. Such is also the case with the music. If this artwork were a film poster, the album would be the perfect soundtrack — flashy, indulgent, and epic.      

“Algorithm” sets the tone by cramming as many ‘80s signifiers as possible into the first few moments. There’s a prog rock-type motif, after which strings play up the cinematic angle, and it becomes clear that we’ll be cutting straight to the conflict. Bellamy’s first breath is fraught with drama, as he introduces the situation at hand: “We are caged in simulations / Algorithms evolve / Push us aside and render us obsolete.” With exponential advances in artificial intelligence, the possibility of humans losing relevance has become a serious concern. We’ve been warned by the likes of Elon Musk and Yuval Noah Harari. Bellamy makes clear he’s having none of it, belting out, in Bono-esque projections, “This means war / With your creator.”

“Pressure” recalls “Supermassive Black Hole” in its opening riff, and marks a return to such dance-informed stylings. How Muse manage to simultaneously sound so pop and so heavy on the introductory verse, without compromising either end, is quite remarkable. It’s a moment when they seem to have struck just the right balance. Then, we’re hit by a riff that screams Black Sabbath, and the interjection comes across like a hasty bookmarking, as the song veers off in an unprecedented direction, approaching a rock opera, of sorts.  

“Propaganda” is a highlight, enlisting hip-hop hitmaker Timbaland. This production choice will raise eyebrows of skeptical fans who cling to Muse as one of the last remaining larger-than-life “rock” bands. However, it’s often when they take bold liberties in their stylistic detours that they end up baring their defining qualities uncontrived, resulting in music that is simultaneously fresh and familiar. The song starts with the titular word chopped-up and pitched-down, blurted out like a machine in a system overload. Bellamy ventures into pop R&B territory, and sounds considerably like Justin Timberlake, although with an edge in his voice that makes all the difference. The instrumental is fittingly furnished with gritty, growling bass, clipped distortion, and a deliciously raw steel guitar solo. “Break to Me” follows naturally, like a second movement. The song instrumentally recalls Rage Against the Machine, and finds Bellamy alternating between an irritatingly perky chorus and essentially crying with his mouth wide open.

If “Propaganda” raised eyebrows, “Something Human” will induce cringes and elicit condescending sympathy. The sentiment is a universal one — a longing for a human connection in an impersonal world. Ironically, the song’s unbecoming trendiness makes it arguably the most impersonal yet. Bright and easy, with clean guitars, and a giddy EDM skeleton, It reduces Bellamy to the blandest, most generic singsong. Muse has toured with Thirty Seconds to Mars, and seems to be suffering from it, from their artless, desperate appropriation of pop trends. “Thought Contagion” continues this pattern, adopting the “Oh oh” chorus that has become excruciatingly ubiquitous. It seems Muse themselves are victims of “Thought Contagion.” On the other hand, the bridge, in which Bellamy sings, “You’ve been bitten by a true believer” shows how powerful the band is at their best, at once primal and spectacular.      

“Get Up and Fight” sounds like a parody of radio alternative rock, as if the band are trying to compete with the algorithms mentioned in the opening track by rigidly adhering to formulas.  Songs like this seem designed for people with ADD. A verse extends just long enough to be recognizable, at which point the band neatly inserts an anthemic chorus, then rinses and repeats. Generally, Muse is admirably ambitious, boldly shuttling between disparate styles with finesse, but they always seem in a rush, lest a listener zone out for a split second. On “Get Up and Fight,” the lyrics take a personal turn, with Bellamy singing, “I won’t let nothing keep us apart.” Perhaps the central “simulation” refers to a romantic relationship. Relationships can indeed feel like a simulation — ever feel like you’re playing house? On the other hand, Bellamy could just as well be talking to his fellow man, or even himself, in an urge to fight “thought contagion” and fight for collective humanity.

“Blockades” is another cut of over-the-top ‘80s indulgence, with tapping guitar soloing, glittering synths, and a bombastic chorus with Bellamy commanding, “Fight for your life.” There’s a calm after the storm on “Dig Down,” which allows some space for a moment of reassurance. Built around a vestige of the passe “brostep” trend that swept the world a few years ago, the song otherwise continues the band’s broad survey of their fetishized decade. While the previous track conjured the pop metal extravagance of acts like, say, Scorpions, this one finds Bellamy channeling George Michael’s “Freedom.” Finally, “The Void” taps into the same sonic space as the opening track, with John Carpenter synthesizers and an overall cinematic quality, bringing the album to closure effectively.

While nearly every song on the album urges resistance, it’s unclear exactly what Bellamy is resisting. This open-endedness is understandable, as “Simulation Theory” could be applied to virtually anything. After all, our perceptions are molded by our preconceptions, making reality ultimately subjective. So, take what you will of Muse’s new record. It’s a shamelessly indulgent, impatient collage of cliches that combines the most vapid trends of today with the most outrageous excesses of the ‘80s. Simultaneously, it’s an absolute blockbuster of a record — heavy, catchy, emotive, and eclectic — no fat, no fluff, no filler. And for what it is, it couldn’t be better.

Simulation Theory” is available Nov. 11 on Apple Music.