1999 was a weird year. That June, George W. Bush announced his candidacy for President, people were partying like it was the year in question, and a prevalent fear of the Y2K bug spread like Ebola fever. Muse also released their debut album, Showbiz, instantly drawing comparisons to their British contemporaries Radiohead.
That comparison was a stretch, but if there's one band Muse gets likened to these days, it's Queen, especially following the band's latest two albums. Lead singer Matthew Bellamy seems to be going out of his way to emulate Freddie Mercury on everything from Chopin-inspired piano melodies to guitar licks to eerily similar vocal ranges.
Unlike comparisons to Thom Yorke and crew, Muse's Queen similarities are great compliments. Even Queen guitarist Brian May adores the resemblance. Furthermore, Bellamy sounds miles better than Paul Rodgers, who brings to mind an old guy with a mid-life crisis singing karaoke.
But one band I haven't heard Muse compared to is Chicago '80s prog-rockers Styx -- and the comparison is apt.
My dad took me to a Styx concert when I was young teen, probably the most sugary "best of" display I've ever seen. Notably absent from the setlist was "Mr. Roboto" (more on that later) but tears flowed from many faces as "Come Sail Away" and "Show Me The Way" were sung. The stage banter focused mainly on "following your dreams."
Styx are the epitome of arena rock, entertaining crowds of middle-aged folks who flock in the hundreds to relive the music of their youth and be told, just like they were in the '70s and '80s, to "follow your dreams."
Fuck that sentiment. Besides being considerably vague, it's like Barney telling three-year-olds to believe in themselves. It does nothing. Does Styx really expect their audiences to finally wake up and realize their full potential at the ripe age of 40? If they didn't start that novel or paint some landscapes or travel to India when they were 20-ish, I highly doubt anyone will start now with millstones of mortgages, children, and debt around their necks. Maybe they will. I certainly hope I'm wrong. But it's obvious what Styx is selling isn't concert tickets or t-shirts or even terrible cover albums -- they're selling nostalgia, "dreams" and sentimentality.
I know I'm being excessively cynical, but the same thing will probably happen to me in ten, twenty years, only with the bands I grew up with instead. Enter Muse. Before my balls dropped, I was exclusively listening to Weird Al, classical music, and adult contemporary radio courtesy of Mixx 96.9. It wasn't until I heard "Stockholm Syndrome" on The Edge 103.9 that I started to fully appreciate rock music for myself.
It was like an explosion in my soft, sheltered little head, leading me to discover Radiohead, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand and countless other bands popular in the mid-2000's, but Muse was always the cream of the crop for me. I became a Muse scholar, unsuccessfully courting girls with their songs, writing emotive blogs using their lyrics and generally annoying friends and strangers with my vast knowledge of this band.
I was actually afraid of discovering a band that was better than Muse and thus replacing the huge shelf they had taken over in my life. Eventually, I did find bands better than Muse (and quite a number of them) including The Mars Volta, The Dandy Warhols, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, LCD Soundsystem, and The Velvet Underground, but Muse will always hold a special place in my heart.
In twenty years, would I buy a ticket to see Muse and relive those angsty, teenage emotions I played out as much as I played Origin of Symmetry? You bet your ass. Would Muse tell me to follow my dreams? I almost guarantee it. And would I look back at my life, successful or not, and go home with a glossy-eyed new look at the world that would fade as soon as I went to work the next day or slept off my hangover? Sadly, yes. Perhaps Muse is the new Styx, a new stadium rock group that will sell out Wembley Stadium (done) and write songs about following your dreams, sailing away and being renegades (done, done and done). The Styxiness started with tracks off Black Holes & Revelations like "Starlight" and "Invincible" and only grew from there.
"Inspirational music" isn't wrong or bad, it's just campy and silly. It's like those posters they hang in call centers about "teamwork" and "friendship." It's like Hallmark cards you get for graduation. It's like sports movies where the rundown team of losers practices under a coach with a secret drinking problem and they win the championship in the end and all their problems are solved. In short, it's cliché and can be totally lame.
This is ostensibly why I hated Muse's 2009 release, The Resistance. There were more classical influences than ever before, more Queen-isms than you could count and yet I saw the main themes as pandering, trying to capitalize on some sort of pre-Occupy Wall Street attitude, trying to find influence through an apathetic audience, telling them to "follow their dreams" or "start a riot." Sort of the same thing, really.
Looking back, I don't know why I saw this as a bad thing. Maybe Muse has influenced some change, maybe not. Who really knows? Glenn Beck fell head over heels for their song "Uprising," lying about the band telling him to retract his endorsement and writing love letters to the band about how they share political ideals. The song also found a place in many Occupy playlists. Muse definitely struck a chord with political activists all over the spectrum.
Personal expectations are important when reviewing something and 2009 was such a rotten year for me, I probably just wanted my Absolution-era Muse back. The Resistance was cheesy as fuck, cheesier than Cheeseasaurus Rex, but their latest effort, The 2nd Law turns the cheese on full-blast. Yet, surprisingly, I love it. I didn't have high expectations and I've been happily playing this album on repeat for the last few weeks. The 2nd Law is still trying to propel off that political energy, but it's saturated with optimistic and romantic tunes that are pure Styx. You could choose to "Come Sail Away" with Styx just as easily as you could trail behind Matthew Bellamy on "Follow Me." And even if it's campy as hell, it works. It sure ain't Origin of Symmetry, but I guess it took me three years to realize it doesn't have to be. Muse is still going strong, especially with their more experimental tracks like "Panic Station" and "Liquid State."
This is where Muse have succeeded where Styx failed. 1983 was a weird year, too. Japanese electronics were strangely attractive, Reagan was making a mess of Iran that would lead to the Iran-Contra Scandal, the last Deloreans were produced and Styx were at the height of their career. Then, they released Kilroy Was Here, which basically turned a decent rock band into a Broadway musical. Their elaborate tour was a financial wreck and even now the band disowns the album, mainly because of "Mr. Roboto."
"Mr. Roboto" is filled with more cheese than a liquefied Cheez Whiz factory. There's more cheese than all of France, more cheese than in the moon and unlike actual cheese, this did not age well. Synth-filled bullshit about robots has a way of rotting on you.
But again, there are surprising parallels with Muse, whose trailer for The 2nd Law was highlighted with dubstep, robotic voices and weird rants about the second law of thermodynamics. It's obvious that Bellamy is ripping off Skrillex, but he deserves respect for being to produce that sound using actual guitars rather than a Mac.
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Like many elements of Muse's discography, from "Knights of Cydonia" to HAARP, the themes are drawn from some re-hashed conspiracy theory Bellamy read on Wikipedia. And it's great. The campiness somehow resonates with me differently than music my parents listened to. That's how it's supposed to be and I'm prepared for my eventual descent into a nostalgic coma, buying tickets for reunion tours at venues where people play football, bringing my kids and starting that cycle all over again. I'm already listening to Showbiz, an album I haven't played in years, and getting all misty-eyed.