Since becoming the first band to sell out London’s new Wembley Stadium in June 2007, Muse has been crisscrossing the globe, bringing increasingly dazzling stage shows to arenas in cities from Tampa, Florida, to Tokyo. The British rock trio’s past four albums — The Resistance (2009), The 2nd Law (2012), Drones (2015), and Simulation Theory (2018) — correspondingly have been designed to blow the lid off the world’s grandest enormo-domes.
Led by frontman, conspiracy theorist, and guitar wizard Matt Bellamy, with his Kanye West-style shutter shades and LED suits, the spectacles have gotten progressively more ludicrous. Past stunts have included moving towers for each member of the band, indoor zeppelins, a shape-shifting step pyramid made of video screens, pyrotechnics, fireworks, and lasers (so many lasers). The band finally seemed to have topped itself, however, with the terrifyingly high-tech Drones World Tour, for which an armada of flying robots ominously hovered over the band and audience.
Impressive though they were, the drones themselves turned into a headache, says drummer Dominic Howard. They frequently malfunctioned on the U.S. leg of the tour, and at one show a wayward drone brained bassist Chris Wolstenholme.
“The tech we were using, it felt so new, kind of like beta, you know? It was definitely a bit difficult because there were some shows where they didn’t work, and one of them fucking fell out of the sky and landed on Chris’ head, at one point. His head went through it,” Howard says, laughing. “There were a couple of edgy moments and the technology could be a little bit temperamental, so we wanted to bring things slightly more down to earth.”
Muse is supposedly scaling back the tech stuff in favor of choreographed performers on the Simulation Theory World Tour, which is rattling Talking Stick Resort Arena on Tuesday, February 26. The band has a history of using nonmusicians for elaborate displays, such as aerial acrobats suspended by balloons and an actor playing a Wall Street banker hurling money at the audience.
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“It’s that kind of stuff,” Howard says, “but there’s a bit more of it and it’s really kind of styled and tied in with the Simulation Theory album.”
But it’s hard to take these guys seriously when they say they’re pulling back. This is the band that promised a back-to-basics approach on their last album and subsequently delivered Drones, a high-concept hard-rock record featuring a 10-minute suite (“The Globalist”), a marathon tapping solo (“Reapers”), and a literal chorale of Bellamys (“Drones”). After the Drones tour, Bellamy said he’d grown weary of big-budget productions and that Muse was heading into the studio to record an acoustic album, but the project somehow turned into the synth-heavy Simulation Theory — an album Howard describes as a “sci-fi neon electronic extravaganza.”
“Sometimes, by the end of the recording process, you end up with something vastly far away from what you intended,” he says. “When you come off the back of a big, extravagant tour, you want to do the opposite, you want to do something intimate. But once you get going with recording, things really spiral out of control. That’s the way it usually works.”
Howard admits that there’s still “tech knocking around” on the Simulation Theory World Tour, and by that he means Muse has brought to life the enormous cyborg skeleton from their music video for “The Dark Side” to loom over the band onstage, shooting lasers from its mouth.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Howard says, sounding giddy. “We didn’t really want to give it away, but we just couldn’t help it. It’s epic, when you see it. It just looks nuts.”
Bellamy also recently appeared in a tour promo wearing a 12-foot tall robot suit, somewhat like Ripley in Aliens — so much for unplugging — but it’s unclear whether Bellamy would be able to shred guitar properly in the suit, and Howard isn’t saying whether he’ll wear it onstage.
“Robots do appear at some point in the show, and, you know, they’re pretty threatening,” he promises. “I didn’t think we could go this far, but we’ve finally gone too far. At some point, you’ve got to find the limits of what you can do in a rock show. It feels like no one else is doing that in the world of guitar music. It feels pretty unique at the moment.”
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But that does present a problem: The band that once observed that “endless growth is unsustainable” can’t keep topping itself forever.
“That’s the thing, it’s becoming unsustainable,” Howard says. “This is very much about the spectacle, this tour, but the antithesis would be to do something that’s purely about the music and nothing else, which is most likely what we’ll do in the future. At this stage, I don’t know. It’s either back down to earth or straight into space.”
By now, we know which direction Muse will steer their starship. They pretty clearly can’t quit the killer robots.
Muse. With Walk The Moon. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 26, at Talking Stick Resort Arena, 201 East Jefferson Street; 602-379-7800; talkingstickresortarena.com. Sold out.