Muse forced the world to sit up and take notice with their legendary headline performance at Glastonbury in 2004, but just seven years on from the band’s big break, Muse appear to have seen and done it all.
Since that career altering date the Devonshire outfit effortlessly escaped the near fatal clutches of those nagging Radiohead comparisons, headlining every festival worth it’s salt, and selling out stadiums as cavernous as Wembley, in a matter of minutes.
No one was taken by surprise, because Muse never hid their aspirations. They’ve always been a big concept band and Matt Bellamy has been singing about the end of the world for decade. To bring their fatefully colossal vision of Armageddon to life Muse have pushed on stage showmanship to its most preposterous extreme; using steam cannons, mind altering sci-fi graphics, flame throwers, great prisoner-esque bouncing balls, dancing robots, revolving platforms, giant satellites, and even a bizarre hovering space craft that housed an acrobat.
The list really does go on and on, but in 2011 there was a feeling that Muse had simply done everything; the release of the bloated The Resistance and its subsequent globe straddling tour, saw Muse plateau. They hadn’t regressed or lost their scope, but simply worn out their act, gone so far in the pursuit of cosmic domination that after years of mind blowing live performances, we’d finally seen it all.
Thus when Muse were named Reading Festival headliners there was a strangely muted reaction. One of the biggest bands in the world had just been announced, but they no longer felt provocative, let alone unsettling; Muse are a known quantity, a safe bet, a band with nothing to promote and nothing to prove.
The question on everyone’s lips was simple; how do you go about reinvigorating such a tried and tested act?
Matt Bellamy’s answer was straightforward; you turn the clock back to 2001. Back then, Muse were edgy, hungry, and while they were never raw, they had the snarl of a band with a point to prove. Fuelled by a steadfast commitment to overcome critical derision, and the desire to bring their fearsome and fanciful conceptions to life.
2001 happened to be the year that Muse released Origin Of Symmetry, what is considered by many, especially their most ardent fans, to be the band’s greatest work, and tonight, at Reading Festival, they played it in full.
Eyes rolled, inevitably, after all few trends are more tiresome than the “played in its entirety” craze that continues to envelop live music. But rather than an exercise in milking fans for every last penny with an entirely unnecessary tour, this was a genuinely special event. Muse would play Origin Of Symmetry in full, for the first and last time, once at Reading, once at Leeds, and then the album and selection of its tracks would, Muse’s promised, never be heard again.
Part 10th anniversary, part funeral procession, tonight saw Muse bid farewell to their greatest album and a glorious phase in their evolution.
Astonishingly, despite being so nervous about playing old and unpractised material that they banned the BBC from broadcasting all but two tracks of the set, Muse appear transformed when they arrive on stage. Gone is the pomp of old; the glittering jackets, the keytar, the video screen sunglasses, all kicked to the kerb, and in their place stands a growling, writhing, feral beast. Arriving to paranoid tones of Tom Wait’s “What Is He Building In There” opener “New Born” may be tried and tested but it remains a signal of intent. Squealing, kicking, pounding, the track explodes with raw riffage, as Muse appear intent on fulfilling their own grotesque raison d’etre to “Stretch It Like A Birth Squeeze”.
The new Muse that confronts us is primal and brutal. The stark totalitarian misery of the bands lyricism is alive in their performance; the guitar work is mammoth in scale, but lean, sharp, and imposingly forceful. “Bliss” thunders out like a bruising celestial assault. “Space Dementia” is delicious, with a sardonic crooked head, Matt Bellamy’s catharsis strains out of his every sinew, enveloping Richfield Avenue in a torrent of fatalistic suppression, before his guitar begins to shudder with unsettling aplomb. “Hyper Music” is gone almost as quickly as it arrives, it’s a head rush, a base level thrill, pounding riffs, screaming petulant lyricism, it’s simple, to the point, and devastatingly effective.
By this point Muse are beyond failure, they’ve held the crowd in the palm of their hand with a relentless assault of soul crushing defeatism of an inter-dimensional scope. “Plug In Baby” is greeted like an old friend, a rush of ecstasy and a mess of bouncing limbs, that gives way to the gnawing and seductive “Citizen Erased”. A track which merges the quiet solace of isolation with skyscraper sized solos and bombastic bass barrages. With its chillingly understated piano outro and heart breaking contrasts it remains Muse’s answer to “Paranoid Android”.
The final portion of Muse’s set proves more insidious, as the abrasive paranoia of “Microcuts”, “Screenager”, and the irresistibly eerie “Darkshine” are married to dead eyed images of creeping corporate and commercial domination. As the imagery becomes bleaker and more monolithic in its uniformity, Bellamy’s scream becomes wild, desperate, and ultimately hopeless.
It may leave the less familiar members of tonight’s audience cold and a little on-edge, but the this depressive trio set the stage perfectly for “Feeling Good”, which in its proper context, appears deliciously ironic; a defeated battle cry, a final song of hope and rebellion in Muse’s imagined world of oppressive monopoly and thoughtless duplicity.
After such a masterstroke of juxtaposition, “Megolmania” is simply the curtain closer, on a fierce and irresistible set where Muse truly fulfilled their totalitarian ambition. Ironically, by foregoing the pomp, the circumstance, and the galactic grandeur of their post-Absolution work, Muse succeeded in bringing their vision of monolithic capitalist suppression to life.
The stark contrasts between the sawing maximalist alien guitars and the understated and humane piano lines highlight the conflicting extremes of Muse’s work, restoring the emotional poignancy that’s so easily stripped from a band when they’re accompanied by wobbling UFOs and dodgy disco ball suits.
As Bellamy shifted between hopeless heartbreaking murmurs and defiant screams, the audience was suddenly reminded that at heart Muse are deeply disturbed and distressing harbingers of humanity’s decline, and not “those guys with the bouncy bass-lines and the cool pyro-technics”. This was a set that could only be contained on the biggest stages, and the in grandest arenas: imposing and evocative, entirely devoid of stadium-sized pomposity.
Muse finished the night by dutifully blowing through their greatest hits, but far from business as usual, the band carried the terse energy of the Origin Of Symmetry portion through to the second hour. Beefing up classic hits with unwieldy guitar breakdowns, adapting and in reimagining classic Nirvana and Zeppelin riffs along the way, while finding room to bust out their ultra-sexy “Helsinki Jam”.
Even the tepid “Resistance” and “Undisclosed Desires” couldn’t sink what was fast becoming a gleeful victory lap. Before the crowd could begin to catch their breath “Knights Of Cydonia” arrives and 70, 000 are bouncing in union, and inanely screaming that no one’s going to take them alive, it’s a strangely beautiful sight, and it’s ungodly satisfying.
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