Muse come through once again with a calamitous, half-baked, masses-pleasing "rock" album that pushes the boundaries of my patience and challenges the status quo of what bad music can be if it tries hard enough.
I’m so glad that Muse, in all their benevolent wisdom, chose to bestow upon us the ‘Super Deluxe’ edition of Simulation Theory on day of release – so unflinchingly proud of their bloated retro-fetishist mess of an eighth album that they chose to include ‘Alternate Reality’ versions of some of the more egregiously awful cuts along with live versions and remixes. It’s the wet dream of any Muse fanboy/girl/sludge creature; an opportunity to listen to Matt Bellamy’s horrendous caterwauling for another forty minutes of their hopefully short life, each Spotify stream nicely lining the pockets of those responsible for the bland creative vampirism on show. Simulation Theory is an album that goes beyond being quietly awful, instead choosing to extend itself resplendent on a chaise-lounge of misplaced neon nostalgia.
The great Gareth Paisey famously uttered “They’ve taken everything we’ve ever loved and dressed it up in quotation marks”, and (clear irony aside, yes, I know), Muse have perfectly embodied this within the clammy, overproduced walls of Simulation Theory. Whilst similar intellectual succubi Greta Van Fleet have the dignity to ape Led Zeppelin so entirely that it becomes their identity, Muse picks up the tissue of Kavinsky or Gunship and deposits their beige-rock DNA into it in similar fashion to those used by teenage schlubs on the regular in between bouts of Fortnite and glugs of Mountain Dew Baja Blast. The problem with Simulation Theory is not that it’s a ‘change of direction’ or a ‘refreshing new sound’ for the band, but rather a paper mache mask of trendy 80s aesthetics slapped onto the most boring noise imaginable; a hopeless and half-arsed attempt to do something, anything different.
I’m sure Matt and the gang had a great time in Ableton Live 10 messing around with the default ‘Epic 80s Synth’ pack, but come on, a whole album based on this tedious and already worn out idea? We’ve had Stranger Things, we’ve had Ready Player One – nobody is in want of the soundtrack to the schlockiest 80s retromania flick of all time that Simulation Theory aspires to be. Muse don’t so much ‘wear their influences on their sleeve’, instead opting for more of a ‘hollow out and wear the insides of their creative victims’ approach, stitching a faux-authentic jerkin from the scraps of creatively fertile flesh left over from their ravenous consumption and destruction of the original product. The version of synthwave that we gleam from Simulation Theory is stretched over Matt Bellamy like a skintight fetish suit – vile and compelling at the same time.
‘Algorithm’ kicks off proceedings with a dramatically boring synthline that builds to a thrilling climax that (thankfully) never happens. It’s derivative, distressingly flaccid – designed to stir up feelings for something exciting that will never occur. This is all before Matt Bellamy’s strained, nasal, constantly oscillating and perpetually irritating vocal performance kicks in – spewing operatic professions of global enslavement and technocratic governance that are better represented in Hackers. I find myself ultimately horrified that this song leads into another. And another. Eleven tracks of this garbage before I can liberate my ears from this neon hellscape.
‘The Dark Side’. It’s the next song. Bellamy’s mewling continues as he queefs out the words ‘life’, ‘besieged’ and ‘pursued’ with the energy of a slowly deflating party balloon. I strongly believe that Bellamy’s cries to “Break [him]out” and ‘Set [him]free’ are earnest pleas for someone to liberate him from the creative prison he has accidentally locked himself in. It’s for the best.
PLEASE can someone tell Bellamy to never do that falsetto thing he does on ‘Pressure’ ever again. I have to admit, something of me lit up when this song has a pretty decent riff. It’s passable, until it’s swiftly ruined with some strange back-and-forth vocals and a dumpy pop-rock pre-chorus. Then swiftly onto another low-light, ‘Propaganda’. This is shocking also for reasons that are clear just through listening to the first, say, twelve seconds. We’ve switched from ball-shrinking falsetto into full-blown Jackson sleaze-pop, the song possessing all the charm of a serial roofie-r searching for impressionable targets to drag under its virulent wing. Also included: a twangy alt-country guitar section totally incongruent with the entire rest of the track, and some fiercely goofy vocoder samples.
After this song I took a break to reflect. I purged my ears with some Mojave 3, ate a sandwich, had a brief rest and digested what I’d just listened to for roughly 20 minutes of my life. Was it worth traveling on? The end was far away, seven tracks left and ten more tracks after that of ‘bonus content’. One of the upcoming tracks was called ‘Get Up and Fight’. I considered how likely it was for me to get to the end of the album in light of this fact. But the show must go on. If Muse can make this garbage without choosing to end it all, I can try my hardest to listen to it. Onwards.
But I mean, what’s the point really? The rest of the album is just as atrocious as its cringe-inducing first half, with ‘Break it to Me’ as potent a mid-album slump as any, followed up by the hammed-up camp of ‘Something Human’ and “Woah, EPIC 8-)” of ‘Thought Contagion’. ‘Get Up and Fight’ is, as expected, a revolution anthem that the white cis middle class really need right now, destined for use in the trailer for the imaginary latest installment of The Maze Runner franchise. Or perhaps it might just make it into a Pepsi Max advert – either entirely possible and equally plausible. ‘Blockades’ at least attempts to claw back a little of that original synthwave sound but daubed in traditional Muse warpaint – protest music for… who exactly? “I have sacrificed all of my life” sings Bellamy in a terrifyingly earnest fashion, giving further credence to my newly instated “fan” theory that he’s truly stuck in the Muse Expanded Musical Universe for life, with no prospects of escape.
After this, listeners will be glad to hear that there are only two more songs left on the album proper, but equally dismayed to hear that there are ten ‘bonus tracks’ on this festering wound of an album. Spoilers; None of it is good, interesting, exciting, different or enjoyable. I will save precious time for myself and for any potential reader here in applying a blanket understanding to the rest of this garbage fire: it isn’t good, and you’re almost certainly better off listening to something else.
The thing is, I don’t know why I expected anything different from Muse, a band that’d been iterating on the same garbage formula for far too long now, churning out album after album of plaintively dull masses-pleasing ‘Rock Music™’ in a manner that resembles Warhol’s factory but without the irony or self-awareness. There’s no soul to anything on Simulation Theory, its clumsy re-appropriation of synthwave aesthetics perhaps dreamed up by Muse’s brand manager as he watched the first fourteen minutes of Blade Runner after popping a few Xanax; it’s lazy, it’s derivative and it’s just not good. Muse have achieved the unthinkable on Simulation Theory, releasing an album that corroborates the worst of all their previous work into one giant pile of hot, hot garbage: the shlock cringe factor of The Resistance, the limp instrumental presence of Drones, the experimentation (that no one asked for) of The 2nd Law and that general Muse stank that’s been present since Black Holes and Revelations. One day, hopefully soon, it will end, but for now, it seems like we’re all stuck in the vice-like grip of Bellamy and his cronies. Welcome to the simulation.
Simulation Theory is available now via Warner Music UK.