In September 2019, Muse announced the release of their Origin of Muse premium box set – a ridiculously definitive reissue of their debut albums, and rare early tracks and recordings, many of which are previously unreleased. Its artwork is beautifully intricate, featuring replicas of tour posters and programs from their early days. It is on sale for the princely sum of £125. Years ago, this Muse fanboy would have salivating over the slim prospect of owning one, but as of 2019, things have changed – both myself and the band in question. Here is the tale of how Muse were my musical everything, and where things went awry.
In December 2002, I went to my friend Daniel’s 12th birthday party. He was very much influenced by his older sister, who was obsessed with hard rock and metal – in particular the likes of Slipknot. I was in awe of those two, in particular the fact that Daniel was allowed to to have a poster on his bedroom door with the lyrics of ‘Surfacing’ on (“fuck it all, fuck this world, fuck everything that you stand for…”). While I had previously got my first album for the Christmas beforehand, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory (which I went in blind for, just to be cool. Luckily, I loved it), I heard his new CD playing in the car. It was Muse’s second album Origin of Symmetry.
This was a strangely important moment, because it was the first album that I was compelled to find out more about. Bear in mind, that just a month earlier, I asked for and received Now That’s What I Call Music 50 for Christmas (which did feature Sum 41, Alien Ant Farm and OPM, but were hardly enough compensation for Bob the Builder, DJ Otzi, Westlife and… just about everything else on the album). When I got a copy for myself, I was stunned by what I heard. The speed of Matt Bellamy’s fingers, and the intense coda of ‘Space Dementia’. His outrageously shrill screech in ‘Micro Cuts’. And what the hell was a church organ doing in ‘Megalomania’? This kind of attitude might have been off-putting for some (The Guardian infamously gave it a 1/5 review, calling it “unbelievably overblown, self-important and horrible”. It’s an analysis that would have irritated me at the time, but I’ll return to later). As far as I was concerned, it was daring and ingenious, and I wanted more.
Needless to say, I was quick to buy their next album Absolution, which remains my favourite. Their signature twist on rock had matured, and become more atmospheric and orchestral. It sounded far more majestic. This era of Muse was one that I wished so much that I could have been more in touch with, but I was still too young to witness in person. It was the final tour that didn’t really have a unique ‘stage show’, an intimacy that I’d never get to experience. Their biggest shows were at Earls Court in December 2004, which to this day are held in very high regard by longtime fans. While I couldn’t be there, I signed up to fan site Muselive.com (arrogantly subtitled ‘Rock For Clever People’) and downloaded the bootleg, which I have listened to a ridiculous amount of times over the years.
My friends and I were also big enough fans that we were compelled to cover obscure Muse track ‘In Your World’, and perform ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ in their style, when we performed as a band in 2005. Infuriatingly, my mother recorded only three minutes of our performance, and as an insult to injury, if it is ever recovered, none of the recording was our original material. I think the tape has since been lost, which is a pity, because it might finally have found use on this blog post.
2006 brought us their next album, Black Holes and Revelations. After a huge amount of excitement, many fans online were shockingly skeptical of this album. There was something a bit too pop-like and funky about lead single ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, and where they had been revered for experimenting with unusual instrumentation in the past, fans were disappointed by Muse going electronic. Even at 16, I was a shameless elitist, and felt they had ‘sold out’, and this was several years before they released ‘Neutron Star Collision’ (Love is Forever) for the Twilight soundtrack. I can even remember many protective online fans refusing to believe that Muse would release such a thing, and that this was all the fault of producer Rich Costey. A bold angle considering that they hadn’t even released the album yet. However, when the album arrived in its entirety, the sound began to make sense.
Black Holes took the ruthlessly bombastic ‘because we can’ attitude of Origin of Symmetry, and matched it with Absolution’s scale. The largest sounding tracks had a bizarrely tongue-in-cheek nature about them, in particular space opera closer ‘Knights of Cydonia’. One only has to watch its sci-fi Western video to know that there was a playful nature to even the most ambitious projects.
Over the following year, I would see them three times live, at Birmingham NEC (14/11/06), Wembley Arena (22/11/06) and at the show that as far as I was concerned at the time, would be the most important thing to ever happen, their first show at Wembley Stadium (16/06/07). There are worse ways to spend your 17th birthday.
However, something then went horribly wrong. I wasn’t sure if I’d grown out of them, or there had been a plummet in standard, but in 2009, there was a messy divorce between Muse and I. I was deeply disappointed by The Resistance and I know that I wasn’t alone. Many of us were ecstatic upon hearing the news that the album would be self-produced. Nobody was getting in the way of our favourite band anymore. We would finally get pure Muse. Unfortunately, Muse did require some dilution after all. While the scale of their sound had long been their trademark, it became nigh on excruciating to listen to it knowing that Matt was being deadly serious in his corny and cryptic lyrics, and felt as though he was writing the follow up to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s a trend that continued from ‘United States of Eurasia’ (SHA! SHA! SHA!), to The 2nd Law’s dual track title suite. 2015’s Drones didn’t fare much better, despite being it being their alleged return to rock. That wasn’t to say there weren’t some gems in there too. The Resistance had the hard-hitting ‘MK Ultra’, The 2nd Law had them cracking their first smile in years with ‘Panic Station’ and Drones had ‘Reapers’.
This brings me back to that scathing review from The Guardian. I was far more tolerant of them. I didn’t find their music “unbelievably overblown” and “self-important” enough yet to be “horrible”. By now, they had crossed the line, and would give them the same review, in particular The 2nd Law.
More than anything, Muse had become guilty of something that I wish they hadn’t – they wrote music for live performance, and it stuck out like a sore thumb in studio recordings. Indeed, what I felt they lost in the studio, they gained on stage. It wasn’t like those standards were going anywhere as I would find when I saw them twice again on their Resistance tour. Once was in Old Trafford Cricket Ground (04/09/10) and another was at a rather special and infamously amazing show at Wembley Stadium (11/09/10). Refer to it as the ‘Real Fans’ show, and many older fans will know exactly what you are talking about.
I have seen them live twice since, the latest was at Download Festival 2015 (where they performed a unique and awesome set that required them to dig out some heavy rarities, as their recent output wasn’t especially hard enough for a hard rock/metal festival), but the most important to me was at Reading Festival 2011, where they performed Origin of Symmetry start-to-finish. It was a strange experience, and probably not a great idea, as the crowd was depressingly dead throughout all of the obscurities while I wanted to go ballistic. However, the performance itself was terrific and it provided me somewhat with closer on the band who defined my taste in music throughout my teens. With those two shows, I had witnessed the performance of many tracks I never thought I would ever get the chance to. I now have little-to-no desire to see them again. Perhaps is Absolution gets the similar anniversary treatment, I’ll be tempted, but however flashy the lights are, I think it’s over.
It was amazing while it lasted, and they were of great importance regarding my musical growth. As they progressed, so did I. However, when I had stopped clutching onto them and getting angry at my father for badmouthing my tastes anymore, and explored weirder and more wonderful things. For the record, Radiohead came next.
Muse tested my tolerance, and when it hit breaking point, I swerved in new directions. It’s something that I might never have done without the help of Muse. Otherwise, I might lazily wallowing in early 2000s pop-punk nostalgia forever.
Thanks, and no thanks, I suppose.