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October 5, 2009 | by  | in Music |
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Muse : The Resistance (Helium-3/Warner)

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Muse are a band that defies classification—consensus seems to affirm their status as a rock band, but exactly what kind of rock no one is quite sure. This confused state of affairs seems set to continue with the release of their latest LP, The Resistance, an album that draws on themes of a dystopian future. Or maybe it’s a dystopian present—group leader Matthew Bellamy is famously a conspiracy theorist (their latest live compilation album was named HAARP after a US military-funded weather research station).

Drawing on such inspiration has led to the perception of Muse as one of the most eccentric mainstream rock acts in the business, and it’s a tag they’ve gladly accepted as a challenge—The Resistance provides evidence enough of that. Album opener ‘Uprising’ is a seductive glam-rock hit for the recession era, declaring “it’s time the fat cats had a heart attack”—a lyric that would be ridiculous if sung by some earnest indie band, it passes as sublime here. There’s plenty of doom-and-gloom in the lyrics throughout this album, with “thought-police”, “hungry for some unrest”, and even an exodus to outer space to ensure the survival of the species.

Not all of the bombast hits the mark, however, with some missteps along the way. ‘United States of Eurasia’ is an embarrassingly over-the-top (yet somehow completely boring) ballad, while ‘Guiding Light’ is a clichéd power ballad that never goes beyond the sum of its parts—but Muse reach their destination with dignity intact.

They succeed best here when they experiment in genres they are not known for. If you thought nothing good would ever come out of Timbaland’s bastardisation of R&B, think again—‘Undisclosed Desires’ is a totally-unexpected (and, dare I say it, dramatically successful) take on the genre, surpassing anything done by the aforementioned producer. The Resistance’s three-part closer is perhaps even more outside the boundaries of Muse’s previous work. Although they are known for their string arrangements, Muse’s ‘Exogenesis Symphony’ (the three movements are called ‘Overture’, ‘Cross-pollination’, and ‘Redemption’) is a full-blown orchestral piece. This is definitely a Muse that has never been heard before—a piece that sounds like the result of all their grandiose fantasies finally being taken seriously in the recording studio. You’ve never heard a man sing so high, you’ve never heard a rock band reach so desperately “to the stars”, and you’ve never truly enjoyed orchestral music until this point. It’s a signal of intent from the band with a broad range of inspirations, but it’s probably not what most old Muse fans will buy the album for either.

Fans of Muse come to Muse for the rock, and there’s some of that here. But they don’t provide the album’s highlights—for sure, ‘Unnatural Selection’ is a prog-punk masterpiece, but ‘MK Ultra’ and ‘Resistance’ sound tired. In fact, Muse sound tired on this album. Tired of expectations. Tired of critics. Tired of the old Muse. Muse don’t shine when they go where they’ve been before, and you can tell they aren’t enjoying it either. Where this album stands out, where Muse excel, is pushing the boundaries of what a rock band should be capable of doing. A rock band shouldn’t be capable of pushing the R&B envelope. A rock band shouldn’t be capable of exploiting an orchestra’s depth. A rock band shouldn’t even contemplate putting a clarinet solo in a self-mocking pop song. But, despite all odds, Muse pull it off.

It’s not perfect. It’s not always pretty. Sometimes, it isn’t even listenable. But Muse push the boundaries of what they should be able to accomplish, and they do it at a canter. Once you get past the initial shock, there’s plenty to love in The Resistance.

Oh, and the genre? Maybe it should be space-rock.

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