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Take A Bow

 

Muse: Black Holes and Revelations

Warner Bros., 2006

Rating: 4.2

 

Posted: September 22, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Maybe it's the psychic detritus of 9/1l and the ever-escalating tensions in the Middle East, bubbling to a boil in the collective Western consciousness. Maybe it's a subconscious reaction to our increasingly isolated world of cell phones, the Internet and atrocious manners. Whatever the cause, it's clear that, just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki did a serious number on the Japanese people (c'mon -- anime? Those funky game shows of theirs? You know I'm right!), something is triggering one of those occasional periods of unbridled musical indulgence.

The signs are all there. Think about it: Christina Aguilera goes for broke with a jazzy double-album. Gnarls Barkley scores a naggingly unshakable hit. Wolfmother, of all things, gets treated with reverence instead of the scorn we're rightfully heaping on the Darkness. Even Justin Timberlake is getting freaky in his own bad-acid-trip way (bless his little heart). I'd argue there hasn't been a shift this pronounced since Achtung Baby.

So if you're a progressive-rock band known for troweling on the bombast, what do you do when the cultural needle swings over to your less-disciplined side of the barometer? Well, you can do an about-face and quiet things down (boring; hasn't Radiohead already done that?), you can simply pile more layers of noise and testosterone on top of your pre-existing layers; or you can route your musical vigor sideways instead of just higher, channeling your ambition into newer sounds and textures.

That, thankfully, is the tack that the English trio Muse has pursued on Black Holes and Revelations. You hear traces of it in the opening "Take a Bow," the way the arpeggiated flutter of notes builds into a dense dance-floor stutter before exploding into a classic Brian May guitar moment. You get a firmer grasp of it with the absolutely soaring "Starlight," with its amped-up, insistently melodic keyboard riff (uncomfortably suggestive of ABC's "Be Near Me") floating over a buzzing bass line, as singer/guitarist Matthew Bellamy sings of spaceships and lovers conspiring to ignite, as if reading the lyric sheet from the most demonically insipid unreleased Styx B-side of all time.

But the rocket really hits the ionosphere on "Supermassive Black Hole" and "Map of the "Problematique." The former throbs with a clinical space-funk urgency, given added juice via Bellamy's cooing falsetto (which turns into an impassioned whisper). The latter, meanwhile, is a strobe-friendly dance-floor rock-out accented by crystalline shards of some forgotten early Depeche Mode number. They're the two farthest-out and yet most fully realized songs Black Holes offers, improbably balancing grand gestures with a sense of poised control, never spiraling out of control or careening over the top.

Although that one-two punch is the high point of the album, there are other impressive and/or notable moments: the skittery Marillion meets Bends-era Radiohead by way of Bad Brains pseudo-thrash of "Assassin," which achieves a tight airiness the Red Hot Chili Peppers could never hope to approach; the out-of-nowhere Spanish horns that appear in the middle of the otherwise straightforward rocker "City of Delusion," echoed briefly in the flamenco whisper that opens "Hoodoo."

And then there's the kitchen-sink closer "Knights of Cydonia," a balls-out progressive-rock rocker that builds to a climax of multitracked vocals straight out of the early Rush or Queen playbook. This one is over-the-top, and proud of it, thank you very much, a swaggering victory lap that hammers home the album's overriding lyrical theme: standing up against the tyrants who must pay for their crimes against the earth.

Coming at another time, another cultural moment, Black Holes and Revelations would sound irredeemably pretentious and overbearing. But this isn't that moment, and there's something liberating and even heartening about the scope of Muse's outsized ambitions -- kind of like the way you felt about Pink Floyd's The Wall after you got over the suicidal impulses. And although it's hopelessly trite to say so, in the spirit of excess we have to go there: In terms of sheer Freddie Mercury bravado and guitar-shredding, genre-jumping prog-rock pomposity, this stirring record is indeed (forgive me) something of a revelation.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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