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Take A Bow
Muse: Black Holes and Revelations
Warner Bros., 2006
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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