Muse

 Muse

 Matt Bellamy – circa 2012

 “Don’t be afraid / Of what your mind conceives / You should make a stand / Stand up for what you believe” – ‘Invincible’ (Matt Bellamy)

It’s too much.  The English rock band Muse is putting together a song called ‘Survival’ for their latest album.  It is 2012 and a male choir has been recorded for the song at Capitol Records Studios in Los Angeles, U.S.A.  Listening to the playback, Muse’s leader, Matt Bellamy, is beside himself.  “When we turned the faders up and could hear those tenors in full flight, we literally cried with laughter,” he says.  “It sounded like [something from the comedy troupe] Monty Python.  It was too late to turn back and we’d spent a fortune on them and it sounded like a Broadway musical!  In the end, we fell in love with it.”

This incident is a good example of what makes Muse tick.  They are a band unafraid of musical – and lyrical – excess.  What saves them from being overbearing, pompous windbags is their embrace of the absurdity of it all.  If it was not for their evident good humour, it would be a bad joke.

Matthew James Bellamy is born 9 June 1978 in Cambridge, England.  His father, George, was a member of The Tornadoes, the instrumental group who scored a no. 1 hit with ‘Telstar’ in 1962.  Matt’s mother, Marilyn, was born in Belfast, Ireland, and migrated to England in the 1970s.  She met George on her first day in her new homeland.  By that time, The Tornadoes were history and George was working as a taxi driver in London.  George and Marilyn married and moved to Cambridge where they had two sons, Paul (born 1976) and Matt.  The younger lad begins playing piano when he is 6.  The family relocates to Teignmouth, Devon In the mid-1980s.

Matt Bellamy learns to play guitar, as well as piano, when he is 11.  He first plays publicly when he performs a piece on piano in June 1991, aged 12, at Teignmouth Community College.  The other two future members of Muse are playing in school bands at the same educational facility.  Like Matt, they were both born elsewhere in England, but subsequently moved to Devon.  Chris Wolstenholme (born 2 December 1978) is born in Rotherham.  Dominic Howard (born 7 December 1977) is born in Stockport, Greater Manchester.  Both boys are playing drums in separate bands.  “I’ve known Matt since I was 12 or 13,” Dominic recalls.  He meets Matt Bellamy when the latter auditions to join Dominic Howard’s band, Carnage Mayhem.  They ask Chris Wolstenholme to learn bass instead and join their band – which he does.  So the three boys first work together when they are 13 in 1991.  Matt suggests they write their own songs.  Aside from Chris and Dom, everybody else who’d been in the band was content to play cover versions.  The outcome is that all the other members quit, leaving only the trio of Matt, Chris and Dominic.  Although somewhat shy and unimposing, the diminutive (5 feet, 7 inches) Matt Bellamy becomes the frontman of the act, but only because, “Nobody [else] wanted to join our band.”

“My parents separated,” Matt Bellamy recalls.  The divorce takes place when he is 13.  He lives with his mother and brother.  “My family went bankrupt.  I experienced the sharp side of the economy.  I was living alone with my mother [and brother] and she was struggling very hard for many, many years.  So I remember what it feels like to be in that struggling period.  So I think some of those experiences you have in your childhood stay with you.”

Carnage Mayhem changes names to Gothic Plague, then Fixed Penalty and then to Rocket Baby Dolls.  It is under the name of Rocket Baby Dolls that they enter a local battle of the bands contest in 1994.  “When we actually won, it was a real shock, a massive shock,” claims Matt Bellamy.  “After that we decided to take ourselves seriously.”  Chris Wolstenholme states that, “There wasn’t much of an original music scene in Devon and when we started we realised why – because nobody wanted to watch original music.  We played gigs to nobody.”

Bellamy, Wolstenholme and Howard decide to forget university, leave their jobs and move out of Devon.  At the same time (1994-1995) the trio is given a new name, Muse.  In Greek mythology, the muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, each of whom presided over one of the liberal arts.  A muse is an inspirational spirit.  The new name for the band is said to have been inspired by Matt Bellamy’s art teacher, Samuel Theoun.  The official line-up of Muse is: Matt Bellamy (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Chris Wolstenholme (bass) and Dominic Howard (drums).

Muse play gigs in Manchester and London, eventually attracting the attention of Dennis Smith.  The owner of Sawmill Studios in Cornwall, Smith signs Muse to the studio’s in-house label, Dangerous Records.

The sound of Muse is perhaps most often described as progressive rock.  That tag is a bit too narrow and deceptive, but it will do for a starting point.  ‘Hugely popular in the early 1970s, prog marked the high point of pop’s ambition to achieve a grandeur usually reserved for classical music.’

“I remember the first classical music I heard, Berlioz and Chopin – it did something to me that I still can’t put into words.  It’s a sense of timelessness,” advises Matt Bellamy.  Classical music is certainly an influence on Muse, but just as much for the ‘grandeur’ of it as the actual compositional structure.  “We love listening to operatic music,” Matt says, “We want to do something big sounding.”  Speaking of their own bombastic songs, Dominic Howard admits, “I love the excessiveness of the whole thing.”

What separates Muse from 1970s progressive rock acts like Yes or Emerson, Lake And Palmer is that Muse doesn’t take it so seriously.  The prog acts of the past decades were more po-faced, seemingly believing they would be remembered in the same breath as their classical influences.  Must do not give this impression – at least, not publicly.  Dominic Howard says of progressive rock, “I associate it with ten-minute guitar solos, but I guess we kind of come into the category.”

Aside from classical music, a big part of progressive rock (whether of the 1970s or Muse’s own variant) is electronics.  Avant-garde composers tinkered with machine-made sounds of high technology, and prog rock appropriated this, usually to soundtrack some science-fiction concept album or song.  Again, Muse likes to do this too but, starting over twenty years later, they have access to a higher level of technology.

Heavy metal, the crushing sound of big guitars, is sometimes present in prog rock and is definitely part of Muse’s sonic arsenal.  Matt Bellamy is a very effective hard rock guitarist and this trait is put to good use.  Along those lines, Muse also borrows from early 1990s grunge rockers Nirvana, citing them as an influence.  This is most apparent in the contrast between loud and soft passages, a favourite move of Nirvana, which is common in Muse’s early recordings.

Perhaps the clearest forerunner of Muse is 1970s-1980s rock band Queen.  Like Muse, Queen apply a love of bombast to a default setting of heavy metal, yet also appear to be laughing up their sleeves at the same time.  Queen also displays a protean gift for dipping in and out of other musical styles for the needs of a single song and Muse too muster up this facility.  The members of Queen have been quite vocal in their praise for Muse.

Lyrically, Muse paint pictures of dystopian societies where individuals are subject to tyrannical authorities whether corporate or governmental.  Sometimes this is cloaked in science-fiction; sometimes it seems like straight reportage of the state of this world.  When Matt Bellamy spoke of the economic hardship that followed the divorce of his parents being an experience that stayed with him, this is what he meant.  The protagonists of Muse songs are ‘the little guys’ being ground up by ‘the big guys’ – until they fight back.  Sometimes, it is taken to such a paranoiac extreme that it seems it must be intended to be humorous, like the accompanying musical pomp and ceremony.  “I don’t think our records contain obvious humour,” counters Matt Bellamy, “We’re not cracking jokes.”  However he does allow that, “I was getting very drawn into obscure conspiracy theories.”  He continues, “It’s quite possible I’m slightly paranoid, but I’d say making music is an expression of feelings of helplessness and lack of control that I think a lot of people can relate to.”  Matt Bellamy describes himself as “a left-leaning libertarian.”  By 2012 he is claiming, “As time’s moved on I’ve become far more rational and empirical and I’ve managed to focus on slightly more realistic, tangible things.”

Matt Bellamy is Muse’s chief songwriter as well as vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist.  From the band’s fifth album, Muse has also acted as their own record producers, increasing their autonomy.

Muse begins their recording career with two EPs: ‘Muse’, released on 11 May 1998, and ‘Muscle Museum’, on 11 January 1999.  These recordings are produced by Paul Reeve.

Dennis Smith and Muse’s manager, Safta Jaffery, start the Taste Media label which releases the first three Muse albums.  Overseas, Maverick / Warner Brothers distribute the discs.

‘Showbiz’ (1999) (UK no. 29, AUS no. 28), Muse’s first full-length album, is co-produced by John Leckie and Paul Reeve.  ‘Uno’ (UK no. 73), ‘Sunburn’ (UK no. 22) and ‘Cave’ (UK no. 52) all conform to the early Muse formula of a delicate passage of music followed by a bludgeoning chorus.  The song titles seem almost arbitrary and have little connection to the lyrics.  ‘Muscle Museum’ (UK no. 25) has perhaps the best lines: “I have played in every toilet / But you still want to spoil it / To prove I’ve made a big mistake.”  ‘Unintended’ (UK no. 20) may be the pick of the bunch.  It is differentiated from most of its companions by being a gentle, acoustic piece, a twisted sort of love song.

The follow-up, ‘Origin Of Symmetry’ (2001) (UK no. 3, US no. 161, AUS no. 22), deals with ‘the fear of the evolution of technology.’  The abrasive ‘Plug-In Baby’ (UK no. 11, AUS no. 57) features some impressive guitar work from Matt Bellamy.  ‘Hypermusic’ (UK no. 24) gains the group some attention and songs like ‘New Born’ (UK no. 12) and ‘Bliss’ (UK no. 22) bring ‘a new flamboyance to their work.’  A dispute with Maverick results in the album being distributed by the parent company, Warner Brothers.

Although the first two Muse albums have their moments, ‘Absolution’ (2003) (UK no. 1, US no. 107, AUS no. 21) in September, is a substantial step forward.  It is co-produced by Muse, Rich Costey, Paul Reeve and John Corfield.  The difference seems to be largely in the better structuring of the compositions so that they achieve greater impact and are more conventionally catchy.  This is perhaps best demonstrated on ‘Time Is Running Out’ (UK no. 8).  With finger clicks and a pulsing bass, the verses seem like the soundtrack to a movie thriller, bursting into Matt Bellamy’s cry of “Time is running out / You can’t put it underground / You can’t stop it screaming out.”  ‘Sing For Absolution’ (UK no. 16), that track that provides the album’s title, is a grandiose hymn built on cathedral-sized keyboards with the vocals delicately observing, “Lips are turning blue / A kiss that can’t renew.”  At the other extreme is the flaying heavy metal whips of ‘Hysteria’ (UK no. 17, US no. 118, AUS no. 61).  Yet, ‘Hysteria’ maintains an attractive melody as it demands, “I want it now / Give me your heart and soul.”  If ‘Sing For Absolution’ and ‘Hysteria’ separate the soft and hard components of Muse, ‘Butterflies And Hurricanes’ (UK no. 14) shows they still want to mix them together in one song.  The thumping piano chords of ‘Apocalypse Please’ give the album its most grandiose moment.  The frenzied ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ takes its name from the psychological condition where an abductee begins to sympathise with their kidnappers.

In December 2003 Muse bassist Chris Wolstenholme marries his wife, Kelly.  The couple have six children: Alfie (born 1999), Ava-Jo (born 2001), Frankie (born 2003), Ernie (born 2008), Buster (born 2010) and Teddi (born 2012).

‘Black Holes And Revelations’ (2006) (UK no. 1, US no. 9, AUS no. 1) is the best album by Muse.  It is described as ‘the band’s brightest, most dynamic set of material to date.’  The astonishing single, ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 34), is a masterclass in funk with Matt Bellamy singing in an eye-wateringly high falsetto.  The title alone may suggest it is a song about astronomical phenomena, but, on closer examination, it may be about something rather more earthy.  While the narrator moans, “Oo you set my soul alight,” he sees himself as one of the “superstars sucked into the supermassive / You’re a supermassive black hole.”  The album actually takes its name from a line in ‘Starlight’ (UK no. 13, US no. 101, AUS no. 46): “Our hopes and expectations / Black holes and revelations.”  In this song, rumbling synthesisers overlay the bass tones while the lyrics note, “Far away / This ship has taken me far away / Far away from the memories of the people who care if I live or die.”  Is the ‘ship’ a spaceship or a more conventional ocean-going vessel?  By the time this classy piece of pop reaches its “Hold you in my arms” chorus, it’s too transporting to really care.  The anthemic ‘Invincible’ (UK no. 21) is a flag-waving ode to resilience, while ‘Map Of The Problematique’ (UK no. 18) gives vent to Matt Bellamy’s fears instead.  ‘Assassin’, ‘Exo Politics’ and ‘City Of Delusion’ all voice his conspiracy theory concerns, though, as they grow increasingly coated in science-fiction, they become harder to take as seriously as their author may intend.  By the time of the glorious finale, ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ (UK no. 10), Muse are mixing their musical metaphors so much that this comes out like the soundtrack to a spaghetti western from outer space.  It’s bonkers, but irresistible.  The album is co-produced by Muse and Rich Costey.

Muse move to Warner Brothers with ‘The Resistance’ (2009) (UK no. 1, US no. 3, AUS no. 1), consolidating their previous relationship with that company.  This is the first of the band’s albums on which they act as producers.  ‘The Resistance’ is home to Muse’s best song, ‘Uprising’ (UK no. 9, US no. 37, AUS no. 23).  The lyrics are classic examples of Matt Bellamy’s social conscience at work: “Rise up and take the power back / It’s time the fat cats had a heart attack.”  What really sets this song head and shoulders above the others on this disc is the music.  This track sounds like the illegitimate offspring of 1970s glam rocker Gary Glitter and the theme music from television science-fiction series ‘Dr Who’.  As such, it exemplifies Muse’s traits of power, pomposity and preposterousness.  The next best song on this disc is the semi-classical romantic pop of ‘I Belong To You’ which contains a sample from ‘Mon Coeur S’Ouvre A Ta Voix’ from the opera ‘Samson and Delilah’ composed by Camille Saint-Saens.  Elsewhere, ‘Undisclosed Desires’ (UK no. 49, AUS no. 11) pits pizzicato violins against a funky bass line.  The title track, ‘Resistance’ (UK no. 38, US no. 114, AUS no. 72), continues Bellamy’s fixation with populist revolution and ‘MK Ultra’, taking its name from a rumoured mind-control program fostered by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, oozes busy paranoia.  The album closes with the three-part ‘Exogenesis’ symphony.

‘Neutron Star Collision (Love Is Forever)’ (UK no. 11, US no. 77, AUS no. 37), a single released on 17 May 2010, comes from the soundtrack of ‘The Twilight Saga: Eclipse’.  This movie is a sequel to ‘Twilight’ (2007), which made use of Muse’s ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ in a key sequence.  This time, Muse provides a grandiose new piece for the film.

In spring 2010 Matt Bellamy begins dating Hollywood actress Kate Hudson.  They become engaged in April 2011 and have a son, Bingham (a.k.a. Bing), in July 2011.

‘The 2nd Law’ (2011) (UK no. 1, US no. 2, AUS no. 2) is Muse’s sixth album.  Its title is a reference to the second law of thermodynamics i.e. an isolated system is doomed to exhaust its energy supplies and succumb to entropy.  This is the basis for the closing tracks, ‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable’ and ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System’.  The point of this is an ecological message; that our planet’s dependence on fossil fuels is not going to be feasible forever.  The album embraces wider lyrical concerns.  Matt Bellamy says of ‘Madness’ (UK no. 25, US no. 45, AUS no. 82), “That song is about having a fight and I thought that most men could relate to when you get to that point in the fight where you go, ‘Whatever, she was right, of course she was right.’”  To illustrate, the lyrics say, “When I look back at all the crazy fights we had / It’s like some kind of madness / Was taking control, yeah.”  Some claims that this song is a dub-step number but, whether that’s completely accurate, the different rhythmic approach gives some freshness to Muse.  The funky ‘Panic Station’ slams about.  ‘Survival’ (UK no. 25, US no. 45, AUS no. 82) (the song with the over-the-top chorus of male vocalists) is actually the official song of the London 2012 Summer Olympics, though Matt Bellamy allows that the song represents the ‘darker side of sporting competition.’  ‘Supremacy’ (UK no. 58) is put across with flattening authority while ‘Animals’ disdain is appropriately capped with the sound of chaotic Wall Street financial traders.  On this album Chris Wolstenholme writes and sings two songs, ‘Save Me’ and ‘Liquid State’, which are ‘inspired by his battle with alcoholism.’  They are surprisingly good and a welcome addition to Muse’s range.  This album is described as ‘envelope-pushing stadium rock.’

Matt Bellamy and Kate Hudson separate in December 2014.  By February 2015, Bellamy is dating Elle Evans, a model and actress.

‘Drones’ (2015) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) is released in June.  The album is co-produced by Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange and Muse.  If anyone was expecting a meditation on Matt Bellamy’s split from Kate Hudson, they are largely disappointed.  The sharp-edged and shuddering ‘Dead Inside’ (UK no. 71, US no. 111) is allegedly about that subject, but otherwise ‘Drones’ sticks to Muse’s usual obsessions with conspiracy and world power.  Matt Bellamy gets a lot of mileage out of the word ‘drones’ since it pops up in the lyrics to four songs.  He also enjoys the twin meaning of a ‘drone’ as an unthinking worker and the name for an unmanned flying probe or bomb.  The swaggering guitar of ‘Psycho’ is the album’s most heavy metal moment; its lyrics reflect a dehumanising drill sergeant nightmare (“I’m gonna make you a f***ing psycho”).  ‘Mercy’ (UK no. 108) sounds like a descendant of previous Muse hit ‘Starlight’, but it is almost as likeable.  A speech by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy is used to frame ‘Defector’ – and perhaps to lend unlikely support to some of the song’s more extreme views.  Muse continues to borrow from classical sources for their musical bombast.  ‘The Globalist’ is based on Edward Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ and the Gregorian chant ‘Drones’ that closes the album is based on Giovanni da Palestrina’s ‘Sanctus And Benedictus’.

It’s hard to deny that sometimes Muse took it all too far.  What prevented that becoming disastrous was their own sense of humour about their work.  They took it seriously, but not so seriously that they were blind to the moments of excess.  There was also a refreshing balance achieved through the absorption of multiple strands of music beyond progressive rock e.g. heavy metal, funk, classical, dub-step, pop, etc.  Muse offered up a ‘fusion of progressive rock, glam [and] electronica.’  ‘Muse commanded a wide-ranging respect through a combination of diverse, progressively inclined albums and their enormous reputation as a live act.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – Interview with Matt Bellamy and review of ‘The 2nd Law’, both by Cameron Adams (27 September 2012) p. 42, 43, 44
  2. wikipedia.org as at 12 August 2013, 1 January 2016
  3. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 73
  4. ‘Tout Le Monde En Parle’ (Quebec, Canada, television program) – Matt Bellamy and Dominic Howard interview (28 April 2013)
  5. musewiki.org as at 16 September 2013
  6. allmusic.com, ‘Muse’ by Heather Phares as at 15 September 2013
  7. ‘The Observer’ (U.K. newspaper) – Muse interview conducted by Dorian Lynskey (30 September 2012) (reproduced on theguardian.com)
  8. ‘The Australian Contemporary Dictionary’ – Edited by J.B. Foreman, M.A. (1959) p. 330
  9. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.309, 317
  10. ‘Absolution’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Taste Media Ltd., 2003) p. 2
  11. Drones’ – Anonymous sleeve notes )Warner Music, 2015) p. 16
  12. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia newspaper) – ‘Muse Serve Up Familiar Fare’, review of ‘Drones’ by Cameron Adams (4 June 2015) p. 38

Song lyrics copyright Taste Media Ltd (1999 – 2003), Warner Chappell (2006 – 2015)

Last revised 3 January 2016

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