“Big rock” trio, Muse, is back at it with their eighth studio effort, “Simulation Theory”. After what was announced as possibly their last studio album, “Drones”, three years ago, “Simulation Theory” seems like a sudden and surprising offering from the group, but in reality was an organic creation, slowly formed over their multi year hiatus. The result is a very inspired effort and the most cohesive, epic, and theamatic work since “Black Holes and Revelations”, twelve years ago.
For a band of just three, Muse sure comes off as one very big band, with a larger than life sound and persona. Their pop music and pop culture sensibilities further solidify them as a giant, mainstream rock band, almost to the point of becoming a guilty pleasure for any hard core music enthusiast, especially when you consider them as being synonomous with teens and “Twilight” vampires. What breaks them from this mold, are the dark and distopian themes that are increasingly pervasive in their music, all the while achieving the polish and superior craftsmanship associated with more mainstream music acts. “Simulation Theory” has struck this delicate balance.
Outside of the recent resurgence of vinyl as a popular music medium, the relevance of a music album’s cover art is certainly not what it once was. So, when Muse recruited Kyle Lambert of “Stranger Things” fame, to do the cover art to “Simulation Theory”, it was a very clever play on the aforementioned band’s pop sensibilities and mainstream appeal while at the same time staying true to the dark and distopian themes that dominate their music. Beside the popularity of the artist, the actual art does a great job of capturing this duality of the band. The colors and style scream pop, yet some of the imagery hint at an underlying darkness and mystery. If this was an LP from the eighties, the cover art would have gone a very long way into creating the mystique and mystery of what was to come before the listener dives into the “Simulation”.
Before diving into the “Simulation”, it is also worth mentioning that another once, significant aspect of music that has changed in recent times is the relevance and purpose of music videos and how this band decided to address this as well. Just like with the album artwork, Muse decided to defy modern convention and went “all in” on music videos for “Simulation Theory”. They created a series of videos for multiple songs off the album that portray the various simulations that the listener, or viewer in the case of VR, can partake in. These music videos capture much of the imagery off of the album cover art and they work synergistically to reveal the overall theme of the album which is that that there’s a wizard behind the curtain or simulation that is controlling the whole show. Besides faithfully recreating much of Kyle Lambert’s imagery on the album cover, the style, casting, and individual plots of each video go a very long way in also capturing the bands pop sensibilities and mainstream appeal, while revealing some of the dark themes that also define their current sound.
Beyond the artwork and the videos, the actual music is where “Simulation Theory” shines. As much as the cover art and videos help contribute to the album’s dystopian theme, ironically, when you ignore these visual components and just consider the sounds and the music, “Simulation Theory”, is an intoxicating and immersive journey into Muse’s hellish vision of the world. The music itself is the perfect showcase for the band’s aforementioned duality with it’s tight, epic, and bombastic sounds that speak about dark subject matter.
Right off the bat, with “Algorithms” they lead the listener into a pulsating soundscape that slowly builds with pianos, synths, and guitars, and which is metaphorically taking the subject into the “simulation”. Just like the musical stylings on this opening track , the lyricism is also trademark Muse. They are sparse, yet poetic and anthem-esque lyrics that flirt with profundity and hint at density, but not at the risk of pretentiousness.
Once inside the “simulation”, this album seems to play out in two parts. Although certainly not done chronilogically, and maybe not intentionally, part of “Simulation Theory” speaks about oppression, the oppressive forces, and literally transports listeners to “The Darkside”. The other part of the album, albeit the majority, speaks about rising against this oppression and emerging out of the dark.
An excellent example of the dark that the band has conjured up for part of this album is “Thought Contagion”. They certainly don’t do themselves any favors escaping the “Twilight” vampire association, but this song is a really fun vampire analogy about being bit and infected by lies and deception. You have songs like the co-produced Timberland, “Propoganda”, that further articulate the oppressive forces at work, in “The Simulation.” Even at the end of the album and after “The Simulation” is revealed and the hero is summoned to rise above, the enescapable darkness still lurks in “The Void”, which is the very last song on the album.
Then there’s the other part of “Simulation Theory”. Muse spends most of their time and energy on the album playing music to fuel the revolution and quite a few tracks come off like incantations or battle cries for the good fight taking place. Once the curtain is pulled back and the “simulation” is revealed, the band beckons the listener to manifest the energy and strength to fight and emerge from the darkness and lies taking place around them. Songs like “Pressure” and it’s marching band music, (there’s even a really cool version with the UCLA marching band!), are energetic anthems that seem to pull the listener out of the abyss every time it gets deeper. If it’s not at a pep rally, with a marching band that get the listener out of the rut, Muse takes things to church and sing the good gospel with “Dig Down”. Encouraging listeners to “Get up and Fight”, playing all this motivational music on over one half of the album is very good for the band. It shows their vast technical capabilities, their musical diversity, and a great understanding of a wide range of sounds. The music continues to come off as epic and cinematic in scope, each and every time, yet never corny or derivative.
“Something Human” is the strongest song on “Simulation Theory” and sums up Muse’s latest work, best. Since the album is about humans living in a simulation, and breaking out of it, “Something Human” is the moment where one takes a deep breath and step back and realizes what the whole thing is about. It is the realization of humanity in the midst of artificiality. Since this album is void (no pun intended) of singing about love in a romantic sense, part of this song’s brilliance lies in it being the only ballet on the album, and it does what any good ballet does and talks about love, only, love in the sense of love for and of humanity, in this case. This cryptic message and dualistic meaning along with the beauty and grand scale of the music, make “Something Human”, a very special way of tying the album together and it epitomizes where Muse is at as musicians and what they are going for on “Simulation Theory”.