The best rock band you’ve never heard of

BY THOMAS CMAR

The three members of the British band Muse — Matthew Bellamy on vocals and guitars, Chris Wolstenholme on bass and Dominic Howard on drums — have accomplished quite a bit for each being only 20 years of age.

Their first album, “Showbiz,” sold over 700,000 copies worldwide. They toured America in 2000 with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They have worked with two of the best producers in the business, John Leckie (The Verve, Radiohead’s “The Bends”) and David Bottril (A Perfect Circle, Tool). In their native Britain, they have won numerous critics’ awards over the last few years — lofty awards such as “Best New Band” and “Best Live Act.” This summer, they released their second album, “Origin of Symmetry,” to much fanfare and critical acclaim.

But you’re not British. You’re American. And odds are, you have never heard of them.

Don’t worry. It’s not your fault. I don’t blame you, and I’m sure Muse doesn’t blame you, either. The truth is, they have received almost no exposure before the American music audience. “Showbiz” was released in 1999 in the States under Madonna’s vanity imprint, Maverick Records, and with little marketing or radio play, not to mention a lack of MTV airtime, it sold poorly. Indeed, the closest Muse ever came to reaching a mainstream American audience was when one of their songs, “Sunburn,” was licensed by Apple for an iMAC commercial.

With rock as a genre going through lean times commercially in America, Maverick was not ready to give Muse any second chances. When it came time to release “Origin of Symmetry,” Muse was forced to do a Europe-only release. America, quite literally, does not know what it is missing. The musical leap forward between “Showbiz” and “Origin” is as dramatic as the leap that Radiohead took between “OK Computer” and “Kid A,” but in an entirely different direction. Radiohead has flattened and layered its sound while incorporating influences as disparate as Aphex Twin and experimental jazz. By contrast, Muse has become, if anything, even more of a rock band than they were before. Tapping into the wellspring of ferocious anger that lay under the surface throughout much of “Showbiz,” Muse has become the Who of the 21st Century: an operatic wall of crashing sound imbued with a consumptive, destructive power.

This reckless embrace of entropy carries over most clearly into Muse’s live performances. The trio’s equipment trashing rivals Pete Townshend on a good day, and if the rumors are to be believed, their appetite for physical excess is comparable to that of Keith Moon. The British music tabloids like Melody Maker and Kerrang just eat it up, and Muse — especially frontman Bellamy — have not been shy about feeding their celebrity. If you believe Bellamy’s press, he is, according to Australia’s Rave magazine, “a raving mad, pretentious, drug-addled tosser.”

Ultimately, of course, it’s all about the music. Listening to Bellamy’s passionate wail on “Origin of Symmetry,” coupled with a jagged piano and guitars that are most certainly turned up to 11, one begins to feel like one is listening to the soundtrack to an epic film, a sort of Blade Runner meets Cecil B. DeMille. Muse is at its best when nothing is held back, as on the first two singles, “Plug In Baby” and “Newborn.” In the calm between the storms of music, there are moments of quiet elegance. The most precious of these is the penultimate track, “Feeling Good,” a song that, if not for the inclusion of such rock elements as distorted vocals and a guitar crescendo at the song’s climax, could just as easily have been done by a lounge act.

“Origin of Symmetry” is, in the less-than-humble opinion of this reviewer, the best album by a young rock band to come out this year. Like I said, it’s available in the States only on import; I got my copy on order from Amazon. But for those of you out there who are devout fans of real rock ‘n’ roll music of a kind that just isn’t available in the marketplace these days, for those of you who are tired of empty posturing and songs that sound like watered down versions of older, better songs, you absolutely need this album. If Muse catches on in America, they just might save rock ‘n’ roll.

Comments