The curtain rises on a world falling apart. The people in charge are lying and instead of trust, there’s a sense of fear, unease and uncertainty reigning supreme. Corruption is rife, division even more so. And this is still only the beginning. A world on the edge of so much worse. Sound familiar? At least the blokes on the front cover of Muse’s ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ look like they’ve got a plan.
Yup, Muse’s fourth album is a decade old this Sunday (July 3rd) and perhaps makes more sense today than it did ten years ago. But more than a prophetic half-warning (if Matt Bellamy was right about this, then maybe the Queen really is related to a secret race of shape-shifting reptiles from the Alpha Draconis star system. We should also stop The Machines before it’s too late – Ed.) ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ (or ‘BHAR’ to its friends) is responsible for pretty much everything Muse have done since. It was nominated for both a BRIT and a Mercury and while it’s not the most celebrated amongst the fans (that honour probably lies somewhere between ‘Absolution’ and ‘Origin of Symmetry’) it is their most unified record. It’s Muse being Muse without trading on past glories. It catches the band in transit. It captures them crossing over from odd little outsiders to selling out stadiums again and again. It’s Muse at their most exciting, making good on all their promises while still packing a surprising punch or two.
See, back in 2006 Muse were on the cusp. They’d proven they could headline a festival or two off the back of ‘Absolution’ but they still hadn’t cemented themselves as A Big Deal. They were lacking the hits. The firepower. Yeah, they had ‘Time Is Running Out’ and ‘Plug In Baby’ but they still didn’t have the banging texture for every live scenario. Going into ‘BHAR’ the band knew it was all or nothing. That’s probably why the recording process, split between France and New York, was so scattered. It worked out though. Two sold out shows at Wembley Stadium secured the top-slot billing they’ve held ever since and allowed the band to create a blueprint for what a Muse gig needed, from moments of cheese to epic finales. Those gigs also let Muse finally indulge in putting together a serious level of production. It gave Matt Bellamy the platform to become a certified ridiculous rock star instead of just ‘a bit of a weirdo’. (We can’t have been the only ones to have bought white skinny jeans – Ed.) As the blimps and drones of their most recent tour proved, they haven’t looked back since.
In an interview at the time, Matt Bellamy admitted “We’ve got to a point where we’re pretty much free to do whatever we like.” You can feel that across the record. ‘BHAR’ is easily the most shocking album Muse have put their name to. ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, ‘Knights of Cydonia’, ‘Map of the Problematique’; there just wasn’t anyone else making music like that around. From the introduction of synths, trumpets and groove, to their new-found confidence to use voice as an instrument, every discovery on ‘BHAR’ can be found within everything released since. It’s also the last time Muse really pushed themselves forward. The likes of ‘Resistance’, ‘The 2nd Law’ and ‘Drones’ lean heavily on the path already trodden. ‘BHAR’ found its own way.
And as shocking as it was at the time, ten years on it still holds up. ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ is still (somehow) sexy, ‘Starlight’ is perfect for the stadiums they now inhabit and there’s a very good reason the band still finish almost every show with ‘Knights of Cydonia’. Elsewhere, ‘Invincible’ sees the band nail the lighters-in-the-air euphoria (Be honest, ‘Defector’ just isn’t as powerful.) ‘Soldier’s Poem’ sees Muse at their most vulnerable since ‘Blackout’ while ‘Assassin’, despite stiff competition from ‘Pyscho’, ‘MK Ultra’ and ‘Supremacy’ is still the most aggressive and angry Muse have ventured.
Despite their love of a concept ‘BHAR’ is the closet Muse have got to an actual cohesive theme. No, just shouting “Drones” doesn’t count Matthew. Front to back there’s not a bad song on ‘BHAR’; something that’s tough to argue about on any of their other records. From the opening accusation of ‘Take A Bow’ – ”You bring death and destruction to all that you touch…. You must pay for your crimes against the earth”- Muse’s fourth album tells a tale of a world on the brink. Every song comes from a different perspective but they’re all tied together with uncertainty. Feelings of being let down by a system that was supposed to have your back are held up like a placard. From the pursuit of ‘Map of the Problematique’ -“Fear and panic in the air, I want to be free from desolation and despair”- through the stark realisation of ‘Soldier’s Poem’ -“there’s no justice in the world, and there never was”- until the questioning of ‘Exo-Politics’. ‘BHAR’ is a bleak, untrustworthy place. Muse recognise that.
Instead of simply standing back and accepting their fate a la ‘Absolution’, ‘BHAR’ sees Muse pushing back. Before this record, Muse had never really done hope. They’d always kept a safe distance, but now they were in the trenches amongst us. With the beating heart of the album, ‘Invincible’ declaring “you should make a stand, stand up for what you believe” and “let’s use this chance to turn things around” their message of unity and sticking together rang true then and still does now. It’s the only way to make a change, and that’s exactly what Muse wanted. ‘Assassin’ wants to “Oppose and disagree. Destroy demonocracy” while ‘City of Delusion’ is out to “Break these walls down”. Sure, ‘Starlight’ and ‘Hoodoo’ long for an escape but it’s not that easy.
As Bellamy explains, “There is this feeling of waking up and trying to fight back, or it’s time to actually try and change yourself and the things that are going on around you. I think to me that’s very optimistic, this strength. Sometimes it comes out in a very violent form, like in song, like ‘Assassin’ or a more obvious form like at the end of ‘Knights of Cydonia’ when I’m just saying, ‘No one is going to take me alive’ and all that kind of stuff. I think it’s the strength of the human spirit fighting against the forces that are manipulating it.”
In 2016, the future hasn’t ever seemed this bleak. Still, here’s to ten years of Black Holes and Revelations. Maybe we should have paid more attention to Muse. Maybe that’s how bad it’s got. Maybe there’s still a chance.