MUSE - THE FORUM - MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2019
Last Monday night I ventured out among the hoi polloi to see the band Muse, whose Simulation Theory tour had rolled into town for a one night stand at the Los Angeles Forum.
Muse is a difficult band to accurately describe. The English power-trio made up of Matt Bellamy (lead vocals, guitar, keyboard), Chris Wolstenholme (bass, backing vocals) and Dominic Howard (drums) are sort of an amalgam of arena rock, prog rock, hard rock and electronica that over their twenty year career have consistently churned out a cavalcade of catchy alt-political anthems. If Roger Waters’ led Pink Floyd (Animals, Final Cut), Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust incarnation, Queen, Rush and The Who in their rock opera phase (in this case especially Tommy), were all thrown into a blender and mixed together, you’d get Muse. That is not to say that Muse is as good as any of those bands but just to give you an indication of their rock and roll DNA.
Muse have released eight studio albums, all of them in one form or another specifically themed “concept albums”, that have examined everything from alienation in space to physics to conspiratorial militarism to propaganda and nearly everywhere in between. The band’s latest, Simulation Theory, is a synth-driven, pop-rock psuedo-opera exploring a manufactured video-game/matrix reality and political dysfunction that taps heavily into science fiction and 80’s pop culture. The album cover is reminiscent of the poster for Spielberg’s 80’s nostalgia film from last year Ready Player One, and the album touches upon similar themes.
Muse can be a polarizing band, some think they are one of the best rock bands in the world while others think they are a derivative, cheesy embarrassment. I understand the conflict even if I don’t agree with it. Muse are undoubtedly full of bombast and artistic ambition…I mean what other modern rock band has the confidence, if not arrogance, to continually make concept albums and rock operas? But with that said, this is rock and roll and a certain level of bombast and artistic arrogance is helpful if not required.
I am not a Muse cultist, but after discovering them when their 2006 radio-friendly album Black Holes and Revelations was in heavy rotation, I certainly became a fan. That album, which featured the hits “Take a Bow”, “Starlight”, “Supermassive Black Hole” and “Knights of Cydonia”, was like a guitar-driven breath of fresh air for rock…or the genre’s last gasp…depending on your perspective.
Black Holes and Revelations then led me to their earlier albums, Absolution (2003) and Origin of Symmetry(2001), both of which energetically lay the groundwork for their later breakthrough success.
The Resistance (2009), and its infectious call to arms “Uprising”, kept the bands momentum going by admirably following up Black Holes and Revelations. 2nd Law (2012) and Drones (2015) came soon after and were solid albums but failed to capture as much of the cultural imagination as their earlier work. Simulation Theory came out last year and even though it is more pop-oriented than the preceding albums, it too failed to get much attention from our rock-allergic culture.
Which leads us to the Simulation Theory tour and Monday night at The Forum. I own the majority, but not all, of Muse’s albums but I have never seen them live. My friend, the music afficianado Fire Thorn, saw them on their last tour and highly recommended them to me, but I still hesitated to buy tickets. Then in a moment of weakness I recently noticed they hadn’t entirely sold out The Forum so I searched and found a good deal on some nice seats and I took the plunge.
The Forum is a terrific venue for music. My first experience there was thanks to a friend who is a big shot in the music industry who got me in to see Van Halen rehearse for their first reunion tour in 2007. Van Halen was one of my favorite bands when I was a kid, so getting to see a private show by the band at The Forum for me and 14 other people was a magical experience that emotionally attached me to the venue for life.
Getting to The Forum is pretty easy, but getting out of there after a show is a total traffic nightmare. My night got off to a good start though when I found a sneaky good place to park across the street from The Forum that only cost $5 more than the arena parking and helped us to escape quickly and unscathed after the show.
The opening act was the band Walk the Moon which I had never heard of, but then when they started to play I realized they had a song that my friends two year old daughter is crazy about titled, “Shut Up and Dance”. My first impressions of Walk the Moon were that I was not particularly impressed. As my date, the inimitable Lady Pumpernickle Dusseldorf noted, they are like if Flock of Seagulls and N’Sync had a baby….or as I added…had an abortion. To be fair, the band has talent, no doubt, but the songs were weak and it just wasn’t my thing. My one observation was that the lead singer has a decent voice but he is a little TOO good a dancer…and the general rule when it comes to lead singers is that they should move well (think Mick Jaggar or Jim Morrison) but not dance too well.
After Walk the Moon walked off the stage, which was followed by an interminably long wait that had John Carpenter music as its soundtrack, Muse hit the stage around 9 pm, and turned The Forum into ground zero in the war for rock and roll’s survival.
The band opened with the first song off of Simulation Theory, the mood setting Algorithm which brought the near capacity crowd to its feet. The audience was jumping and singing along from the get go and the energy ran high as they stayed on their feet for the entire two hour show.
Rock is dead is a refrain I hear often, mostly because I am the one saying it, but I can attest that on Monday, March 11th, at The Forum, rock was alive and well and kicking…hard. Muse put on an astonishing show, one of the very best I have ever seen. That is the thing about Muse, they don’t just play music and play it exceedingly well, they put on a SHOW. The stage set, the costumes, the “dancers”…it was all a fantastic spectacle.
Any band that puts out concept album after concept album like Muse does is an artistically ambitious one, and that ambition was on full display at The Forum. Lead singer and guitarist Matt Bellamy, who at different times wore electronic goggles, an electronic suit, or both, was often accompanied by “dancers” that looked like a Kubrickian marching band of demonic robots. These dancers would sometimes hang from the ceiling in front of giant video screens, or bang large drums, or wear video face masks displaying an upside down American flag (the sign for distress), or would wield glowing light weapons.
In some ways the show that Muse put on could be interpreted as a parody of a rock show, with all the bells and whistles being a sign of decadence, but the one thing that stops that from happening is the impressive and impeccable musicianship of the band.
Bellamy is a powerful singer whose voice maintains its strength and clarity even when he hits his falsetto, which is often. His guitar playing is spectacular as well, both muscular and precise, and rattles you to your bones. Bellamy is not the most charismatic stage presence on the planet, so he is greatly aided by the Greek chorus of techno-dancers from hell that amplify the story of each song.
Bassist Chris Wolstenholme is the hidden gem in the band. His bass playing is superb but it is his backing vocals that are even more impressive. Wolstenholme’s vocals perfectly bolster and mix with Bellamy’s, and give the band a rich vocal texture that elevates the material.
Drummer Dominic Howard is the heavy-handed beast who lays the foundation from which Bellamy’s voice and volcanic guitar blast off. Although the band is a power trio, they do have an added musician on tour, a keyboard/secondary guitar player, who is tucked next to Howard during the show and who adds to the gigantic tsunami of sound the band produces.
The band played for two hours and not once did the energy in the building even remotely dissipate. Even though Simulation Theory has not sold very well, the audience absolutely loved the new material and much to my surprise knew the words to all of the new songs. My date Lady Dusseldorf had never heard Simulation Theory at all and even she got swept away by the tribal love for the new songs. In total, Muse played eight songs off of Simulation Theory and every single one of them was instantaneously met with rapturous cries of approval from the faithful.
The highlights of the show are almost too numerous to count as the whole thing was a supernova of highlights. But if I have to choose the best parts I would say Pressure and Uprising were the best songs in the first quarter of the show, with Mercy and the ferocious rebel anthem Time is Running Out being mid-show highlights. The climax of the show, from “Take a Bow” to the infectious “Starlight” to the ludicrously phenomenal encore medley to the closer, “Knights of Cydonia”, was deliriously and deliciously intoxicating.
Muse may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like hard arena rock music wrapped in a captivating rock and roll spectacle, then I urge you to go see Muse live, I promise that you’ll be impressed…I sure as hell was. Rock may be dying, but last Monday night at The Forum Muse proved that they won’t let it go down without a nasty fight.
Break it to Me
Plug In Baby
The Dark Side
Super Massive Black Hole
The 2nd Law: Unsustainable
Time is Running Out
Take a Bow
Stockholm Syndrome/Assassin/Reapers/The Handler/New Born
Knights of Cydonia