The first LP from Muse since their 2015 album Drones is a throwback to the first seven years of the Eighties. The tom-toms are cavernous like a Jan Hammer or Phil Collins production on the Miami Vice soundtrack. The dystopian, technophobic action movie narrative seems in the same vein as films like The Running Man and The Terminator. A band that’s logged nearly 20 years in the major label rock sphere, Muse mixed Radiohead’s alt-rock shirt-pullers with Queen’s triumphant heft in epic jams about theoretical physics, systems science and environmental philosophy. As enthusiasts of anything big and bold, they’ve always had an ear for majesty, from Ennio Morricone to Tangerine Dream.
However, Muse are a platinum rock band working their way through a trend about seven years too late. Their “totally epic Eighties” referents feel wholly derivative, a hard rock version of the territory that bands like Empire of the Sun and Phoenix have been Tron-biking for years. It was an underground fave long before, but it exploded by the release of Drive in 2011. Since then interest in synth noir has rebooted the career of John Carpenter, helped make a sensation of Stranger Things and created a small industry for “outrun” or “synthwave” bands like Perturbator, Carpenter Brut and Power Glove.
The cover of Simulation Theory looks like the poster to Ready Player One and Muse’s mining of the Eighties seems just as deep: a set of references that have already carried weight for years. The neon pink cursive font feels borrowed from Drive, which borrowed it from Risky Business. The album cover was done by Stranger Things artist Kyle Lambert, who took influence from artists like Blade Runner designer Drew Struzan. The synth throbs of “Algorithm” and “The Void” seem borrowed from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s soundtrack to Stranger Things, which co-creator Matt Duffer said originally got its tone from “putting John Carpenter music over shots from E.T.” “Dig Down” fast-forwards to George Michael’s “Freedom ’90” which was a rewrite of Aretha Franklin’s “Think.”
Throughout the album, frontman Matt Bellamy sings like he’s trapped in a popcorn flick: “Break me out/Let me flee,” “Don’t push me/Let me get off the ground,” “Let’s face all our fears come out of the shade,” “Get up and fight,” “Smash, test, beat the best/Fight for your life.” It feels like the same Mad Max sequel that My Chemical Romance escaped from in 2010, especially on modern rock rager “Get Up and Fight,” a song neither as arch or as catchy as MCR’s “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)”
Most of Simulation Theory could be about our surveillance state and/or a relationship. The blurring results in clunkiness: Is this an album about a relationship where the metaphor is about our weird government or an album about the government where the metaphor is a troublesome yet irresistible woman? Take comparing a woman’s words to “Propaganda” (or the other way around): “I’m the ocean you’re an oil slick/Now I am choking on your thought pollution/You make me offers that I can’t refuse/You keep telling pretty lies.” Or “Break It to Me” a funk-metal song which could be about love, fake news or love in the time of fake news: “Keep it inside and don’t edit and redact and no dumbing it down” Or take the sappy “Something Human,” a duet with a vocoder android that sounds like College’s “A Real Hero” mixes with Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young”: “I need your love and something human” he pleads. His robot pal croons like Hal 9000.
There are some pretty creative uses of their electronic obsessions, however, and that’s reliably becoming one of Muse’s more interesting moves. Though maybe too close to at least two different George Michael songs, “Dig Down,” has a very cool, wubbing, minimal feel and a bravado mix of poptronic pulse and theatrical bombast. And despite its completely ridiculous lyrics and Rush “Roll the Bones” rap vocal effects, “Propaganda” is a excellently weird song: think Prince getting a Swizz Beatz makeover with a steel guitar solo. Basically, where Muse, one of our last huge rock bands, is at their best and smartest is when they’re not being a rock band at all.