By releasing their new album Simulation Theory on the same day as Imagine Dragons, Muse – one of only a few amongst the swarm of indie bands from the early 2000s to succeed in establishing a consistent and immediately recognisable style, unintentionally shine a light on how they’ve now become the British equivalent to Imagine Dragons; purveyors of turgid arena rock built on the poppiest and most basic of song structures that are “embellished” with obscene ab-use of electronic sound effects. Really, if Dan Reynolds ever starts making pseudo-Orwellian concept albums about the future of mankind, Muse will have lost their last remaining market niche to their American counterparts. What seemed unthinkable a mere three years ago, however, when Muse released the poor but not horrendous Drones while Imagine Dragons were assailing the ears of undeserving listeners worldwide with Smoke + Mirrors, an unintentionally apt album title to describe the superficiality of their music, is that Muse are actually the worst band of the two at this point. And it’s not because of any noticeable improvements in the music of Imagine Dragons.
Simulation Theory is less strictly concept-oriented than the band’s previous releases, but Matt Bellamy wouldn’t be Matt Bellamy if he didn’t rhyme “revolution” with “final solution” on “Thought Contagion” to set a supposedly dystopian atmosphere or toss out serious-sounding tech jargon like “simulation”, and “algorithm” on the very first song of the album. That opener, “Algorithm”, might well be the most listenable song on the whole thing – it’s the band just doing their rote maximalist symphonic rock for a minute and a half until Bellamy chimes in to squeak a “This means war” chorus (it worked for Thirty Seconds to Mars, didn’t it?).
It’s only downhill from there, as Bellamy pitches his falsetto even higher than normal on “Propaganda”, presumably to mask lyrics such as “Floozy, you make me a woozy” and “You ate my soul just like a Death Eater” (I wish I were kidding about those). That’s not the peak of ridiculousness though, as the song’s chorus turns the word propaganda into a percussive pattern – a doubtful strategy when intending to compose a wake-up call against the spreading of fake news and deliberate misinformation by politicians. That the band already applied the same idea to “Madness” from 2012’s The 2nd Law doesn’t seem to bother them; they recycle its stammering beat once again on the dull first single, “Dig Down”.
Recycling is a key concept in Simulation Theory, as Muse are even doing it with their music videos. “Blockades” is basically a – well, “best of” is not the right term but a collection of images from the other promotional videos for this album. Not that the original ones are any better, however. It might be hard to believe that Muse don’t realise how silly they sound on songs like “Something Human” (which has a beat stuck somewhere between folk pop and Latin pop, so that you’d almost expect George Ezra or Álvaro Soler to hop on for a feature), but one need only look at the video for that song, in which Bellamy turns into a werewolf because reasons, to see that Muse also don’t realise how silly they look.
Coasting on the 80’s nostalgia of TV programmes like Stranger Things (the album’s ludicrous cover was designed by Kyle Lambert, the man behind the Netflix production’s distinctive poster art) and the synth-pop revival of acts like CHVRCHES, The 1975, and Carly Rae Jepsen, Muse jump head first into the decade of Knight Rider, Back to the Future, and MTV. None of the band members were older than 13 at the end of the 80’s though, and it shows: all that the band are doing is picking a select few ideas commonly associated with that era to indulge in cheap audio-visual nostalgia that is nevertheless unmistakably a product of the 2010s. Barring some synths garishly smeared over songs like “Algorithm” and “The Void”(perhaps to mask the fact that the song, along with several others on the album, doesn’t have a proper chorus), Muse are doing the same shtick as before, only less catchy.
Where Muse do try to branch out on the album, however, they take embarrassing missteps. “Break It to Me” features some absolutely grisly auto-tune before descending even further into a genuinely unlistenable scratching breakdown. And then there’s the very obviously Shellback-produced and very obviously Bellamy-titled “Get Up and Fight”, the most perplexing of hybrids. It flows from bouncy verses featuring Tove Lo moaning on the backing vocals, which evoke nothing so much as the EDM atrocities of Marshmello, to an emo revival chorus (“I’m lost in this without you”) that posits the Devon-based trio as some second hand My Chemical Romance. Bellamy sees “reasons to be frightened” on the pre-chorus, and, well, that’s a pretty neat encapsulation of Simulation Theory.