Concept albums, in my opinion, normally aren’t very good – so, somewhat understandably, my expectations are incredibly low when I hear of one of my favourite bands are working on one.
The Arctic Monkeys are the latest victims of their own success in this sense. Their most recent album, Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino, was the worst album they’ve made. To me it sounds, at best, like a very lacklustre attempt at rehashing Aladdin Sane by David Bowie. I wanted to like it, I really did. I love it when bands change direction or experiment with something outside of their comfort zone, but it only comes off sometimes.
You can imagine that when I heard Muse were back in the studio in January last year, working on an 80’s inspired synth-heavy rock album, I was concerned. Muse are exceptionally good at making albums with very clear themes, for example their Glam Rock inspired The Resistance’in 2009 is still an album I revisit frequently. Despite not having a huge interest in the genre that inspired the album, there isn’t a song that I skip when listening to it nearly ten years on.
In any case, I sat down and listened to Simulation Theory in full – only to be absolutely blown away by what I heard. Let it be known that as standalone singles, there’s only a handful that I think are as good when out of the context of the album; although this isn’t unusual. Concept albums are made to be played from start to finish, taking you on a journey through the project. Simulation Theory is no different.
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The opening track, Algorithm, is totally mesmerising. It builds an impending sense of both awe and dread, comparable to the soundtracks of 1980’s sci-fi or thriller movies. Muse are a band renowned for the remarkable structure of their songs - rather than guitar and bass - and these songs are built off the back of electronic sounds from years gone by. The first one minute and forty of the album feature no vocals; the build up to lead vocalist Matt Bellamy singing feels long and suspenseful, especially considering I’d heard such mixed reviews about the album.
Pressure, one of the several singles from their latest release, sounds a lot more like what you would have come to expect of Muse. It’s faster paced and a more exciting listen than some of the other tracks on this project – although stylistically it’s a lot further away from the ongoing theme of intense 80’s nostalgia and sci-fi. For fans who don’t like the project as a whole, Pressure is similar to Four out of Five from the Arctic Monkeys Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino. and this song should appeal to near enough everyone listening.
The only critique is that, in places, Bellamy sounds like a pessimistic technophobe, singing over such vibrant instrumentals - similar to that of Depeche Mode or New Order. And it’s odd that a recurring theme of the album is to fear technology, a narrative that’s very played out and won’t resonate as well with their younger listeners.
The Deluxe version of Simulation Theory features a B-Side with acoustic versions of Propaganda and Something Human, as well as an Alternate Reality version of some tracks, that have a completely different musical composition. This, to me, is a reference to the Upside Down in Stranger Things, a parallel universe in the popular Netflix series that seems to have been responsible for the resurgence of 1980’s nostalgia.
The album artwork, that doesn’t look dissimilar from an 80’s movie poster, was drawn by Kyle Lambert, an LA based artist and graphic designer who is probably better known for his classically illustrated poster for Stranger Things. In a sense, this album feels more inspired by Stranger Things than an artist or band - the intense build ups, the array of synths, the dark and bass-heavy parts of the album feel like they were pulled straight from a motion picture. I would have assumed before listening to the album that this would feel forced, played out or repetitive but somehow, it all just works. I just hope there isn’t a three year wait until their next album.