MUSE @ The o2

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Warning: Spoilers

Muse have a following that at times strays close to extremism and turns their concerts into something like rallies.  The band, for their part, are always keen to put on a spectacle.  Their past two albums have seemingly blurred the line between politics and entertainment, and so it’s no surprise that the three towers that are the centrepiece of Muse’s light and video show flash the chorus of the night’s opener, Uprising, from their latest offering, The Resistance;

They will not force us,

They will stop degrading us,

They will not control us,

We will be victorious.

There is something disconcerting in seeing 20,000 people call back those words and throw their arms forward in encouragement.  If Matt Bellamy, self-confessed conspiracy theorist, really so desired he would have little trouble making an impact in politics.  All it would take is a banner and a carefully chosen set-list.

It is probably for the best, therefore, that Muse are on their best behaviour at the moment.  Love, apparently, is their Resistance, and they are just as interested in playing the hits and relying on Bellamy’s rather geeky crowd-pleasing antics as making a stand.  After their tour with U2, they have not picked up any annoying habits, such as speaking at length on stage.

What can be said of Muse’s live show that isn’t already known?  Just as they were the band to fill Wembley, they are the perfect band for the O2 (apologies to the Jackson family).  The last time I was there (for Bob Dylan), it seemed impossible to fill such a cavernous space.  And yet, third row down from the top, watching Muse, it was obvious that the answer is a lot of lasers and a lot of noise.  In fact, further than that, Muse have three platforms that raise or lower the performers during the set.  They start up, descend three songs in for a well-received New Born, are up again for an even more popular Feeling Good, and later on for part of Bellamy’s symphony during the encore.

And as usual, the musicianship is the real draw, particularly drummer Dom, who – and this probably isn’t said enough – holds the group together and gives their live sound the necessary oomph, for want of a better word.  One thing you could say about these concerts, is that Muse seem happy to cut loose, especially as their hyped-up ‘homecoming’ concerts in Devon made them seem just a little wooden.

After an overcooked Unintended, there is a palpable sense of fun as they rattle through Starlight, Plug in Baby and Time is Running Out.  Nonetheless, though this would be a perfect time to leave the stage, they return to their latest ‘message’ with Unnatural Selection, before an encore including Stockholm Syndrome and a harmonica-introduced version Knights of Cydonia that is so comprehensively backed by Dom as to be practically a drum and bass remix.  All in all, a fantastic use of the venue, and another triumph for Muse.  They continue to be Britain’s best live band.

The Great British Band That Might Have Been

Having proved themselves capable of holding the attention of crowds of any size, it seems counter-intuitive to say that Muse might have been anything more.  Still, it seems unlikely that they will endure in the same way that Blur, or even Radiohead, seem likely to.

Part of the problem is that this is the X-Factor generation.  People are increasingly drawn to music as spectacle, and moreover, half the population are focussed on the television – a medium that encourages a buy and sell mentality to new music.  That has hardly helped, but bands like the Arctic Monkeys have hit on to the national consciousness quickly.  Muse have never been as loved by the critics.

I find this hard to believe.  Looking back, Muse’s discography provides an interesting historical record.  They started with the youthful, anxious Showbiz, tried heavy prog-rock on The Origin of the Symmetry, hit a more emotive chord on Absolution and have now gone on to politically and now R&B influenced rock.  Musically, they’ve tried everything, and reflected the growing sense of disenchantment with the Noughties.

But there is a sense that they have followed, rather than led the way. One of the problems with Muse is their timing.  Fans will know how long the gaps between albums have been.

Indeed, their latest, most demagogic efforts in particular have been badly-timed.  Black Holes and Revelations could have had twice the impact, had it been released in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, rather than in 2006.  The Resistance is the same.  Its paranoia seems more suited to the Blair era, now that the government is viewed more as incompetent than sinister, and had it been released last year, when Duffy was taking no prisoners, its R&B tinges might have been more popular.

That said, Muse are also the victims of their own success, and more specifically their focus on instantly recognisable riffs and tempo changes.  It is far easier to look forward to the guitar solo crashing in on Knights of Cydonia, than think about the call to arms.  We’re back to today’s consumerism, but also the fun the band has on stage.  Who needs seriousness, when you can be so entertaining?

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