Review: Muse Strikes Perfect Balance On Grand ‘Simulation Theory’
After a year and a half of singles and hype, today Muse released their 8th studio album, Simulation Theory. In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year, frontman Matt Bellamy stated that by releasing singles as they recorded them, he felt their album would be stronger in the long run. “I think it’ll be our greatest album in terms of the quality of individual songs,” as he explained it. Now that we have Simulation Theory in our hands, we can affirm that Matt’s predictions were accurate. Indeed, Simulation Theory is among Muse’s most inspired albums to date.
Simulation Theory walks a fine line between thrilling forays into new musical territory and revivals of Muse’s classic sound. These two seemingly contradictory paths somehow find harmony, creating a balanced record that blends the best aspects that make Muse so special.
Diversity is the primary defining feature of Simulation Theory. Muse covers a lot of stylistic ground, experimenting with new sounds and genres on several songs. The lead single, “Dig Down,” offered Muse’s first stab at gospel music, mixed with electronic and rock. Another track, “Blockades,” goes full pop power ballad, complete with vocals from Tove Lo. In fact, it was produced by Shellback, who famously works with major pop stars like Taylor Swift and P!nk. “Break It To Me” blends an Eastern influence with quasi-rapping and hard rock. Perhaps the most off-the-wall song here is “Propaganda,” which combines an industrial, robotic refrain with minimalist R&B. Timbaland co-produced the track.
Beyond those songs, Muse also offers plenty of rock and their signature flair for the grandiose. Plenty of songs include futuristic and spacey elements, strengthening the album’s lyrical themes. Though not as consistent or obvious as their previous album, Drones, Simulation Theory qualifies as a concept record. The songs dive into a dystopia that seems too close for comfort already, and many of the songs were, in fact, inspired by current issues.
Musically, Muse pushed themselves to move outside of their comfort zones. By pushing their own boundaries a bit, Muse is making sure they continuously evolve. They grow as a band, while fans get songs that are more unexpected and interesting. Often, these are the tracks that stand out most within Muse’s catalogue.
However, the band didn’t stray too far from what makes them Muse. In fact, in many ways, Simulation Theory sounds more Muse than ever. Piano flourishes and spacey synths recall their second album, Origin Of Symmetry. Some riffs and impassioned vocals are reminiscent of Absolution or Black Holes & Revelations. There are little elements of each album here, and a song like “Blockades” plays like a Muse tribute. Muse seem to have tapped into the energy that drove them forward early in their career; they sound revived and fresh.
Experimentation and boldness are at the core of what makes Muse the band they are, but there’s also a comforting sense of their earlier influences and style. They aren’t repeating themselves or becoming too set in their sound, but they haven’t lost that core, either. It’s a fine line to walk, and Muse has found the perfect balance.
Simulation Theory is the most inspired and freeing record Muse has released in the last decade. While Drones was a step in the right direction, Simulation Theory furthers this path forward.
Track by Track
“Algorithm” – Simulation Theory begins on an epic scale. Strong drum and pulsing synths make for an irresistible groove, while the ’80s sci-fi synth sounds add new texture. Lush piano – reminiscent of the best Origin Of Symmetry tracks – and strings move things forward, extending the intro. Finally, over 90 seconds in, Matt Bellamy starts singing, softly and with some restraint. His vocals are soothing despite the eerie backdrop, but the song slowly builds up, much like “Take A Bow” on Black Holes & Revelations. It continues to expand as Matt declares, “This means war on your creator.” Already, Simulation Theory is off to an impressive start.
“The Dark Side” – Next up is “The Dark Side,” which Muse shared as the fourth single when they announced Simulation Theory in August. After a percussive transition from “Algorithm,” “The Dark Side” introduces howling and “ahh”s before Matt’s calming vocals soar in. But as the verse reaches its final line, Matt breaks out, singing “And if you could see the things I am able to see” in his impassioned upper register. Throughout the song, Matt glides through the notes beautifully, moving in and out of his falsetto register effortlessly. After a spacey bridge and the final chorus, the song ends with shrill strings.
“Pressure” – The next track was also the followup single in September. Indeed, “Pressure,” which featured Terry Crews in its music video, served as the final preview before Simulation Theory came out. It begins with high-pitched guitars, horns, and hand claps. Matt’s vocals mirror the melody of the instruments, while in the chorus, the extended background vocals (“don’t push meee”) become instruments themselves under his main lines. Descending guitar notes, a whispered “pressure building,” and heavy riff move us from verse to chorus, giving extra weight to the otherwise light song. “Pressure” offers up fun, rollicking energy. It’s different for Muse, but a welcome new sound.
“Propaganda” – Speaking of new sounds, Muse runs deep into uncharted territory on track #4. “Propaganda” opens with an intense, robotic stutter of “propaganda,” but it dies off as quickly as it started. Instead, the song introduces acoustic guitar and an R&B beat as Matt croons in falsetto along with the guitar. The chorus adds a pulsing undertone before breaking into the industrial robot refrain heard at the beginning. After moving back and forth between these two extremes, the instrumental bridge takes us in a bluesy direction. The song ends with the robot glitching out as he shouts about propaganda.
“Break It To Me” – That serves as a perfect transition into another experimental song, “Break It To Me.” The opening guitar riff goes flat, already creating a spooky vibe. Rapid synthy strings join in just as Matt begins singing, providing tense but warm energy under his almost-rapped lyrics. The rapped first verse is repurposed as the background for the second verse, this time featuring Matt’s traditional singing over the top of it all. The chorus feels calmer at first, but it ends with high vocals over the opening refrain, a dissonant effect that affirms the song’s unrest. The second time around, a whistling theremin adds to the spacey, unnerving feel. All in all, “Break It To Me” is among the best tracks on Simulation Theory.
“Something Human” – The most jarring transition on the album is that between “Break It To Me” and “Something Human,” two songs with completely different moods and styles. Before revealing the album’s name, Muse released “Something Human” as its third single in July. It felt like a departure, musically, in contrast to the first two singles. Even now, it still feels out of place – on the album overall, or at least in its placement within the tracklisting. Whereas other tracks here set the tone for a dystopian setting, “Something Human” is like an unexpected island in the midst of it all. Its tropical, almost childlike sound is friendly and cheery – perhaps a needed change of speeds, but one that seems misplaced. That said, “Something Human” is a lovely song that many can relate to after spending any time away from loved ones.
“Thought Contagion” – Following that slight departure, and a good transition in between, the next track plants us firmly in the dystopia again. “Thought Contagion,” which was the second single from Simulation Theory earlier this year, fades in with a winding bass melody. Spacey synths – in the style of Origin Of Symmetry – set the pace for this political track. The verses find Matt singing with restraint, while the choruses feature sing-along chants beneath stuttered falsetto vocals. The effect is very classically Muse.
“Get Up And Fight” – In a new case of boundary-pushing, Muse tries out catchy pop on track #8. “Get Up And Fight” begins with vocals from Tove Lo over bass and a drum beat. Tove Lo’s melodic riff reappears throughout the song, between Matt’s parts in the verses, after each chorus, and at the song’s end. “Get Up And Fight” plays like a love song, Matt proclaiming that through all the problems, she will always have his heart. But with that said, they need to fight for their love or life together. The chorus is big and infectious, and the best pop song Muse has ever recorded. It’s a power anthem that wouldn’t be out of place on mainstream radio.
“Blockades” – A pinging digital melody, reminiscent of “Bliss,” starts “Blockades,” followed by a “Knights Of Cydonia”-esque guitar riff and power drums that move from the left speaker to the right. After an energetic verse, the song takes a moment to breathe as only a piano remains to join Matt. It booms into a forceful chorus filled with onomatopoeias and orders to fight for your life. Heavy guitars add to the urgency, while blipping synths and a choir punctuating the words make it quintessentially Muse. The bridge sounds like a welcome throwback to Absolution, and after one more chorus, “Blockades” crashes to its abrupt end. If Muse were to compose a tribute to themselves, this would be it. “Blockades” combines nearly everything we love about the band into one song.
“Dig Down” – Released back in May 2017, “Dig Down” was the first song Muse recorded for Simulation Theory. Tackling the many political and social issues facing the world today, “Dig Down” offers a glimmer of strength in a time where many feel powerless. The song starts with the woozing bass sound found on “Madness” from The 2nd Law. “Dig Down” builds slowly, a marching beat gradually introducing new details and flourishes in the background. The chorus surprises with an unexpectedly strong gospel influence (one that is explored more fully on the deluxe bonus track version of “Dig Down”). “Dig Down” is a song that may not grab you at first, but it insistently grows on you with each listen.
“The Void” – Simulation Theory ends with a dark, minimalist song. “The Void” starts quietly, growing to a chorus characterized by the repeated “they are wrong”. Even so, it maintains a low, moody vibe and sinister undercurrent. “The Void” is most comparable to a closing track like “Ruled By Secrecy” or the “Exogenesis” symphonies. It fades out, ending on a pessimistic, uncertain note.
Highlights on Simulation Theory include: “Algorithm,” “The Dark Side,” “Break It To Me,” “Thought Contagion,” and “Blockades.”
You can stream, download, or pick up a physical copy of Simulation Theory from Muse’s official store; they link to all the major music providers.