(Warner Bros.; 2008)
By Alan Baban | 13 August 2008
H.A.A.R.P. (that’s not the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) essentially has two designs. The first, pointlessly dull, is to give us another chance to hear these songs in what I guess is their intended context. The second is to give you a further another chance to listen, watch, perhaps even contemplate these songs in what I guess is their intended context. There’s also a DVD.
The word “live” here is purely ornamental. The Muse “live” experience is a three-way jones between the band, stage design, and what has got to be an unfuckwithable light show. Muse the band play Muse the songs so Muse the exponentially competent band that plays songs can transcend environment, audience, and finally collegiate space-time to get at something approaching gross spectacle. That’s to say they suck; their playing is has always been unimaginably tight, sure, but coordination is almost beside the point when you’re mounting a stage in gas masks. Muse are so tight as to make their elaborate and endlessly unfolding songs curiously uninvolving. This is their live album; it sounds, for the most part, like a second nature.
What H.A.A.R.P. does is position this band as the great rock light show of our era. No concept is too grand, no embellishment so arcane as to be merely understated. This—in panoramic visual lustre—is something like the outrageous, hypertechnical gasbag diversion that they’ve been working towards all these years. In the unlikely event that you came to a Muse live album looking for kicks, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, good things like crowd noise and grand pianos are made fundamentally good: a reminder that they’re still alive, things are still “ok” (because you and I must fight to survive, yeah yeah yeah) and that you, earful, still have ears. This is the band that wrote “Knights of Cydonia,” remember. At this point they’re only derivative of themselves.
On that material: generations of teenagers have inhabited these songs without having reason to refute or embrace what this band is cottoning onto, exactly. Songs like “Starlight” exist only to presage the present moment, bounding through minors and majors that perpetual hang in crescendo. When things bottom out, or when the band seems under contractual obligation to re-live the sofa ad ubiquity of an old cover (ugh: “Feeling Good”), they get boring fast.
Watching H.A.A.R.P. the DVD Experience is to have this feeling maxed out in high definition. Crowd noise is pictorialised as scene-surveying adulation; mouths gape as Bellamy, newly spiked, rips into one Muse riff after another; time passes in spacesickness; only bassist Christopher Wolstenholme seems interested and then maybe only in his space-sneakers, which are too weird for me to really want to consider right now.
This band doesn’t do status quo so much as rigorously adhere to the post-Bends (1995) formula they’ve had on fritz since “Plug In Baby.” That was a great riff, but everything (seriously, everything) that followed has sucked. Hard. This is the live album as an era-spanning experience that, in its infinite reach, embraces just about “everything”: trapeze artists, gonzola trumps, the finer moments of 2001’s Origin of Symmetry, Rachmanikov, other Muse songs. And we can only laugh at its heedlessness insomuch as we realise that they, too, probably know that a live rock album called H.A.A.R.P. by an English rock band called Muse is a fundamentally ridiculous thing.