Black Holes & Revelations

(Warner Bros; 2006)

By Alan Baban | 13 January 2008

In his column in UK rag The Independent, critic Simon Price labelled Black Holes & Revelations as “Muse’s Holy Bible,” commenting that Matt Bellamy shares the same “fire and brimstone judgement” that touched one Richey Edwards.

This is a bad comparison on numerous levels, and not one I plan on dignifying with any sort of retort. I draw it up simply to exemplify the sizable, zealous cult following that has gathered around these pop proggers since they attempted to fill the black hole, if you will, left by Radiohead’s dissolution into uncharted waters. It’s an old comparison, I know — Muse have developed but only in a wholly linear way that precludes their emergence from the spectre of the less interesting moments of The Bends. Through Showbiz to Origin of Symmetry to Absolution, the production has got cleaner, the band tighter, the arpeggios knottier and the songs longer. Revelations, ironically, is no more than a consolidation of what we already, begrudgingly, know: rock radio is going to eat this alive.

All credit to them, too. I’m not trying to suggest that the band lacks a clear sense of pop nous—the opening riff to “Plug in Baby” is still a mainstay of Embarrassing Air Guitar 101—more that in barraging the listener with a streaming slew of hook-inflected material, it feels that Muse are too wrapped up in their signature sound. It’s a success of desensitization over de-familiarization; there is no soul.

Nevertheless, Bellamy and co. have this time built upon some of the undercooked half-ideas of before to deliver a distinguished collection of facilely digestible pop/rock songs. “Starlight” could be a Depeche Mode single, for crissakes, whereas a surprising proportion of material approximates the melodrama shot middle eastern melodies that have catapulted System of a Down into some position of vague worthlessness (“City of Delusion,” “Assassin”). There are even moments of genuine beauty, the peaceful, bucolic slide guitar that opens “Invincible” recalling Eno before being uncomfortably enveloped into the blasé background of echo-laden bass work and soldier-driven rhythms, as if the band were attempting to exhume some pagan piety out of The Joshua Tree. The lyrics don’t help in stemming the sense of portentous and insincere triviality: “You should make a stand / Stand up for what you believe / And tonight we can truly say / Together, we’re invincible.” The irony isn’t stifling, rather refreshing actually, but what’s stifling is that almost every song here is loaded in the kind of rancid clichés this band has already reveled so opulently in. The effect of the crystalline production, over saddled with so many vocal and instrumental overdubs as to neuter any semblance of passion, is to blow these ineffectual and immature clichés, embarrassing on the msn log of a fifteen year-old teenager, up onto the wide expanses of the big screen. So, it’s a blockbuster rock album, then, but the ridiculous type that is wholly aware of its own vapidity and assured sales success. It’s in turns funny and depressing, but mostly just sad.

Perversely, then, the best track here is emblazoned with the worst title—“Knights of Cydonia,” anyone? The band gallops through an escalating arrangement, a suitably spaced out guitar solo yielding to Fantasia sound effects that topple over into a Queen-aping choral breakdown, and for the first time on the record, bar maybe the underrated Prince stylings of first single “Supermassive Black Hole,” something fairly bizarre actually happens. Corgan would go nuts over a tune like this, mixing it up with autoharp and the sort. Muse end placidly with a pretty conservative bout of synth mania and it’s symptomatic of the lack of imagination that impedes much of the record from realizing its potential, which is a shame.

And it is a shame, because Muse are a technically proficient band who have proved their ability, through over-exposure, in knocking out catchy number after number. If only they could unhinge some of the trappings that have extricated the high pathos needed to pull off something like this convincingly they might be onto something. Unfortunately, it seems the group is more interested in refining, rather than re-defining, their craft, whose torpid mechanics bear no mystery, no guts behind all that glamour.