Muse: The British Band to Look Back On and Call Classical

Culture Trip

Taking the world by storm, the British band Muse has become renowned as one of the greatest live acts to date. Rajiv Mahabir investigates the band’s success and their fusion of heritage and innovation, questioning whether Muse has become a modern day classic.


Fourteen years after their debut album Showbiz, the Devon trio Muse have combined a deep musical heritage with an innovative take on modern musical trends. The effect is one of great purpose. It reveals a strength and classicism that is born from their individualism. With reflections of the epic found in Greek mythology and of Modernist ideals in their music, this idea bears the notion of why we might call Muse ‘classic’ in future eras. However, one must ask how did Muse escape the limits and trends of the music scene from which they emerged?
To pinpoint Muse’s heritage, we should look to the context of their emergence. In Inside the Muscle Museum, Ben Myers charts this as post-Nirvana; where grunge and chart rock had left a hole in serious, heartfelt music. Also following the untimely demise of one of music’s most promising new talents, Jeff Buckley – where singer-songwriting had only just begun to flourish again – music had thus lost two of the finest musicians and singers to surface in decades. Giving way to Brit-pop and the new wave of dance-pop, there was an open space for something different in the British music scene.
Enter Matthew Bellamy with his blistering idiosyncratic high-pitched ‘waa’s’ and distinguishable vibrato wails. Muse’s sound seamlessly floated between bombastic and subtle guitar parts to beautiful piano and singing, and from the heaviest solid bass grooves since the Chilli Peppers and King Tubby to some of the most driven and memorable drums. They forayed as a rock group, drawing from three-piece bands such as The Hendrix Experience, Rage Against the Machine, and Primus. Yet, there was something overtly classical and European to their sound. At one of their gigs in France you may have stumbled through the haze and glimpsed what you thought was Chopin and Rachmaninoff partying with Hendrix and Rage against the Machine.

Muse’s hybridity in music and culture stands as a mark of their innovation. By the time they first plugged in, the small London pubs and clubs they toured to – and even the Parisian and German Stadiums – struggled to contain their bombast and energy. Their sound was irrepressible. By 2007, their mainstream success had afforded them all the popular fancies and it also gave them the opportunity of greatness. 2007’s Wembley gigs marked a monumental occasion: a following and building of music that beckoned the Dionysian spirit of defiance and ecstasy as if it were 4th century Athens. This performance stood as a sign of the great hybridity of modern culture. Emerging from the centre-crowd to take stage next to full-blown stage-prop antennas, Muse performed guitar classics such as ‘Plug in Baby’ and ‘New Born’. Newer space-rock mythologies such as ‘Knights of Cydonia’ and ‘Supermassive Blackhole’ also raged crowds against the towering smoke screens and fire plumes. However, if Muse had built a name for loud and grandiose rock, they were also renowned as masters of the soft, the ballad and the beautiful. In the concert, ballet dancers were suspended thirty feet in the air, glazed in glitter, and danced in slow motion. They moving gracefully to ‘Blackout’: a song about a revere for life and all of its motions and times beckoning. The spectacle was incredible. Such a catharsis reminds us of great Greek theatre. Through this breathtaking performance, Muse revealed that hybridity is not only found in their music, but also in the diversity of their unforgettable live shows.

Muse at Wembley

Even with such a focus on fusing the past and the present, and of exploring contemporary issues, the band has been criticized for ‘selling out’ since their third album. However, if we listen, we hear a humble embrace of modern times and vast intelligence. In their instrumental ‘Unsustainable’, we find Muse setting dub-step, to live instruments. This feat of hybridity is awe-worthy alone, but through witnessing such an accomplishment in live performance, you realize the great intelligence of the band. Muse has been driven by sounds that have helped form the soundtrack of British music this decade: minimalist programming, synth, bass, and the profusion of electronica. Their innovation comes from connecting these mainstream outings to their song’s powerful meanings. In one of their songs, ‘Madness’, the closing refrains bring a strong personal realization that could also translate amorphously to anyone.
Muse has embraced the classic and the modern boldly to show us that fearlessness for popularity, along with intelligence, can make industry trends meet individual music. If hybridity is a modern standard, then Muse has truly surpassed the norm and has shown that combination can be the ingenuity of today. Producing admirable British music, Muse has set our standards high and current, casting reflections on giant and canonical eras. Muse has reinforced this by pursuing some of the most innovative and sought after sounds of today, fostering technological ingenuity and multi-medium performance with some of today’s largest live productions. They have invoked the ecstasy and epic of Greek culture, of past spectacle and of contemporary musical greats. With deep respect for musical heritage, a radical individualism and an insightful exploration of modern issues, the band is drawing out our every rapture as if they were notes being plucked from the deepest part of our souls. In eras to come – when Chopin is relic and contemporary rock is myth – heritage met with such innovation may be seen as the great factor that is classic of our time.
By Rajiv Mahabir

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