On the surface, Muse’s brand of brash, high-concept rock seems exceedingly out-of-place in an era of pop music that continues to champion a highly-danceable, hyper-melodic style of songcraft. Indeed, a glance at the sold-out Staples Center audience on Wednesday evening might have lead one to believe that the excesses of the 1970s prog-rock movement had returned to entrance a new generation of fans, thirsting for instrumental virtuosity and uninhibited indulgence. But beneath its stylistically schizophrenic veneer, Muse is a well-oiled pop music machine, and its performance (the first of a three-night run) was a master class in efficient, coolly detached arena rock.
Sonic ambition, however aesthetically misguided, seems to be Muse’s tantamount goal, and audiences the world over seem to love them for it. In many respects Muse is the bizarro-world version of Radiohead — a white-hot approximation of what might have happened if Thom Yorke had decided to pursue “hit” records after the success of “OK Computer.” In its 14 years of commercial relevance, Muse has constantly shapeshifted, slightly retuning its style and sonic palette with each passing year.
The concert opened with the ominous strains of Morgan Nicholls’ synth arpeggiator and the clipped transmissions of a television news anchor. With the apocalyptic mood set, the power trio took to the stage and launched into the caterwauling dubstep of “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable.” This savvy, if already dated-sounding, nod to the popular genre trend gave way to the decidedly retro-leaning, Zeppelinesque “Supremacy.” Drummer Dominic Howard did his best John Bonham impression, powerfully thudding away as singer-guitarist Matthew Bellamy tested his stratospheric vocal range, unabashedly channeling Robert Plant’s sing-shriek style. “Supremacy” might as well be a Led Zeppelin song — it’s more than an homage, it’s a replica.
Bellamy followed with a distortion-laden, solo guitar version of the American national anthem, a clear reference to Jimi Hendrix and a deferent nod to the U.S. audience. As the set continued, the crowd swayed tepidly as the group switched styles at a breakneck pace. The metal-leaning riffage of “Hysteria” quickly snapped into the mutant funk of “Panic Station,” followed by the non-descript, moody rocker “Bliss.” At one point, a massive inverted pyramid of LED screens descended from the ceiling, projecting a varying stew of imagery that would continue to evolve throughout the evening.
The audience was finally galvanized by the opening notes of “Super Massive Black Hole,” a vocoder-laden rave-up packed with nonsensical sci-fi imagery. Later on, bassist Christopher Wolstenholme pulled out a harmonica and opened the swollen, boundless “Knights of Cydonia” with a series of eerie, atmospheric bellows. The carefully paced concert hit its apex with the group’s breakthrough hit, “Time Is Running Out.” For the opening bridge, Bellamy aimed his microphone at the audience who roared the defiant lyrics back at the group: “Bury it/I won’t let you bury it/I won’t let you smother it/I won’t let you murder it.” The band members triumphantly stomped across the stage as the audience continued to echo each word Bellamy intoned.
The group returned for two encores, the first of which consisted entirely of the quintessential Muse track, “Uprising”: a raucous, lyrically direct, revolutionary plea to those seeking deliverance from oppressive Earthly regimes. It may not be the most articulate or original call-to-arms, but it is the perfect distillation of what bonds this band to its audience — an audience inflamed by a slew of society’s ills yet unmotivated to perform meaningful action beyond attending a Muse concert. In essence, “Uprising” and Muse itself are the perfect corporate prescription for manufactured societal discord. And with two more sold-out nights left at Staples, business seems to be booming.