Some would say that the very idea of a “rock band” is a dated one in the music climate of 2019. So you have to give Muse credit for being the only major group to go for something that deliberately feels dated. They went all in on the ‘80s with the videos and cover art for their latest album, “Simulation Theory,” and that extends to the production design for their new arena tour, which touched down at Los Angeles’ Forum Monday night. Not that Matt Bellamy is stocking up on shoulder pads. It’s a very specific ‘80s ethos they’re going for: the pop sci-fi of their youth, when even the most dystopian visions of things to come looked garishly bright and colorful, like “Miami Vice” going to space.
So there were a lot of neon-style pinks and greens outlining Muse’s stage ramps, and a lot of helmeted extras — maybe we could call them dancers — wielding giant light batons (not to be confused with sabers), looking a little bit sinister, a little bit goofy in helmets with LED faceplates emitting squiggly patterns. Toward the end, just to fix the aesthetic they were going for in time and space, Bellamy even stepped up to a facsimile of a vintage videogame console. It was, at times, very “Tron on Ice.”
I say that as somebody who would actually buy a ticket to “Tron on Ice,” so that’s not a knock. It’s not always clear, in the album’s imagery or the themes of the songs or this tour design, when Muse know they’re being a little campy with the retro-‘80s-futurism stuff or completely serious, or whether they think it’s important for anyone who grew up with it like they did to even draw that distinction. What is clear is that they’ve dropped some of the Pink Floyd-style portent of their past tours and embraced the politics of fun. Mind you, that was always a fairly implicit part of Muse’s appeal, underneath the drones and socially aware lyrics and life-and-death sturm-und-drang and Stephen Hawking voiceovers. But with this tour, they seem finally to be tipping unapologetically toward the side of nerdy mirth.
Muse have often sounded a good deal like U2… when they aren’t sounding like Metallica, Queen, Floyd or any of the other classic power crews they can mimic in their sleep. So I almost imagined it as a affectionate parody of Bono’s sunglasses, when Bellamy periodically puts on a pair of epic shades in this production — glasses that even from a distant seat in the arena are seen to be emitting waveform LED patterns or, as seen in big-screen close-ups during “Madness,” actual lyric excerpts. Later in the show, he even puts on what amounts to a suit of lights. Unlike some of Muse’s past shows, where the message seemed obvious (drones = bad), I didn’t come away from the “Simulation Theory” album or this tour clear on whether the band thinks VR and the modern technology they invoke amid all the ‘80s references is an impending threat to humanity or totally awesome. That’s okay; Steven Spielberg didn’t know when he made “Ready Player One,” either, and that was kind of a blast, too.
Whether you love all this production design or consider it a little cheesy, or love it because it’s a little cheesy, the happy facts are that (a) Muse could still put on a world-class show without it, and (b) none of the theatrics really distract from that, unless you’ve got your own world-class case of attention-deficit disorder, in which case, yes, blindfolds are recommended.
Bellamy is one of the few truly great talents of modern rock, as a songwriter, as an economical guitar hero, and as the kind of big-voiced belter whose every audible intake of breath you relish, knowing what terrific exhalations are about to follow. The other two full-time members, drummer Dominic Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenholme, have fewer hyphens in their job descriptions, but are no less proficient in their combination of finesse and ferocity. They have a lot of assistance over the course of two hours, mostly from a keyboard and occasionally substitute guitar player who works in plain sight but in a shadow right next to the drum riser, and also from the aforementioned 10 dancer-stuntpeople, a couple of whom are occasionally assigned to giant kettle drums. But there are also a great deal of moments when it’s just the core three, sans synths or stormtroopers.
And it’s in those moments that you may think: “One power trio to rule them all.” They’re prone to break out a little bit of “Enter Sandman,” on occasion, giving a nod to one obvious influence on some of their earlier, heavier material. At the Forum, there were quick instrumental snippets of Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, the Deftones, Rage Against the Machine (one song was dedicated to Tom Morello) and even a false start of Weezer’s “Undone — The Sweater Song.” All these short quotations showed that Muse is able to put out the same amount of power as those bands while being down a man or two from most of them. And yet perfectly rendered metal is something they offer as a spice, not a main course.
The dinner that they served up on “Simulation Theory” confused or let down a portion of the fan base that wants to hear that raw power every album. They still came back to it as recently as 2015 in the Mutt Lange-produced “Drones,” which came up for reference Monday with the inclusion of “Psycho,” the guitar line of which sounded even more angrily raunchy here. “Simulation Theory,” though, is closer to Depeche Mode than Metallica, which makes sense, thematically, for an album meant to evoke Giorgio Moroder and John Carpenter scores (examples of which were played over the PA before Muse went on). In concert, Bellamy turns up his guitar a little more than he did on the record, and even adds a few extra bars of Hendrix-ian freak-out to a few of the tunes.
One of the new tunes, “Thought Contagion,” was clearly designed for just this setting, with the arena-sized chant-along chorus, even if the lyrics of the song seem to be warning against groupthink. (There, the dancers convulses like zombies, with comical X-es appearing on their electronic masks.) “Algorithm” had the evening’s weakest staging, giving those extras giant light rods, and then not much choreography to do with them. But the sweetest and most hopeful moments from the album translated well. “Dig Down” was offered in a “gospel” version heard only in the album’s deluxe edition, with the trio playing acoustically at the end of the ramp. “Mercy,” one of their more U2-esque recent tracks, showed they still do pure inspiration as well as they do high-concept synth-pop, and the very loud hiss that came when they let confetti cannons loose around the Forum’s floor somehow augmented a very quiet moment as a cool-rush sound effect.
And then, during the penultimate medley (“Stockholm Syndrome/Assassin/Reapers/The Handler/New Born”), when they were absolutely at their most metal, Muse proved to be masters of puppets by having a giant inflated marionette — a Terminator-like clawing android with nasty choppers and a bad attitude — loom over the stage. Fans who’ve never before been inclined to buy a skull T-shirt probably thought their favorite group had lost the plot, in that moment. And everyone else grinned like the children of the ‘80s they were (more or less) and thought, “That’s entertainment.”