(A shorter version of this piece is published in today’s Paper of Record.)
Combining the dystopian preoccupations of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the attack of early Metallica, and the vocal flamboyance of Queen, the English power trio Muse bristle with enough energy to repel a totalitarian coup d’etat. At least we’d better hope so, since this seemed to be only one of the ill-defined threats against which their bombastic-but-fun set at the Patriot Center Thursday was meant as a rallying cry. The speech from President Kennedy that played as the band took the stage has never sounded more topical, but there’s still something distinctly Y2K about Muse’s sense of gathering menace.
The gig slammed into overdrive with probably the most nakedly silly tune in the group’s uber-serious oeuvre, “Knights of Cydonia,” and didn’t rest for a minute. “The time has come to make things right!” decreed the lyrics, projected in urgent block caps via three LED video screens. Er, details to follow? Probably not.
In the vocabulary of “Spinal Tap,” the entire 90-minute set was performed at 11, leaving the band nowhere to go when they really wanted to stir things up. But the audience was plenty stirred throughout, keeping the security team busy catching crowd-surfers and sending them back to the rear of the floor.
Frontman Matthew Bellamy’s crotch-thrusting-but-somehow-asexual guitar heroics are awesome — it’s like Eddie Van Halen broke into the Edge’s garage one night and stole his prized collection of effects pedals — and his heavily-processed vocal wail kept what sounded like a sold-out crowd (it wasn’t) at attention all night. Lead-footed drummer Dominic Howard knows how to bring the pain, too. But more variation in the tempo of the set would have given arena-ready anthems like “Starlight” or “Stockholm Syndrome” even more impact. As it was, “Invincible” was the evening’s highlight, if only because its deliberate, martial build brought some contrast to the unvaried crunch of the other songs.
Apocalyptic images of fallout shelters and missile-targeting systems flashed across the screens in sync with the band’s bleak-but-hooky pronouncements. The robot dance team video for “Supermassive Black Hole” brought a welcome —possibly even intentional — bit of humor to the otherwise po-faced sci-fi pageantry.
The precision of the video accompaniment (and the heavy use of prerecorded samples) is probably responsible for the show’s other flaw: It appeared to permit not a single spontaneous second. But, you know, they’ve got an invasion of our alien overlord one-world government masters to fight off! Or something! Nothing must be left to chance!