Muse’s new album is inspired by the “simulation hypothesis”, a speculative notion advanced by technologists that we are living in a computer simulation designed by our super-advanced post-human descendants. In this conceptual wormhole every dimension is jumbled up. Now is actually the future. Here is really there. You can eat a cake and still have it. Or make a punchy, focused pomp-rock record about a zany hall-of-mirrors theory — as Muse have tried to do with Simulation Theory.
It starts with “Algorithm”, a brooding synth-rocker with John Carpenter-style electronic effects and ominous orchestrations. “This is war with your own creator,” Matt Bellamy wails, like Freddie Mercury impersonating Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Meanwhile his bandmates Chris Wolstenholme on bass and Dominic Howard on drums lay down tense rhythms in the background, impassive as trench coat-wearing heavies in a sci-fi dystopia.
The Devon trio have form with this kind of scenario. They inhabit that fertile pop cultural zone where the 20th century’s traumatic historical experience of totalitarian systems is filtered into fantastical good-versus-evil narratives such as Star Wars and The Matrix. Pink Floyd’s The Wall, made with the living memory of the second world war encoded within it, represents the most sophisticated treatment of the theme in stadium rock.
Simulation Theory is a sleeker affair, closer to the 1980s thrillers that its artwork and accompanying videos evoke. Initially I found myself enjoying it in much the same escapist spirit, cheering along to Bellamy’s rock-operatic cry of despair in “The Dark Side” and suspending disbelief at the curious mash-up of robotic funk and vintage folk-rock on “Break It to Me”. But the whole edifice falls apart with the ill-chosen chorus of “Thought Contagion”.
“It’s too late for a revolution/ Brace for the final solution,” Bellamy sings, glibly summoning the genocidal Nazi master plan in a stomping stadium-rocker about mind control. The un-contextualised historical reference is jarring; it ramifies outwards and infects the rest of the album with its awful clumsiness. If proof were needed that life is not really a game, here it is.