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Progressive Rock CD Reviews


The Resistance

Review by John Pierpoint

First of all, a little confession: I was not a fan of Muse in their early years, but a work colleague kept on trying to persuade me how good they were and loaned me copies of their first few albums. The first two left me cold; the third had some stuff I liked in it, but the fourth – Black Holes and Revelations – changed my mind. The band’s style had matured, making much of that album quite pleasurable to listen to, culminating in the out-and-out rock celebration that is “Knights of Cydonia”. So when the Teignmouth trio released their next album, The Resistance, I was eager to hear it. It did not disappoint! By the time of The Resistance, Muse were experienced enough to know how to write, structure and perform a great album. Although they went on to record a run of very fine albums, to date this has been the band’s best-selling album – with good reason!

The beautiful, colourwheel-inspired cover art was a change from the Hipgnosis photographic covers of the previous two albums, and seemed to promise a shift to something more ethereal and introspective. This promise was delivered by the music itself. This really is an album that bridges gaps between the intense, saturated, raucous, technology-driven sound of Muse’s earlier output and the sound of classic rock and prog bands that older listeners might be more comfortable with. The music is (sometimes) gentler. Matt Bellamy’s vocals are so much easier on the ear than the nerve-jangling, distorted screams he would emit on the earlier albums – deeper, richer, full of drama and emotion. I’m reminded of how Rush’s Geddy Lee’s voice underwent a similar change from oft-derided 1970s falsetto to a richer, deeper, mellower tone in the 80s. In Bellamy’s case, his singing style on this album also owes a hell of a lot to Queen’s Freddie Mercury. In fact, Muse have borrowed shamelessly from Queen on vocal harmonies, arrangements, guitar melodies and structures. This is no bad thing, in my book! There is also a strong representation of classical music on this album, as evidenced by the presence of orchestral elements and the Chopin and Saint-Saens themes that are used. One can argue that Muse have always deserved the label “progressive rock," with their experimental approach to their music and use of cutting-edge technology, but on this album they sail somewhat closer to “classic prog” – especially with the ambitious, three-part, closing piece: “Exogenesis." Muse have made it their business to snatch up the standard of prog and carry it confidently on into a bright future.

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Track by Track Review

Right from the opening tape-start effect, this song is big, brash and bombastic. Muse have never been afraid to dive into different genres for musical inspiration, and this opener is possibly their most blatant homage to the glam-rock of the 70s, with stomping, tom-heavy drums (particularly reminiscent of The Glitter Band) and choppy guitar, while the synthed-bass chugs away to hold the groove down. For those of us with fond childhood memories of the original glam bands, this song is like a long-overdue homecoming. But I suspect that even without those associations this track would be a winner. It pushes all the right buttons: hook-laden, memorable and powerful, and just so much fun to listen to.That opening tape effect leads into a bouncy, synth-bass riff, with the thudding drums interspersed with hand-claps. A high, piercing synth melody slides languorously over this sonic carpet; it, reminds me a little of the Doctor Who theme. Despite its languour, this is a very addictive melody. But just wait until the vocals join in later. . . The verses are fairly straightforward, just setting the scene for the killer chorus that is to come. The guitar bend screams and backing vocal yells of “Come on!” between verse lines add to the glam-rock feel. That catchy synth riff comes in again on the chorus, this time shadowed by Bellamy’s lead vocals which mostly pedal a single note per line. (How on earth did they manage to make this sound so catchy?) The lyrics are powerful and heady; it’s a wonder that this song hasn’t been taken up by the UK Labour Party or various protest groups as their official anthem: “They will not force us / They will stop degrading us / They will not control us / We will be victorious.” I promise that you will catch yourself humming or singing this many times after hearing the song. Guitar chopping chords (with a very 70s nasal sound) come in on the second verse - a nice, subtle build-up.  A wobbly, arpeggiated synth (surely the most recognisable Muse trademark!) comes in on the second chorus. An instrumental section ensues: a dirty distorted guitar hammer-on riff, punctuated by a mob shouting “Hi!” all backed by those stomping drums. Weird electronic burblings join in on the repeat, building tension. A great bass fill brings us back to the chorus. A false ending picks up momentum again to lead to one final rendition of the main them and those mob chants before the tape grinds to a halt as suddenly as it began. In my opinion, this isn’t just the best track on the album (although there are others that come close), it’s the best piece of music Muse have ever created. It’s an example of masterful songwriting - sheer genius! Rightly, the band made this the first single from the album, accompanied by a bonkers video showing giant rampaging teddy bears giving a model city the Godzilla treatment.


After such an opener, almost anything would seem a step down.  "Resistance" certainly does pull back on the throttle to start with, beginning with machine noises that settle into languid synths and distant, echoing drums that form a cold, foreboding atmosphere. A simple, U2-like echoed piano breaks in and carries the main melody while Dom Howard’s busy drum pattern generates a sense of urgency. The U2 feel continues as Matt Bellamy’s high-register vocals come in, singing about an underground movement and a repressive authority. When the bridge arrives, though, Chris Wolstenholme’s tasty bass riff and backing vox drive the song into a higher plane, powering up the energy needed for the number to soar into the massive, anthemic stadium singalong chorus: “Love is our resistance / They'll keep us apart and they won't stop breaking us down / Hold me / Our lips must always be sealed.” Bellamy hums along with the piano melody at the start of the second verse, but otherwise it’s identical to the first in sonic forces. By now, the listener is itching to get back to that big chorus! A short middle-8 features an avalanche of drums and delicate bass fills, punctuated by surf-guitar glissandi and other tricks before crashing down to a reprise of the melancholy opening sounds, with some added guitar string rattle. By the close, this song has become huge. On any other album, this would be the star attraction (and indeed it was released as a single), but that opening song still has it beat!

Undisclosed Desires
The intensity is taken down again on this short and laid-back song, which - after the retro stylings of the first two tracks - sounds more contemporary, featuring electronic drums and multi-tracked pizzicato strings. These strings continue throughout the cut. Synth swells come up between the vocal lines. When the bass comes in on the chorus, it has a sharp, bright, slapped Marcus Miller tone that should be at odds with the classical-sounding pizzicato, but, in fact, works well. In the second verse, whispered vocals shadow the main vox. The second chorus introduces unsettling modulaton of the backing tracks. Following a brief interlude (lots of Eurythmics-style vocal wailing), the slapped bass reappears during the third verse. The tune ends abruptly after a repetition of the opening phrases. This was also released as a single.
United States of Eurasia (+ Collateral Damage)
This begins with a solo piano with a late Beatles feel (sort of “Jude meets the Walrus”) to the chords. Then strings come in: violins at first, dropping down to cellos as Bellamy’s vocals enter. These are quiet and intimate but suddenly peak with Queen-like overlaid harmonies as the chorus arrives. Actually, it’s less of a chorus and more a vocal introduction to an Arabic-sounding instrumental section, with the orchestra tracking the flamboyant piano work. The next verse steps up the excitement, with busy piano vamping (another Queen touch). The bass is now in evidence, initially pumping with rapid roots, but then developing into one of Wolstenholme’s celebrated arpeggiated parts. There’s a cheeky faux Brian May guitar snatch at the end of this verse – just in case you’d missed the Queen references! The second chorus includes a choir chanting behind the main theme. (This might be there on the first chorus too – just further back in the mix.) The end arrives with big operatic vocals: “Eurasia! – sia! –sia!. . .” as the tune slows to a halt, leaving a piano trill that takes us into the “Collateral Damage” section, which is actually a snippet of Chopin’s Nocturne in EbMaj.  Children’s voices are heard in the distance, echoing, drifting. These fade out as the strings and choir join the piano theme. A distorted radio voice appears to be commentating on something important. There is the ominous sound of an incoming jet or missile, getting louder, and then a “Whoosh” panning across the stereo image. Wait for the inevitable explosion. . .
Guiding Light
The expected explosion is actually the first hit of a big drum beat, like that of a Phil Spector production, introducing the next song. This is another anthem that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1980s stadium rock setlist, with (again) echoes of U2, but also of Queen (whose influence surfaces again and again in Muse’s material – especially on this album) and even Bruce Springsteen at his most bombastic. But the U2 feel is the strongest here, especially with the prominent, The Edge-like delayed guitar riff. There’s a guitar solo halfway through, short but dramatic, although the sound effects try to drown it out. This song is big and emotional, but feels like treading water after the excitement and innovation of the preceding pieces. However, a truly magnificent song is waiting to follow.
Unnatural Selection
This gets my vote as the second best track on the album, and indeed one of the finest pieces of music this band has ever laid down. It’s a stripped-down rock song, with little of the synth, sequencer and (often jarring) FX that usually adorn Muse compositions. We’re left with just guitar, bass and drums, with some old-school organ in all the right places.  It’s a bit of a sleeper hit, too. It grows on you with repeated listening. A church pipe organ begins. Bellamy’s thin, distant-sounding vocals sing the chorus. Then a big rock riff comes in with pounding drums and guitar and bass playing the same melody. Bellamy’s vocals are now distorted. The bridge, with its “Counterbalance these commotions” lyrics sounds a bit like ABBA to me! But the chorus, when it reappears, is heavy, with crunchy guitars. Shouts of a mob punctuate the vocals. The second verse and chorus follow the same pattern – so far, a great rock tune, but nothing earth-shattering. But suddenly at the end of the chorus, the magic happens: the floor drops away (via a guitar gliss) and we are deposited in an instrumental section that reminds me of the mid-section of King Crimson’s “Starless”, riding on a carpet of 60s-style vibratoed organ. It’s nice to hear Howard using his cymbals, as a lighter, jazzy touch is what’s needed here. It’s a slow, brooding 3/4 theme (courtesy of Wolstenholme’s bass) that drops down further once it’s established. I keep expecting to hear Robert Fripp’s iconic single-note guitar riff chime in, but Bellamy plays something equally enjoyable: a guitar solo that growls and yelps, making use of his favourite extreme tremolo trick before switching to gritty arpeggios that build up in power before he utters a final snatch of vocals. I wish this bit could last forever, but when the bridge and chorus return, it’s still enjoyable. It sounds like it’s going to end on a final repeated phrase of “I want the truth!," but they pull a fast one again and start up the heavy riff one more time, as if to say “And another thing. . .” It drops into chugging double-tracked guitars as if a big guitar solo is about to happen, but instead the song ends on a dead stop.
MK Ultra
If anyone doubts Muse’s prog-rock credentials, then this is “Exhibit A;" a monster of a track with twists and turns and intricacies that may only be identified after many plays – all shoehorned into a song that’s a mere four minutes long. One of Muse’s familiar arpeggiated guitar/synth riffs kicks this off, before settling down to an alarm sound of repeated root notes while the verse vocals are sung, generating an urgent, breathless pace, with the synth element (of the bass line, as far as I can tell) swelling at the end of each phrase. The drums double-up time at the end of the verse. It drops down to synth twiddles and damped double-tracked guitar punctuation for the “Breaking through” section (which has a disturbing modulated voice behind the lead vocals). Vocal harmonies enter on the repetition. It jumps back up to the full rock mode briefly, then descends into a holding pattern until the drums come in on an extended roll and kick the tune into the main theme again for the next verse. Instead of dropping into the quiet section again for the next chorus, there’s a (somewhat jarring) switch in guitar sounds and the verse’s beat is maintained behind the vocals. But it’s not long before a surf-guitar juddering slide launches it back to the heavy riff, which has disturbing, shrill sound effects over the top. It all ends abruptly, on one last guitar slide.
I Belong To You (+Mon Coeur S'Ouvre A Ta Voix)
This song has a pounding piano riff and vocal melody that could have come from the pen of Freddie Mercury, complete with the harmonised vocals. Drums and percussion (including a prominent Vibraslap) and bass are subtle and very much in the background on this one. As with “United States of Eurasia,:" there is a sudden change to an old tune, this time “Mon Coeur S'Ouvre A Ta Voix” by Camille Saint-Saens, which Bellamy belts out passionately to solo piano. Drums, synths and choir join to heighten the power, and then the music drops back to voice and piano before morphing back into the original “I Belong To You” theme. There’s a brief bass clarinet solo (courtesy of session musician Enrico Gabrielli) and a return to the chorus. The whole thing ends on a tinkly piano flourish.
Exogenesis: Symphony Part 1 (Overture)
The final three tracks sound less like a band effort and more like Matt Bellamy solo, with the other band members in supporting roles, along with an orchestra. It’s strange, but I keep recalling these tracks as being long, but they’re all quite short when I check their timings. The orchestral introduction (orchestrated by Bellamy) shimmers into existence like a Wagner overture, but it also reminds me of the orchestrations of the late Louis Clark on the mid-70s ELO albums. It ends on an emotional orchestral arpeggio that can trace its roots right back to Bach. Rock and electronic instruments come in, and high-register vocals soar over the top. Then the guitar takes the melody and transforms it into a searing solo. The vocals return, layered this time. It gets more intense with swirling cymbals and hammering drums (reminding me of Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, circa Meddle). It segues into the next part of the suite.
Exogenesis: Symphony Part 2 (Cross - Pollination)
Part  two starts with another piano intro, this one more Liszt than Chopin – big and brash, but awash with intricate tinkles. Orchestral and choral synths build up behind the piano. Then it stops. Suddenly it’s just the piano, playing a new theme, a Satie-like tune, over which Bellamy sings. The ebb and flow of the chords is very romantic-period. But as soon as the listener has taken this on board, it changes again. Rock elements fade in playing across this in a different tempo and rhythm. High-pitched strings accompany. It then settles down to that romantic Liszt piano intro. A faint choral backing can be heard amidst the synths. It ends on lingering piano notes.
Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3 (Redemption)
The final section begins with more romantic period piano (a definite Beethoven Moonlight Sonata feel). As the piano picks out the melody and the strings join in, it starts to remind me of the tune “Sleepy Shores” by Johnny Pearson (familiar to many through its use in the 70s as a favourite TV theme). The pace picks up; drums come in, building in intensity and speed. The vocals enter: “Let’s start all over again. . .” with Wolstenholme backing Bellamy as the strings soar majestically. It drops back to the original piano theme with strings, and ends in that way. As I type this (in the midst of uncertain and troubling times), I find I am moved to tears by this music, with its elegiac, almost pitiful feel. It’s about the end of the world, and although the song’s three parts depict the faint hope of a small group of people heading into space to restart the human race on other planets, any optimism seems to have leached out of the music through the subtle key modulation near the end of Part three.  Muse would cover similar territory at the close of “Drones," and the effect on this listener was pretty much the same.
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