One of the biggest battles in rock music is to transition successfully to electronic music whilst at the same time retaining notoriety in modern rock circles. Many a rock band has taken up the electronic mantle only to be hit with accusations of pandering to a larger audience. In short, it is difficult not to “sell out”. Although this album is sonically different from the stripped back and somewhat skeletal hard rock sound of previous effort, ‘Drones’, Muse manages the transition by retaining their core identity as they drift into unfamiliar waters. Whereas bands like Radiohead changed their landscape by tearing down their original sound and starting anew with a blank slate, Muse ease the contrast by embellishing their new sound with that which made Muse great: its chunky guitar riffs with Matt Bellamy’s tortured, operatic vocals acting as an anchor, rooting the listener in place, reminding them that this is still the good old Muse they know and love.
‘Simulation Theory’ is forward marching with an eye to the nostalgic excesses of their past work. This can be found for example in the opening track ‘Algorithm’ in which Bellamy essentially breaks down the (in my opinion somewhat nihilist) theory that life is an illusion and all part of some grandiose computer program. This track, in particular, is very reminiscent of the work Muse did on ‘The 2nd Law’ (in particular the track ‘Unsustainable’) blending classic and symphonic elements and tribal-sounding artificial drum beat which runs like a pulse throughout the track. The elements of fusion on this album also come into their own with the track ‘Propaganda’ in which an acoustic slide guitar solo is accompanied by a series of electronic, synthesized burbles and are held together by a simplistic pulse from a drum machine.
The album is riddled with sci-fi references and none more potent than the eye-catching cover art seemingly echoing the film posters of ‘Ready Player One’ and ‘Blade Runner’ – the running theme through both of which is virtual reality (one of the core principles of simulation theory). Although ‘Simulation Theory’ is a progressive record, the song-writing is distinctly downsized compared to the excesses of previous albums resulting in a clutch of far more disciplined songs, a product of Bellamy’s new bottom-up approach focusing on the consistency of individual songs rather than the overall integrity of the album.
There are glimmers of brilliance on this album. The track ‘Something Human’ stands as a genuine, heartfelt piece about the pangs of homesickness and the endless countdown until Bellamy can wend his way homewards. It is intimate, acoustically driven, the crooning vocals feel final as if Bellamy has stepped down off his electronic pedestal and put his heart on his sleeve. It is easy to envision the band burnt out from perpetual touring and pining to set foot on British soil. The track ‘Thought Contagion’, an impressive, towering number explores Richard Dawkins’ theory that a simple idea can spread faster than even the most lethal of viruses, hence the lyric: ‘you’ve been bitten by a true believer’, is reinforced by the football-chant-like hook. The track ‘Dig Down’ is equally as anthemic, building slowly from a sinister series of electronic pulses towards a chorus line so cathartic it will have the listener fumbling in their pockets for their neglected lighters.
Tracks such as the aforementioned suggest that simulation theory is not necessarily nihilist but Bellamy uses it as a call to arms to mobilise people to root for what matters in life. However, his message falls flat in tracks like ‘Get Up and Fight’, a failed message about commercialism with a grating autotuned warble at the beginning supported by an abrasive chorus and some encouraging platitudes being screamed at us by Bellamy. However, songs like ‘Dig Down’ win me over in how sincere and effortlessly memorable they are.
Overall, Simulation Theory is not the most cohesive, experimental or even the most ambitious album to roll off Muse’s discography. Though Muse’s shift to electronic is more prominent, they still retain the ability to command our attention.