Origin of Symmetry

I've always wondered what it is about passing Muse off as a poor man's Radiohead that some people consider worthwhile or relevant as an evaluation of their output. To me, if you're listening to a Muse record and expecting to hear what you get out of a Radiohead one, you're sending yourself on a fool's errand and setting yourself up for inevitable failure, in the same way that I wouldn't recommend listening to Poulenc's piano sextet while expecting the gravitas of a Shostakovich string quartet. Both ostensibly serve different aural purposes, but quality can be found in abundance in both. And while drawing parallels between artists can of course be useful, to sum up your criticism of one of them by passing them off as a sub-standard version of the other only works if both are pursuing the same creative goals. I'm not saying Muse and Radiohead are musical chalk and cheese. Whether or not Matt Bellamy has decidedly channelled influences received from Yorke and co. into his compositions, a premise still debated by music magazines over a decade after the band's entry into the public eye, it is doubtless that there are similarities to speak of, especially in this, Origin of Symmetry, the band's second album. But let's focus on what Muse have to offer, on their own merits.

Listening to Origin of Symmetry, what do we have? Firstly, we have brazen, glaring, high-energy rock packed with distortion. It's little more than a minute before "New Born" churns out an unabashed amount of guitar and bass fuzz with its heel-stomping riff, sweeping the rug from underneath anyone who in that first sixty seconds might have expected elaborate or fanciful indie prog. Track two, "Bliss", while sounding a little more sensitive with its ethereal, spacey synth introduction, is practically the same in its format, and taking a step back to observe these two openers, we can see that the album's statement of intent at this point seems to be simply to hit us with entertaining, honest rock anthems. "Hyper Music" and "Micro Cuts" serve as a couple of other fine examples of this, probably Muse's strongest point - just rocking out. In fact, as if this were in any doubt, the former of these two picks seems to borrow its inspiration from the riff of Rage Against The Machine's "Snakecharmer" (Evil Empire, 1996), and the sneering, angsty vocals are reminiscent of Muse's simple alt rock debut Showbiz.

What else do we have? Classical influence. Lots? No, not really. Enough to be considered prog, new or otherwise? It doesn't matter. The direct quote of the "Rach 2" in the shroom-fest that is "Space Dementia" (complete with Bellamy's watered-down representation of its swirling arpeggiated intro on the piano), the relentless toccata-like riff that opens and forms the backbone of "Plug In Baby", the funereal dirge of the church organ in "Megalomania"... all of these elements are just enough to set Muse apart from the average alt rock band without verging on the territory of pretence, but without also taking the focus too far away from the simple fact that this is, at its core, a bold and unrelenting rock album. None of the aforementioned snippets of Western art music ever give the impression of interrupting the flow to demonstrate a certain musical knowledge or prowess, nor do they ever intrude on the guitar- and percussion-based spirit of the record; they simply serve to complement and blend with it, and in this sense, no integrity is lost. Furthermore, "Space Dementia", with its thunderous riff, is a tremendous example of the band's ability to convincingly replace rock guitar with piano without sacrificing power or flair; something at which many other bands fall flat.

What now? Well, we have some fine vocals courtesy of frontman Matt Bellamy. All too often come the criticisms that he sounds like a Thom Yorke impersonator, and, while I don't disagree at all that the two sound at times remarkably similar, for what it's worth I find it quite perplexing that amidst these comparisons it can be denied that Bellamy's voice is up to task. For all that his vibrant vocalising can be about as subtle as a shotgun in the sense that it's quasi-operatic, his control is marvellous, his tuning is near-perfect and his tone full-bodied and rich. And if you're already enjoying the musical laser light show offered by the instruments, Bellamy's voice will therefore serve as the pyrotechnic icing on the cake. In "Micro Cuts" it is at its most indelicate, and perhaps too much so, it could be argued. But given the despairing nature of the song as a whole, there is really not a great deal about the frenzied falsetto that offends anything about the feel of the music. It seems that the vocals are well adapted to each musical environment it travels into. Furthermore, it's not that Bellamy can't also be vocally sensitive, and during his understated murmurs in "Citizen Erased" and "Screenager" his delivery is still satisfying. Possibly the most convincing of vocal performances here is his stylish handling of Newley/Bricusse's "Feeling Good", wherein he demonstrates both his acrobatics and his charm, and for all that it may come across as brash, it fails to offend the ear with whining or pitchiness.

Finally, all said and done, Origin of Symmetry is mad fun by the bucket-load. It's not a masterpiece, but it's big, bold and constantly engaging, from the gentle piano intro of "New Born" to the booming F sharp major organ chord that wraps up "Megalomania". "Space Dementia"'s enormous crunch of a climax, which gives rise to a cacophony of synthesised noise and guitar feedback, and the dark and somewhat demented "Micro Cuts" with its pounding heaviness, show this off no end, and with fantastic aplomb. People tend to cite The Resistance as the record that puts forward the band's Queen influences the most, and while it is undeniably palpable there, I think it can be heard no end here too, insofar as its soundscapes are incredibly theatrical and there is very little holding back in its conveyance. And that's why the aforementioned close to the album elicits a chuckle of appreciation from me every time. It's powerful as hell, and it's also hilarious, in a way that almost makes me love it more than if it were a super-serious nerdy prog freakout with its tongue miles from its cheek.

You don't even need to listen to this with an open mind; just listen to it without preparing yourself for the kind of alt rock Radiohead gained critical acclaim for, and have a bit of fun. There is much to be had here for anyone who is after the energetic, exciting and overstated power of modern rock music.

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