A deep dive into thinking behind exhilarating new album Simulation Theory
Cai Trefor
19:30 9th November 2018

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Simulation Theory, out today, is a triumph of sonic innovation and timely lyricality, and is littered with mind-altering takes on the present state of the world. Well worth the three year wait since Drones, it's remarkably complete considering Muse have been touring practically the whole time too. Part of its allure is in the deft blending of new, old and very old genres with the rock DNA of the band to create something new. Opening cut 'Algorithm' distills in just a few seconds these qualities. From the off, we know we're in the company of a band who've developed into one of the most exhilarating forces of modern music.

We caught up with bassist Chris Wolstenholme to chat about how the album was made, where it sits in relation to Drones, the influences that shone through, and a response to what Wolstenholme sees as the myth Muse are no longer a guitar band. Check out what we learned in our conversation below.

Don't tell them they're not a guitar band

"The guitar has always been an important part of this band," says Chris, speaking over the phone with Gigwise. "But I know there are certain people who say: 'you’re not a guitar band anymore!' I don’t agree with that at all. I just feel that there are instances where the guitar is used in a different way.”

Sensitive to those fans who may feel alienated by their innovation, he adds, " As much as I love guitar, bass and drums – and it's what we are and grew up with – they put limitations on what you can do. It's the same with any kind of music, if it stays in same place it will become irrelevant until somebody does something new with it. We add a new dimension to what is very old instrument. I feel it’s very easy in a rock band to become stale."

Constant creative destruction and rebirth has of course been Muse's deal since day dot: especially on Origin Of Symmetry, where Bellamy was busy using bubble wrap and clanking llama bones into the mix. Much like their proggy predecessors Pink Floyd, Muse revel in an unorthodox approach.

Experiment but keep it familiar

However leftfield some of their newer stuff sounds, Wolstenholme insists there are key parameters in the Muse studio to stay tangible and accessible. He cites heroes Phil Spector and Brian Wilson as examples: "If they wanted to create a new sound or instrument they would get a violin and flute and play the same line at the same time so it didn’t quite sound like a violin, didn’t quite sound like a flute it created a new thing. It still had a familiarity.”

For instance? "I guess you could consider ‘Pressure’. It is still a rock song, but then we’ve taken that and we’ve blended it with a funky brass section that feels very different to what we’ve done. And there’s a Brian Wilson high-falsetto backing vocal that goes through the chorus that I did and you process it in a way and go, is it a vocal or what? It sounds quite unusual."

And for the record, he gives avant garde purveyors of abstract sound fairly short shrift: “If it's entirely original, and doesn’t bear any resemblance to anything that’s come before cannot be considered music.” Well, suck on that.

Soulwax – and other Belgian Bands – make their mark

One of Simulation Theory's highlights are the lavishly manipulated robotic-sounding backing vocals, fused with myriad textures like slide guitar on the funky 'Propoganda'. Asked where they developed the idea to bring in slide guitar, Wolstenholme says, "It reminds me of Belgian band Soulwax, who we played with years ago.

"We had a period of time where we just loved Belgian bands. We were really into dEUS and Soulwax and Millionaire among others. They were rock bands but weren’t afraid of technology again this blending of styles and coming up with something that was really really arty. Perhaps that’s one of the earlier influences of stuff to creep through a little bit.”

Simulation Theory carries on where Drones left off

Muse, then, embody the creative experimental qualities of their heroes Soulwax. And this is never more so evident than on the way the bassist describes the band writing Simulation Theory as a follow up to Drones:

"Drones talks about brainwashing – you have the drill sergeant in 'Psycho' – and I think the album talks about becoming part of this machine; becoming part of the system that you're in. Towards the end of album you get the sense this person being talked about is starting to come out of it. And I think when you listen to Simulation Theory, it’s almost the after effects of having been a part of this system and breaking out of it and the emotional conflict that creates."

The "system" the bassist mentions taking a hold is highly recognisable, immersed as we all are in screens, not to mention this core thematic undercurrent of AI encroaching on our agency as social beings.

Wolstenholme's admission that Simulation Theory doesn't exist in a vacuum is encouraging, too. The more they relate back to work they've done before, the more entrenched you feel they are in their writing on this topic. It hints that the dogmatic constraints of an album cycle are barely possible to distill the full extent of their unending reflections on this topic and it's where they're head is constantly at right now. And perhaps all the albums exist in one coherent ‘universe’. Which is such a Muse idea when you think about it.

Simulation is preventing an uprising

If Simulation Theory is about the effects of being in this simulated world then this brings context to 'Thought Contagion'. The very process of constantly being barraged by information through our screens is creating a generation of stifled, apolitical people. And increasingly subversive voices, malevolent in intent and execution, lend a sinister, foreboding character to the ‘simulation’.

As Bellamy sings: "It's too late for a revolution / Brace for the final solution."

In an era where street protests feel increasingly ineffective and neutered by police it's all very sobering. The aching tone of 'Dig Down' that feels like a rallying call to organise and resist, much like old favourite ’Knights of Cydonia’, feels like a call with no answer. 

Muse reckon we're powerless in the hands of a faceless global political elite. He’s probably right.

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Photo: Nuno Cruz