Midway through their near-two-hour show at Manchester Arena, Muse vanish from their venue-spanning stage setup again whilst video footage of John F. Kennedy is projected over a series of descending banners, flung from the rafters to form a makeshift screen. It evokes a disturbing feeling, as the late president slowly enunciates the horrors of war and the shadows of treachery over a slowly rising guitar chug. Then, it erupts into the distinctive bass intro of the heavy, dirty swaggering Hysteria and 16,000 people leap to their feet in unison, hollering along.
Muse aren’t a band known for their subtleties. They return to this venue in support of a concept album, Drones, that trades in frontman Matt Bellamy’s favourite topics; conspiracies, corruption, and war, backed up by bombastic, gothic Wagnerian chords. OTT is their bread and butter. Before they even play a note, a choral mass of chanting vocals and churchy organ is piped in as glass spheres float ominously around, like see-through Christmas baubles. The stage is situated in the middle of the floor, a rotating circular behemoth with two walkways to platforms at opposite ends, vaguely resembling a TIE Fighter. The lack of Stonehenge is only because it’s been done before; Spinal Tap would nod approvingly.
|Muse performing live at Manchester Arena,|
2016. (Courtesy of Joel Goodman).
All this overblown excess – a U2 staging for the twenty-first century – would not hold the attention if Muse couldn’t cut it as a live band as well. Thankfully, the Devonshire trio are one of the finest in the business, an efficiently-drilled cohort who are as good as they’ve ever been. Despite this, their wall-of-sound approach to live performance lacks any bite initially. They open with the Roudhouse Blues-riffing roar of the violent Psycho and follow it up with the RATM-tinged Reapers that sees Bellamy’s guitar histrionics squeak and tremble in strange organic patterns – but neither feel as threatening as they really should. Clad in black, Bellamy and bassist Chris Wolstenholme preen and strut around, sneering as they deliver crunching blockbuster noises; but it lacks the genuine hostility or pantomime villainy that it would benefit from, no actual menace or knowing wink. Instead, it’s played straight and consequently suffers for a lack of fun.
They divert briefly into fan-favourite Bliss before delivering the electro-rock of Dead Inside and hi-def video game charge of The Handler, where Bellamy starts to come alive as graphics of puppet masters grapple with him as he prances down the walkway. Vocally, his elastic caterwauling is surprisingly unable to reach the notes he can on record – but when he shifts to his falsetto for the funk-laden Supermassive Black Hole, he hits his stride and suddenly Muse find their mojo, as touring keyboardist Morgan Nicholls dances wildly whilst the floating globes rotate like a neon-tinged planetarium. They follow rapidly with glittering pop song Starlight, as Wolstenholme pops giant, confetti-filled balloons with the end of his bass to cheers, and from there, they never let up.
|Matt Bellamy of Muse, performing live at|
Manchester Arena, 2016. (Courtesy of Joel Goodman).
Some tracks work better than others; the harsh, new prog of Time Is Running Out is sublime, whilst Bellamy vamps up the piano for a gorgeously frenzied-rendition of Feeling Good. The glam-stomp of Uprising feels underpowered by a lack of dual guitar work until halfway through, whilst Dominic Howard’s superb drumming on Map of the Problematique is lost somewhere underneath the rumbling bass in a sound mix that could have been a touch better. But on the whole, it’s superbly enjoyable as the band loosen up and enjoy themselves. They wander into ponderous, Orwellian territory for set-closer The Globalist; a sprawling ten-minute plus track that goes Full Metal Floyd, complete with an inflatable spy plane that recalls Roger Waters’ legendary pigs, but recover themselves nicely with a thrilling encore of Take a Bow and Mercy. As Wolstenholme picks out the notes to the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on harmonica, it gives way to the finally charging gallop of the Thin Lizzy-indebted Knights of Cydonia, the band at their ridiculously overblown best. Muse have reached a critical mass of prog-influenced soundscapes and thrilling theatre to easily stake a claim as the best live band in the world; if they played it more often with a sense of levity, they probably would be.