According to Matt Bellamy of Muse, we live in a nightmarish age of the digital panopticon, the end of the world is nigh, relationships are hard and outer space is a pretty bad place? Heavy emphasis on the question mark. These motifs came via a multi-media experience on Sunday night, when Muse opened to a polite and excitable crowd of thousands at the Wells-Fargo center in Philadelphia. The music was relentless and the showmanship consummate– the band turning in a fantastic performance in spite of failing to establish a personal connection with the audience at large.
Anecdotally, the crowd drawn in for the British rock outfit last evening was well coiffed white men in their 20s to 30s, doing their best to ignore being a minority– outnumbered by excitable teenage girls clad mostly in black with bewildered parents in tow. The arena filled to half capacity as the house lights went down promptly at 7:30 p.m. and the members of the Ithaca, New York based rock group X Ambassadors charged to the stage. Singer Sam Harris, clad in black with white high-top sneakers pumped up the crowd, happily pandering to the Philadelphia audience with references to south Philly cheesesteak joints.
Meanwhile a saxophone poised tantalizingly in a stand on the edge of the stage– the musical equivalent of Chekhov’s gun. The band blitzed through a handful of songs off their popular new album VHS, including “Unsteady,” “Hang On” and the album’s radio single, “Renegade.” X Ambassadors’ actual sound recalls Imagine Dragon’s stutter-stop anthem like quality, though highly sanitized and lacking bite. Harris is an unquestionably talented lead vocalist despite this and the moment the saxophone left the stand the audience roared in approval. Afterwards, overheard in the merchandise line at intermission (delivered in hallmark south Philly drawl),
“I saw those guys in Valley Forge last year and they sucked then too!”
Ah, the City of Brotherly love.
Shortly after the main event commenced, Muse’s entrance heralded by massive glowing orbs descending from the ceiling while futuristically armored jack-booted thugs marched in to secure the stage’s perimeter. Without so much as acknowledging the audience, the three part band (plus guest keyboardist) helmed by singer/pianist/lead guitarist Matt Bellamy launched into “Psycho,” a propulsive, driving screed damning the military-industrial complex with cribbed audio clips from the film “Full Metal Jacket.”
The same description could be used for much of Muse’s latter day songs– so earnestly anti-war, so paradoxically surveillance state that their forward facing politics and agenda can read as embarrassingly simple. Yet the message is delivered wrapped in such musical virtuosity, soaring Freddie Mercury-esque vocals from Bellamy, and hard charging bass lines from Chris Wolstenholme that it is easy to forgive the band’s lyrical tendencies towards the histrionic.
Muse is a curious act, having found marginal success in the United States, yet like so many talented musicians, preposterously famous in the rest of the civilized world. Their success is not without merit, as their darkly melancholic hard rock sound combined with Bellamy’s sweepingly operatic voice and robust lyrics are an infectious guilty pleasure of the highest order.
Muse’s stop in Philadelphia last evening represented their twenty-sixth show in North America on tour for their newest album “Drones” and was their second to last stateside before returning to Europe for the next leg. The show itself is a tightly orchestrated bombastic multi-media experience with as much emphasis placed on the visuals accompanying the concept album as the music– enormous floor-to-ceiling opaque screens displayed troubling visuals from outer space, ICBM stock footage, and CG-biomechanical nightmares all before culminating in depicting the end of the world as we know it.
Meanwhile, the band played for a consecutive two hours with only the most momentary pause for Bellamy to shout “How you doin’ Philadelphia,” before ripping back into the tightly choreographed set. Before the evening was through, the band delivered the majority of tracks off the Drones album such as “Dead Inside” as well as many other mega-hits from their catalogue including “Hysteria,” “Supermassive Black Hole,” and “Apocalypse Please,” as well as a built-in double encore of “Knights of Cydonia” and “Mercy.” Curiously absent from the evening’s proceedings were actual drones, but as with most things Muse, that may or may not be a metaphor best enjoyed in passing and without too much scrutiny.