Music: Muse's game of Drones
Muse were for many years rock's ultimate punchline. When their debut album, Showbiz, was released in 1999, journalists wrote them off as a fake plastic Radiohead. They were later compared - and not in a good way - to Queen. Then they sold 15 million records and became Britain's biggest rock export this side of Coldplay. And suddenly nobody was laughing any more.
How to explain the extraordinary success of a band that can often sound like the musical equivalent of the final 20 minutes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; which is to say, clamorous and baffling? Call it a flair - maybe even a genius - for the ridiculous.
Experienced in your living room on a weedy sound-system, Muse may feel thoroughly overcooked - a three-course musical dinner in which all the dishes are served at once and acid reflux is a given. In a vast stadium, however, with life-size radar antennae twitching in the background (a sight that greeted attendees at one of their Dublin concerts several years ago) it all makes perfect sense: sometimes big really is better.
Just released, the group's latest album, Drones, is a proper, arse-kicking tour de force. As the title testifies, at one level it's a rumination on our age of warfare by technological proxy (Muse are of the opinion covert drone strikes are a Very Bad Thing). However, the LP is also grandly conceptual, weaving a dystopian narrative about an outsider sucked into an Orwellian world of thought control and freedom suppression. If Edward Snowden and Christopher Nolan were to write a seventies rock opera together… well, yes, it might just sound a little like this.
With so much rafter-shaking pomposity, you expect the musicians responsible to be plenty pompous themselves. Actually, they're surprisingly grounded - as becomes clear after a few minutes in the company of founder member Christopher Wolstenholme. He's matey and plain-spoken, and appreciates the absurdity of his position as bass player and songwriter in one of the world's most popular bands. "I had the builders around my house the other week," he recalls. "And, as builders do, they had the radio on. The next thing [Muse's new single] 'Dead Inside' came on. They were completely oblivious that it was me - and I kind of liked that. Obviously you can't have total anonymity. Still, I enjoy the freedom to go on tour and then come home and have a very normal life - which I think the kids need."
It hasn't escaped his attention that Muse are the last of what we can now plausibly describe as a dwindling breed: major rock outfits with long-term careers. In their mid-30s, they represent the youthful wing of stadium rock. After them, who is left? Mumford and Sons, Kodaline? Yes, the outlook truly is bleak. "Us and Coldplay are the last two bands that have worked their way up and released more than five albums internationally," says Wolstenholme. "What's happened is that revenues have gone down massively in the music industry and people aren't investing in bands.
"The new bands are not being given a chance to develop. The labels want an instant pay off. I wonder, if Showbiz was coming out tomorrow - would we have had an opportunity to make [2001 break-out LP] Origin of Symmetry? You know - probably not. Everything has changed massively. Back in the day a label would sign a dozen bands on £400,000 deals - if one took off it would pay for the rest.
"The problem now is that, even if you get a record deal, you don't get any money. Call us selfish - part of the appeal about wanting to be an actor or a footballer or a rock star is that you get to be rich and famous. Well, in music now, you have to take the 'rich' bit out of it. Young bands who are touring and have a single on the radio - they still haven't got any money. They're getting airplay and can't afford to live."
Stardom has sometimes been a struggle for the matey Wolstenholme. With a young family, he has found touring difficult and, in the past, turned to the bottle for solace. Things got so bad circa 2009's The Resistance that his bandmates feared they couldn't go on with him.
"The great thing about being a threesome is the democracy," he told me on the follow-up tour. "If something comes to a vote, it's two against one - very easy to make a decision. They felt I wasn't there. On a couple of occasions Matt [Bellamy, singer] and Dom [Howard, drummer] were potentially not agreeing on something. Matt said 'I really needed you there to make the decision'. Matt and Dom tend to be… well not quite at each other's throats… but, as in any band there will be conflict in terms of how a song should go. I am the guy who would make the casting vote. I wasn't there on that album.
"My dad had the same thing [Wolstenholme's father died of alcoholism, aged 40]," he said in the same interview. "Some people think it's genetic. But, yeah, definitely being away from my family in the early days was really, really difficult.
"Starting out, you've everything to gain if you work hard enough. You've got the management and the record company pushing you and all these opportunities come along that are incredibly important. You kind of have to say 'yes' to everything. You have to put your family on hold. Getting signed coincided with my wife falling pregnant with our first. I was really torn. You find yourself going away for eight, nine weeks. Then you're home for three days, away again for eight, nine weeks."
In the end he beat his addiction. Twelve months living in Foxrock, Dublin helped him sober up.
"Sometimes you go somewhere and it feels right. That's what Dublin was like. I spent a year there and I'll never forgot it."
Drones is out now
Alternative Light Source (Infectious)
Album of the week
With the Chemical Brothers to shortly headline Longitude and the Prodigy returning to Dublin, nineties electronica - 'dad techno' in contemporary parlance - is experiencing an Indian summer. One of the stalwarts of a scene lately synonymous with middle-aged ravers, Leftfield, never quite lived up to their extraordinary 1995 debut, Leftism - a winningly bludgeoning mash-up of dub, ambient, house and punk.
Some two decades on, the group has been reconstituted as a successful touring entity by founder Neil Barnes. However, fronting a glorified nostalgia-fest did not sit well with the combative Barnes, who here makes a triumphant return as a recording artist with Leftfield's third LP.
It's obvious from the outset he has not set out to replicate old glories. Stepping past the reggae and clubby incessancy of Leftfield's back catalogue, Alternative Light Source is slick and sleek, reflecting dance music's present infatuation with hard-charging minimalism even as it adds spectral flourishes original to Barnes. There are no vocalists as high profile as Leftism's John Lydon - however, 'Little Fish' features the haunting coos of Polica's Channy Leaneagh while Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson is chillingly splenetic on 'Head and Shoulders'.
The incredible shrinking band, Franz Ferdinand, have laboured to recapture their early-career buzz. Cannily shifting emphasis, the Scottish foursome tangle with eccentric Los Angeles siblings Sparks, with results that bring out hidden strengths in both outfits, Franz's stodgy workmanship enlivened by zinging melodies, Sparks' wackiness tempered with indie pop grit.
Welcome Back to Milk
Rasping fem-rock from the artist who previously traded as Beth Jeans Houghton. Under the new sobriquet of Du Blonde, the 25-year-old Newcastle native channels the drawling, cigarette-dangling style of The Kills, interspersed with - well, it was signposted in the name - Debbie Harry's downtown vim. The results are endlessly bedraggled and charming.
The new Terminator movie is still a few weeks out but anyone itching for dystopian thrills will be more than sated by the seventh album from Muse. Loosely conceptual, the LP spins a tale of identity takeover and government manipulation - tedious on paper but here enlivened by Def Leppard producer Mutt Lange. Drones is so big it doesn't matter that it isn't always clever.
If this is the future of music, can someone please invent a time-machine? (You can leave me off just as shoe-gaze is getting started). Russian producer Zedd is a proponent of charmlessly 'banging' anthems where the grooves are relentless, the vocals migraine-inducing (Selena Gomez guests). We're suddenly pining for the next Deadmau5 record.