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‘MUSE’-INGS ON A PSYCHEDELIC PERFORMANCE

Britain Rock Act Entrances and Entertains in Concert

By Amy Lee
ARTS EDITOR

Muse

Avalon

Nov. 5, 7:00 p.m.

At first glance, the members of Muse are divas. They have it all, from fastidious pre-show preparations to the over-extreme emphasis on appearance. But unlike most new divas (ie Britney Spears), the members have complete right to be as fussy as they want. When performing live, their music is intense, their stage presence is unforgettable, and their light display is practically psychoactive. After one concert, it’s easy to see why Muse has been deemed “best live act.”

It took their stage crew a good 45 minutes to set everything up. Literally, everything. Each instrument was sound checked separately, at least twice -- meaning each of the elaborate drum set’s eight cymbals was crashed; the two guitars were strummed at standing and kneeling heights; the bass strings were plucked; and the notes checked on the keyboard. One mic was even lowered to the exact chin height of a specific stage hand so that when singer Matt Bellamy came on stage, it would be perfectly pre-heightened. And all this was done at snail’s pace.

With the excessive preparations, Muse seemed to be nothing more than a pop-that-wants-to-be-rock band who had sold out to the entertainment business. But then the lights blacked out for just a second and with the flashing lights came that energetic sound that characterizes all of Muse’s CDs.

After playing an intro, Bellamy handed his guitar to a stage hand and headed to the keyboard for “Butterflies & Hurricanes.” The keyboard, mounted on a pyramid-like stand with cheesegrater-like holes, was hooked up so different colored lights lit up on the stand along with the notes played. On the subject of lights: the show featured strobe lights (on the ceiling and on the stage, facing the audience), multi-colored lights, moving spotlights, switching stage lights, and a smoke machine to go along with all that. They weren’t just random extras either. When calmer parts were played soft blue lights came on; the strobe lights were coupled to the more hardcore parts.

Bellamy’s falsetto voice is incredibly powerful for such a small person, and each word he sings is soaked in desperation. It’s difficult to understand anything he sings, but that doesn’t really matter; it’s that constant anguished sound that hypnotizes.

Muse played “Newborn” next, and as before, there was a stage hand waiting to hand Bellamy a guitar when he ran from the keyboard to his guitar after the first two verses. (Is it that difficult to pick up and put down a guitar?) This guitar-stage-hand-Bellamy interchange occurred several times throughout the concert.

Bass player Christopher Wolstenholme provided the driving force for all songs, along with backup vocals that helped balance Bellamy’s piercing voice. He was almost comic to watch; his size dwarfs the bass and he plays with a never-leaving, slight smile on his calm face (in contrast to Bellamy’s tortured look). With all his cymbals and drums, drummer Dominic Howard was constantly busy. His use of details in the music was impressive; even during Bellamy’s piano solos, he was ready to accompany with muted cymbal rolls.

Because one can watch the musicians during a concert, many things become clear that don’t appear from perfectly mixed CDs. Muse’s strikingly powerful music -- and hence success -- comes largely from the fact that they are playing something nonstop, even if it means they have to make just plain noise. Occasionally this noise sounds good, but often Bellamy plays around with feedback or high pitched fast strumming and it is simply painful to the ears. Muse’s constant use of layers -- much like Radiohead -- also builds to their commanding sound.

The concert was a wonderful sensory overload, even if no music had been involved. Green and blue rays broken by strobe flashes lashed out from the light array; Bellamy convulsed like a possessed creature and hustled from guitar to keyboard; Wolstenholme smiled and head-bobbed (yes, it was strangely mesmerizing); Unearthly shadows of Howard pounding away appeared on the backdrop. Muse is nothing less than captivating.

Watching the show, although enjoyable, was disappointing in that took a mask off the recordings. Some of the guitar parts, mixed in the CD to blend perfectly into the music, sounded completely horrible live. In the beginning of “Citizen Erased,” Bellamy basically uses a lot of reverb and two harmonics to create that sound. But he didn’t really hit the harmonics ever, and instead it was just painful. The bass parts, which sound difficult on the CD, are actually more well-picked so open strings are utilized. And it was disconcerting -- and disappointing -- when, in two songs, no one was sitting at the keyboard but mysterious piano arpeggios floated out of the speakers. It turned out Bellamy had a prerecorded part programmed into his pedal so at a press of a button, the part started and stopped. Whenever recordings are involved in a live concert, it makes the show seem less believable. The biggest question, though, was when it comes down to it, you have to wonder: is it energy or is it sheer volume? (Earplugs were a necessity.)

Undoubtedly, the members of Muse have musical talent but, as popular musicians go, their talent is not standout. Ben Gibbard, the singer for Deathcab For Cutie has a less strained falsetto and the words he sings are actually comprehendable; Rage Against the Machine’s lyrics are far more meaningful, easy to relate to, and novel; Radiohead is the king when it comes to use of layers. But where Muse excels is in their talent as live entertainers, and with that added boost, Muse entrances audiences.