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‘Absolution’: The Muse Magnum Opus That Foretold The End Times
In Depth

‘Absolution’: The Muse Magnum Opus That Foretold The End Times

A sweeping work of apocalyptic fervour, Muse’s third album, ‘Absolution’ is an alt-rock masterpiece capturing the angst of a post-9/11 world.

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As the world grappled with the aftermath of 9/11 and the ominous spectre of the Iraq War, Muse’s third studio album, Absolution, saw the Devonshire trio respond to turbulent times with a visionary work of dystopian fervency. A masterful blend of soaring melodies, evocative lyrics and suitably grandiose orchestration, the album tackled religious themes with doom-laden vigour and cataclysmic intensity. Showcasing the group’s innate virtuosity and Matt Bellamy’s conspiracy-filled lyrics, it also gave voice to the collective angst of a generation.

This is the story of how Absolution became a milestone release for Muse, triggering an earthquake that forever changed the landscape of alternative rock.

Listen to the ‘Absolution XX Anniversary’ box set here.

The backstory: “It felt the way it was in the beginning when we were just having rehearsals”

In many ways, it was the calm before the storm. After wrapping up their Origin Of Symmetry Tour at Reading And Leeds Festival in 2002, Muse decided to take a well-earned break before starting work on their third album. Up until now, the band’s unstoppable rise to fame – capped off by their UK Top 20 hit single Plug In Baby – had left them windswept and exhausted, so granting themselves the luxury of rest promised to give the bandmates some creative breathing space.

With more free time on their hands, bassist Chris Wolstenholme spent time in Teignmouth with his young children, while drummer Dominic Howard and frontman Matt Bellamy reconnected with their girlfriends. “It felt the way it was in the beginning when we were just having rehearsals,” Bellamy told Rock Sound magazine. “We had no pressure and we decided that we weren’t going to record anything until we had the stuff.”

In September 2002, the band tentatively entered AIR Studios, in London, to meet with producers John Cornfield and Paul Reed, where they laid down early recordings of future Absolution highlights Butterflies And Hurricanes and Blackout. At this point, no one was in any rush to finish a new album, but within a matter of weeks the group had made the executive decision to hire another producer to help them steer the course. Enter Rich Costey.

Favoured by the band for his work mixing Rage Against the Machine’s 2000 album, Renegades, the Los Angeles-born sound engineer was immediately won over by Muse’s fearlessness and try-anything attitude. “By the time that I came into the picture, they had already recorded several tracks for the new album,” Costey told Sound On Sound. “Those had gone very well, but they were interested in trying out some other ideas and seeing what else might be out there.”

The recording: “There’s a lot of apocalyptic stuff going on in a lot of the songs”

It wasn’t until early 2003 that production on Muse’s highly-anticipated third album gathered more momentum. Having firstly record at Livingston Recording Studios, in London, the band opted to hunker down at a residential recording facility, Grouse Lodge, in County Westmeath, Ireland. Using the on-site swimming pool to good advantage, producer Rich Costey stationed drummer Dominic Howard in the shallow end in order to capture the desired kick-drum sound for what would become Absolution’s opening song, Apocalypse Please.

With an intro slowly fading in to the sound of jackboot stomps (much of which was achieved by thumping a nearby wagon wheel in the Irish countryside), Matt Bellamy’s aggressive piano playing has a frenzied urgency to it, while his lyrics find him singing from the perspective of a religious fanatic convinced the end is nigh (“It’s time we saw a miracle/Come on, it’s time for something biblical”). “I think there’s a lot of apocalyptic stuff going on in a lot of the songs,” Bellamy later admitted to NME. “While we were recording, all the war [with Iraq] was coming out, and we were in the process of recording while watching that.”

This was late March 2003. Both British and North American armed forces had launched a full-scale military invasion of Iraq, even though approximately one million people had marched on London a month beforehand in an attempt to stop the war. Like many, Bellamy felt angered and distressed by how the world had descended into chaos and conflict, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and George W Bush’s subsequent “War On Terror”. As a result, many of the songs on Absolution saw the Muse frontman grapple with apocalyptic visions and themes of impending doom.

Released in July 2003 as a download-only MP3 through Muse’s official website, the album’s first single, Stockholm Syndrome, took its name from a real-life hostage crisis in Norrmalmstorg, Sweden, in which bank robbers and their hostages found themselves forming unexpected emotional bonds. In a world where the lines between victims and perpetrators were becoming increasingly blurred, the song still packs a heavy-handed punch as a terroristic tour de force, full of volatile guitar riffs and impassioned vocals simmering with psychological discord.

It’s no surprise that much of Bellamy’s world view at this time was increasingly paranoid and conspiratorial, reflecting the pervasive sense of unease and uncertainty that permeated the cultural and political landscape of the early 2000s. Absolution’s second single, Time Is Running Out, even takes listeners into doomsday territory, with lyrics depicting the Trilateral Commission as a globalist overseer bringing the world to the brink of catastrophe. “None of these people are actually politicians and they decide everything,” Bellamy told Rock Sound. “In my mind, there’s no question that that’s who is ruling the world.”

Released as a single in September, Time Is Running Out gave Muse their biggest UK chart success yet, peaking at No.8. Promoted by a music video directed by John Hillcoat, in which the band played in a Dr Strangelove-style War Room in front of sinister military officials, it mixed Bellamy’s timely social commentary with a heavy alt-rock sound and a lurching groove. As one of the best Muse songs ever written, Time Is Running Out rang the alarm for Absolution’s impending release.

The release: “It’s about moments of extreme fear, and a fair bit of end-of-the-world talk”

With an almost rapturous air of mystery surrounding its arrival, Absolution was released on 15 September 2003 and peaked at No.1 in the UK within its first week. Created by Hipgnosis founder Storm Thorgerson, the album’s sleeve depicts a lone figure staring up at a squadron of mysterious shadowy figures, recalling the iconic designs the Hipgnosis team came up with for many of Pink Floyd’s greatest artworks. Boasting one of the best 2000s album covers, Absolution was clearly destined to be an era-defining release.

Performing with more gravitas than ever before, Matt Bellamy leaped throughout the album from bombastic ivory-bashing to sombre and minimalist piano-playing inspired by classical composers such as Rachmaninoff, Lizst and Chopin (Butterflies And Hurricanes). Sonically, however, Muse remained palatable to Kerrang!’s alt-rock crowd (The Small Print) while also retaining a degree of melodicism that enamoured them to NME’s indie gatekeepers (Time Is Running Out). Absolution’s third single, Hysteria, attempted to combine it all, hurling the listener into a vortex of sci-fi-inspired synths and culminating in one of Bellamy’s most stratospheric guitar solos to date. Peaking at No.17 in the UK, the song was a wild and frenetic rocker that could well soundtrack the invasion of the bodysnatchers (“’Cause I want it now/I want it now/Give me your heart and your soul”).

Lyrically, Absolution often saw Bellamy draw upon religious themes of salvation, as if sung from the perspective of a zealot pleading for redemption on the day of reckoning. From placard-waving catastrophising (Apocalypse Please) to death-bed eschatology (Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist), the album’s songs reflected society’s loss of faith in common causes within the world-weary context of 21st-century war and conquest. “In relation to the album it’s come across more as a general fear and mistrust of the people in power,” Bellamy told NME. “It’s about moments of extreme fear, and a fair bit of end-of-the-world talk.”

Released as the album’s fourth single, in May 2004, the eerie piano ballad Sing For Absolution peaked at No.16 in the UK, courtesy of Bellamy’s spiritually rousing vocal performance. “His tenor voice is very quiet and just beautiful, whereas normally he’s pushing himself quite hard,” producer Rich Costey told Sound On Sound. “Any time you work with a great vocalist it’s pretty exciting.” Fitting in with the album’s overarching themes of transcendence, Sing For Absolution’s music video even saw Muse don spacesuits to hop on board a space shuttle and fly through a meteor field, only to return home and find Earth in ruins.

In keeping with the group’s ambitions, Costey’s production on Absolution is stellar, enabling Muse’s cosmic blend of abrasive alt-rock and richly arranged orchestration in a way that recalls the sonic fearlessness of such prog legends as Yes and hifalutin theatrical rockers Queen. “We re-recorded some of the stuff with the orchestra, toned it down a little bit,” Bellamy told NME, while admitting, “I sounds a lot harder now than I expected.” By showcasing Bellamy’s aptitude for hair-raising guitar solos and virtuoso piano-based lunacy, Absolution succeeded in not only capturing the spirit of the times but also marked a giant conceptual leap forward for Muse that was nothing short of majestic.

The legacy: “In terms of success, we judge it by how we feel about the music”

Selling more than three and a half million copies worldwide to date, Absolution is widely regarded by fans as being one of the best Muse albums, launching the group into the mainstream with all the ferocity of a force 12 hurricane. With its veiled commentary on post-Iraq War disillusionment and spiritual apostasy, it saw Muse dip their toes into prog-tinged waters and dabble in art-rock concept pieces, the group combining their sonic excursions with stadium-ready guitar riffs in order to assert themselves as one of the best bands of the 2000s.

The final single to be released from the album was the five-minute epic Butterflies And Hurricanes, a sweeping and artful exploration of mathematical chaos theory that fuses haunting arpeggios with Rachmaninov-inspired mania. “I was trying to find a classical type of piano style that would be heavy and work with bass and drums,” Matt Bellamy said. “It had that sort of mechanical paradiddle thing all the way through, and then it breaks down into this kind of romantic, flowing weird bit in the middle.” Issued in September 2004, the song peaked at No.14 in the UK, as pretty as an exotic butterfly in flight, its wings unfurling to decimate the far-flung corner of listeners’ imaginations.

Absolution is one of the most fun albums I ever helped make,” producer Rich Costey later asserted to Headliner magazine. “It was like we were kids and there were no grownups around to tell us you shouldn’t do drum overdubs in the swimming pool. We just did whatever we wanted.” Through its rich tapestry of apocalyptic imagery, themes of redemption and existential contemplation, the album’s fusion of rock, classical elements and profound lyricism helped it to become a pivotal work of contemporary alt-rock that catapulted Muse into the big leagues.

Exploring faith, doubt and the human condition, Absolution not only showcases Muse’s musical prowess but also serves as a mirror to the palpable despair of a post-9/11 world. “In terms of success, we judge it by how we feel about the music,” Matt Bellamy told Rock Sound at the time of the album’s release. “We feel we’ve done a better job than the other records.”

Born out of the band’s playful experimentation in the studio and a boundless appetite for musical adventurousness, Absolution still holds up today as a magnum opus that prophesied end times yet found its creators living to tell the tale.

Buy the ‘Absolution XX Anniversary’ deluxe box set on CD and vinyl.

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