Muse's Glastonbury Set Makes Sense on a Senseless U.K. Day
You can say what you like about Muse -- a band that is breaking records this June, opening Glastonbury weekend's first of three Pyramid stage headline slots for the third time in their lifespan. Say what you like about their pomposity, their conspiracy theories, their Queen-meets-progrock-meets-Schostakovich schtick: Muse are the first act to headline all three nights of Glastonbury over their career. Homegrown British pride and joy. More important than that, Muse, from Teignmouth in Devon (which is not that far from Glastonbury, respectively speaking) is the only band -- really -- that had the guile and audacity to soundtrack the apocalypse that was Friday, June 24, 2016.
On Friday morning, Glastonbury's campers woke up to disaster and shame and heartache. Britain voted in their Referendum for Brexit, i.e. they declared a national desire to leave the EU. If that weren't bad enough, Prime Minister David Cameron then resigned, and subsequently the British pound fell to a 30-year all-time low. The youth and the elderly were divided in the most alien manner in eons. Muse, a band now 20 years in, touring the 2015 album Drones -- their seventh -- about the notion of Artificial Intelligent machines coming to destroy our planet (think of them more as I Am Legend evil bots than friendly C-3POs) and turn us all into the subservient beings of corrupt powers, have come to Pilton, Somerset, to soundtrack this living nightmare.
Muse isn't just appropriate, of course, because they imagined this very day in their acid-assisted psychosis since their youth growing up in this English countryside; they're apt because they're European to the core. Forget the fact that frontman Matt Bellamy lived in the palatial Lake Como, Italy, for years with now-ex-wife Kate Hudson -- the band has a fanbase that is European to the hilt. They are genuinely massive throughout the continent, maybe more so than pizza itself. And as a result, playing throughout venues all over Europe -- and then the world -- they're one of the best live bands on the planet. Arguably their only rivals are previous Friday night headliners U2 and -- hey -- Coldplay who play on Sunday.
Opening with that latest album's lead single "Psycho," Matt Bellamy took to the Pyramid, which was appropriately adorned by a David Bowie lightning bolt this year in honor of a visionary whose sense of glamour and extravagant performance definitely influenced Bellamy and bandmates Chris Wolstenholme (bassist) and Dom Howard (drummer). After only two songs, Bellamy had already smashed one of his guitars to smithereens into an amplifier, an act of communal frustration. By third song -- and bona fide classic Muse favorite "Plug in Baby" (from Origins of Symmetry) -- the entire crowd was pogo-ing, today necessarily to the sound of electro-clash guitar revolt. "My plug in baby, crucifies my enemies/ When I'm tired of living!" Bellamy screeched in his signature falsetto as the audience savored their last breaths of exhausted apathy.
The Muse fans were camped out at the front of the stage since pre-afternoon. They delighted in ZZ Top and Foals, but they were here to watch a band that has generated religious-level followings over their two decades, since the hope of Tony Blair's false New Labour in the mid-'90s. From the technical dexterity of "Map of the Problematique" (from Black Holes and Revelations) to "Supermassive Black Hole" (basically a Kylie hit on mushrooms) the waiting patience of fans was rewarded with a career-spanning set list that tied together their origins (...Of Symmetry, ahem) and modern hits. The ability for the Muse catalog to be so seamless speaks to perhaps Bellamy's grand master plan since day dot to expose the self-motivated greed of the powers-that-be.
"You guys look amazing over there," Bellamy -- a man of few words but copious tunes -- shouted before the bleating chords of "Starlight," a rare track about hope and love for a trio who distract themselves with death, distraction and The End. "Let's conspire to ignite all the souls that would die just to be alive!" go the lyrics of their biggest sing-along, and it was a welcome message. The crowd went bananas. Someone let off an orange flare, a sign of warm emergency. Everyone pointed fingers at the triangle atop the Pyramid, seeking answers as old as Egypt itself to the events of this dark day. For "Madness" -- a song that's half Queen's "Somebody to Love," half The Darkness's "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" -- the audience was lit up in fuchsia strobes, pregnant white balloons flying over them, some portion of 150,000 attendees swaying their arms in unison. Because Friday was madness, and its thick choruses, helium air and Bellamy's oriental jacket (which makes him look like a waiter in a Chinese restaurant) make sense. Nothing else.
Naturally, festival sets don't allow for the full production of the Drones tour, but the power of the trio's history ignited soaring call-and-response regardless. Their fans here can mold their own lives around Muse "era"s. "Hysteria," for instance, from their breakthrough mainstream record Absolution had the punters singing Bellamy's complex riffs. It reminded me of the time I wrote my own mother's car off, aged 17, when I crashed into a bus due to my distraction listening to this very song too loud (I never drove again). It was a heady mix of nostalgia, reaction to the present and the future, with Bellamy playing his guitar with the Armageddon-like urgency of John Connor in The Terminator, Arnie's automaton coming any minute to obliterate him.
By the momentous occasion of "Time Is Running Out," the crowd hollered the lyrics: "Murder it, I won't let you murder it/ Smother it, I won't let you smother it... 'Cause our time is running out, you can't push it underground, you can't stop it screaming out." To be honest, it was probably the most sensible thing anyone in Britain said all day.
"Ohmygod you forget how many hits they have," said a punter behind me as Muse pummeled full-throttle into "Knights of Cydonia," a song born to soundtrack a Quentin Tarantino bloodbath, or -- why ever not? -- a Bond flick. Muse brought the first of three epic headliners to a close. Fireworks are set off in a boastful display of pyromania that feels more Guy Fawkes among the atmosphere here than Beyoncé, who will play Wembley Stadium in London 24 hours from now. A couple embrace next to me, sucking face to its hysterical climax. As Muse's glam ancestors T Rex once sang, "Bang a gong, get it on." Well... If the world is ending, then tonight we may as well go out with that mighty bang.