REVIEW: Muse clings to ’80s nostalgia in ‘Simulation Theory’

On “Simulation Theory,” Muse takes a creative detour into dance and synth pop of a different era. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records)

Synth rock has never sounded so fresh. “Simulation Theory,” a space rock album that is theatrical, bizarre and completely unforgiving, wipes Muse’s palette clean and opens up new musical landscapes for the band.

The eighth studio album from the band features 11 distinct tracks. Some of Muse’s previous albums, such as “Drones” and “The 2nd Law,” could be considered concept albums, often centering around darker themes such as warfare and government oppression.

In contrast, “Simulation Theory” draws from science fiction and 1980s pop culture, focusing on the role of simulation and simulation hypothesis in society.

Muse wanted an era-traversing album that defied all expectations and standards of their previous music — from this, “Simulation Theory” was born. The band started recording the album in early 2017, and created songs in both London and Los Angeles with producers Rich Costey, Mike Elizondo, Shellback and Timbaland.

Despite centering on different themes and experimenting with its sound, Muse still gives listeners a multitude of familiar-sounding tracks. In songs like “Break it to Me” and “Blockades,” singer Matt Bellamy’s iconic mature tenor vocals match with synth and heavy bass lines. Though sweeter tracks like “Something Human” and “Propaganda” give the album a folkier edge, songs like “Thought Contagion” and “Blockades” capture the band’s signature bold, empowering brand of rock.

“Dig Down,”  one of the first songs written for the album, acts as Bellamy’s response to the political climate during the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the United States’ 2016 presidential election. Bellamy hopes the track can encourage people to have hope in a cause they believe in.

Visuals have played a huge role in the identity of “Simulation Theory.” It’s no surprise that “Stranger Things” artist Kyle Lambert designed the neon, eye-catching album art, encapsulating the 1980s aesthetic of the album. Muse also plans to release music videos for all 11 tracks, which Lance Drake will direct. The videos will each tell a distinct story, focusing on the theme of “digital containment and escape.”

Although Muse took a different creative approach with “Simulation Theory,” most of the band’s popular elements are still present in every song on the album. Rather than giving the masses the same sound over and over again, Muse opted for “Simulation Theory”: a fresh, endearing and genuine showcase of the band’s present state. In this, Muse finds a way to provide listeners with a unique addition to its discography while maintaining the sound that made it one of this century’s great rock bands.