Whether they're fighting alien invaders, shadowy government conspiracies, or the Apocalypse, Muse always do it for love. On their eighth effort, Simulation Theory, they attempt to break through the virtual matrix in search of that human connection and freedom from the machine. The least complicated or overly conceptual offering (for Muse) in over a decade, the 11-song set is focused and cohesive, blaring down a neon-washed highway of pulsing synths and driving beats while swerving to avoid the orchestral and dubstep meandering of their preceding 2010s output. Unlike these same predecessors, there's also no filler or wasted time, making it the most compulsively listenable and immediate Muse album since 2006's Black Holes & Revelations. Fully embracing their sci-fi tendencies, the trio dip into the nostalgic '80s, tapping the aesthetics of Tron, Blade Runner, and composer John Carpenter. After the dramatic opener, "Algorithm," introduces this new Muse era, they launch into "The Dark Side," one of their strongest singles to date, which blends the urgency of "Bliss" with the groove of "Map of the Problematique." Meanwhile, "Pressure" is a rollicking, horn-backed blast that wouldn't sound out of place blaring from the stadium speakers at a football game. From here, the simulation gets weirder as some of frontman Matt Bellamy's big influences rear their heads. His Prince love returns on the slinky, Timbaland-assisted "Propaganda" -- the type of camp that Muse have been perfecting for years -- while an homage to Tom Morello's guitar stylings -- wonky, down-tuned riffs and hip-hop scratching -- collide with Bellamy's pseudo-rapping on "Break It to Me." On the second half of the album, the mood is lifted as the simulation begins to crack. The uplifting "Something Human" is the "Invincible"/"Guiding Light" of Simulation Theory, leading into singalong anthems such as "Thought Contagion" and the politically charged "Madness" redux "Dig Down." Swedish singer Tove Lo even makes an appearance on the unexpectedly gorgeous "Get Up and Fight," a huge rallying cry produced by Shellback. On an album packed with such catalog standouts, the highlight here is "Blockades," which propels along a pounding gallop that recalls "City of Delusion" and "Knights of Cydonia." While Simulation Theory might appear to be overly polished mainstream trickery -- all part of the simulation! -- it's purely Muse at heart, successfully merging electronic-pop songcraft with their typically urgent, stadium rock foundation.
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