Muse returns with its eighth studio effort, an album that focuses on the use of simulation in society and the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy. High concepts aside, the music on Simulation Theory leans heavily into the worlds of electronic rock and synth-pop, while retaining a modicum of heaviness and prog influences along the way. The record generally feels dated and not just in the sense that it’s trying to recapture the sounds of the 1980s (though it often is); it’s also dated in the sense that it’s trying to recapture sounds that were warmed up and warmed over a few years back, during the first wave of synth nostalgia. Muse’s latest work isn’t just late to the party on one front but two.

There’s also not much in the way of songwriting to get excited about: “The Dark Side” sounds like a drunken Bono guesting on a Kavinsky C-side, the song meandering in such a way that the listener is likely to lose focus before a minute has transpired. “Thought Contagion” sounds like it was created by an AI in a lab somewhere in the darkest caverns of London, and one wonders why it couldn’t have just stayed there. “The Void” (always a promising name for a song, no matter the band, no matter the actual subject matter) feels only a tick or two more dynamic than someone banging their cat’s paws against a vintage keyboard and occasionally muttering something that sounds vaguely like Jeff Buckley.

This is all too bad, because Muse is a better band than Simulation Theory suggests, a group capable of eliciting real excitement from listeners, quickening pulses and inspiring rabid fandom. Perhaps the theme of simulated reality bleeds over into the music as well, to the point at which the listener can no longer distinguish whether this is supposed to be genuine music or something else more fabricated. (The cheesy cover doesn’t help, either. Is this a Trapper Keeper from 1984 or the latest release from one of the most popular bands of the last couple decades?)

With the overuse of the simulated reality theme in the 21st century, perhaps just once someone could imagine the future as being a place more primal than our current world and that electric guitars and not synthesizers are the celebrated instruments there. But, like so much of the retro-themed music, film and TV shows that currently cater to nostalgia junkies, this is more about the rosy, imagined idea of how things once were (in this case, ‘80s synth records) rather than how they really were. That distinction really is important. Simulation Theory is all smoke and mirrors and arrives completely without substance, while a real ‘80s synth-driven LP would go beyond simply compiling a series of pitched noises that achieve little more than serving as an effective cure for insomnia.

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