LOUDER FEATURES: How 'Origin of Symmetry' shaped space-rock for the 21st Century.
In 2001, Muse needed to prove themselves. Their 1999 debut ‘Showbiz’, despite being viewed positively from loyal fans, was plagued by mixed reviews and constant Radiohead comparisons. There was clearly promise in the act's attempt to foster an expansive sound, yet, as one review, read: “Where could they even go from here?”. For their next album they needed to set themselves apart from their influences and commit to a sound that was more uniquely Muse. It didn’t need to be great necessarily, it just needed to be taken seriously on a wider scale than their debut.
With ‘Origin of Symmetry’, Muse created an album that was expansive in ambition. The dystopian compositions - made ambitious in scale through the effected guitars, erratic rhythms and immersive synth-textures - were unique. The idea of ‘space rock’ was by no means a new concept – acts in the vein of Pink Floyd and Hawkwind fused rich psychedelia in their music, and there was a 90's revival where Nine Inch Nails, Porcupine Tree, My Bloody Valentine, and more utilised electronic textures a way which was hallucinogenic and exploratory. It's these movements which provided the cultural framework for 'Origin of Symmetry' - yet it’s this album which brought the style into the 21st century and helped shape psychedelic and progressive music for years to come.
Conceptually, the album explores the idea of order. There’s a sense of wonder to the compositions which speaks of the improbability that we should be living on a planet that sustains life by being in perfect balance with all the other element in the universe. “Everyone's been writing about the origin of life, so now they'll start looking at the origin of symmetry; there's a certain amount of stability in the universe and to find out where it originates from would be to find out if God exists," said Bellamy in the lead up to the album. Its that sense of inquisitiveness makes the record captivating; listening to a moment like ‘New Born’, you can almost picture a sun being formed or a black hole being born from the struggle of a dying star.
Exquisite pianos introduce an intrigue to the album that’s only aided by the embroiling vocal timbre and the innumerable amount of splendid electronic touches and adventures in distortion. Likewise, through subtle ambiance and a sense of burlesque theatricality, ‘Darkshines’ expresses a desire to find a time to rest and comprehend the majesty of the world we inhabit. Another moment which captures the concept of astonishment excellently is not a Muse song at all – ‘Feeling Good’, initially written for a musical and more famously covered by Nina Simone, utilises a bombastic sense of excitement to express the exuberance one can feel at being alive. This version is brilliant precisely due to the lengths ventured to capture that sensation of liberation, the bellowing of “freedom is mine!” in the climax proving especially spirited and cathartic.
Accompanying the fascination at the implausibility of everything though is an acknowledgment of our insignificance. “Peace will arise and tear us apart and make us meaningless again” our frontman wails on ‘Space Dementia’, against swirling stings and synths reminiscent of the feeling of being lost in a universe that may one day collapse in on itself. Absolutely absorbing is the way huge crescendo’s serve as a means to emotionally overwhelm the listener with blissful immersion, yet also get us to comprehend our frailty in the face of a world that can just as easily devour as nurture us.
Continuing on the theme of intergalactic dread is ‘Micro Cuts’ - the melancholy, evocative melodies chilling and wrapping themselves around the listener. Bellamy was morbidly inspired by conspiracy theories at the time and this track was stirred by a dream he had where he “was in a desert and there were giant blades swinging from the sky” which he linked to his interest in psychological warfare. Despite how strange that sounds, the otherworldly tone of the music shows that these ideas made for great inspiration. ‘Citizen Erased’ terrifyingly captures a fear of being forgotten and having your mark on this earth dissipate and fade into dark, the intimate bass riff courteousey of Chris Wolstenholme, fostering that feeling of inner turmoil. There’s a frantic sense of desperation present in the vivid instrumentation and yearning refrains, yet in the final moments the piece slows to a sombre and mercurial ballad, once more proving how vital this album was in evolving the avant-garde and experimental music of today.
You’ll notice a trend here – whereby huge concepts of god and existence are tuned into deeply personal questions of self-worth and purpose. This makes the album not only musically imperious but incredibly relatable as well. ‘Bliss’ beguiles with encircling synthesisers and a very real sense that its coming from a place of very real passion. “Everything about you is how I'd want to be. Your freedom comes naturally. Everything about you resonates happiness. Now I won't settle for less”, runs the first verse, representing a desire to feel fulfilled, and judging yourself by the how happy other humans seem to be, regardless of the truth in that. The pleading, borderline obsessive tone ties what is on the surface a love song in with the themes of needing to feel worth something in a cosmos that is vast in size and impressiveness.
In direct contrast to this is ‘Hyper Music’ – a visceral and angered piece, this one sees a rebellion against those anxieties, the splicing guitar work striking that same defiance into the listener. These clever layered meanings are present throughout. ‘Plug In Baby’ is on one level an existential horror story about the steady creep of artificial intelligence towards overtaking our lives, that just so happens to be accompanied by one of the most enthralling guitar parts ever written. Despite that, lines like “change me and replace the envying” speak of a desire to escape the fraught, emotional qualities of the human mind. There’s a fear of technology present, yet also a desire to be flawless. The same could be said of ‘Screenager’ which through its psychedelia-infused hazy tones, carries an incredibly dark message, yet also talks about needing to “Hide from the mirror, the cracks and the memories”. In a sense, this is the perfect escape music, as you can truly get lost in these compositions, in your own personal bid to seek bliss and escape the worries of an existence that so often seems suffocating.
Despite addressing such titanic notions, Muse end the piece on a remarkably conclusive note. ‘Futurism’ – the song that was left off some initial releases of the album, by virtue of being incredibly difficult to play – discusses finding the resolve to grow older. There’s still an anxiousness at the heart of the song, yet the words “Fate can’t decide the alignment of planets in our hands” denote a willingness on the part of the narrator to accept mastery of their own personal universe. The triumphant arrangement lends to that moral of being optimistic in spite of the inevitable and showcases the diversity and skill which makes this such an arresting listening experience.
Finally, we close on ‘Megalomania’ which is performed on a church organ and is directed at what would be God. “Paradise comes at a price that I am not prepared to pay. What were we built for? Could someone tell me please?” opens the final act, the wistful if powerful sound of the organ allowing the listener to begin to comprehend everything they have just heard. Lyrically, there’s a cry for meaning and purpose in the song but also a reflection on how – presuming the universe is meaningless, and everything is coincidental – you have to seek out your own purpose and path in life. Once you strip away the operatic elements and the penchant for odd metaphors, that is the message of 'Origin of Symmetry'. In-keeping with that theme, the release charted its own course away from what many understood as ‘alternative’ and towards something that was indefinable, even esoteric, yet no less significant!
'Origin of Symmetry (XX Anniversary RemiXX)' is available for purchase and to stream on Spotify here: