, March 20th, 2008 00:00
HAARP comes packaged in a square box measuring 13.3cm x 13.3cm, thus standing a full centimetre taller than the average rectangular CD case. Of course it does. Muse have always thought that little bit bigger. The way that the Teignmouth trio took over the new Wembley Stadium in the summer of 2007 was a triumph of audaciousness. We already knew Muse were pretty popular, but were they honestly that big? In a twist on the Field Of Dreams principle - “It’s already (almost) built, so if we announce it they will come” - they took the leap, and became the first band to announce a gig at the much-delayed megabowl (if not to actually play it: George Michael snuck in and beat them to that). Or, to be exact, ’shows’ (in a brilliant tout-busting move, they announced a second date as soon as the first one sold out, ensuring that face value meant face value). The reason that their gamble paid off was an unmatchable word-of-mouth rep. Following a succession of storming, neutral-converting shows at Reading and Glastonbury, it had become a widespread truism that Muse were the kind of band whose records you wouldn’t necessarily sit down and listen to, but who put on an absolutely jawdropping live show. HAARP - it stands for High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (a scientific survey of the ionosphere) - is Muse’s second live album in just six years, and bears witness to that reputation. Or, at least, half of it does. The CD portion of it is, while well-mixed (it’s several thousand tweaks away from a hand-held Dictaphone bootleg), useless in exactly the same way that nearly all live albums are useless, sharing all the cons of pornography (where’s the pleasure in watching other people having all the fun?) with none of the pros (HAARP doesn’t even help you get your rocks off| well, unless you have some very niche fetishes).
Play the accompanying DVD, however, and it makes sense. Rising back to back like the Three Graces onto a platform in the middle of the crowd amid a geyser of confetti, they stride along a catwalk to the sound of Prokofiev, Matt Bellamy’s red suit picked out against the black-and-white of the intro film like the little girl in Schindler’s List, onto a stage decked out in Prisoner-style barrage balloons and sinister sky-scanning satellite dishes. Nothing that follows is, in any measurable way, more modest or humble. Helium-hoisted acrobats, helicopter sweeps across the stadium, boom shots across the sweat-drenched front row, close-ups of Bellamy’s aquiline nostrils, vertigo-inducing shots up bassist Chris Wolstenholme’s unfeasibly long legs, and a light show that makes Jean Michel Jarre’s look like a village mobile disco: it’s all captured here. This pyrotechnical pomp is not superfluous. It’s crucial. Muse, in these busker-rock times, are one of the few bands to grasp the value of magnificence, and one of the few with the balls to laugh in the face of perceived ludicrousness. Music like theirs, therefore, often only breathes when given a suitably epic backdrop. 'Time Is Running Out', for instance, truly comes to life when it’s being belted out to 70,000 people, not when it’s on your Walkman. Not that they can’t do ’intimate’. 'Feeling Good' and 'Unintended' prove that, as does the intro to 'Apocalypse Please', in which Bellamy sits down solo at a piano and gives it the full Mercury. But Muse are in their element when they hit their elegantly dramatic Action Rock stride (the main signature of which is singing very slowly while the music plays very fast). There is such a thing as being too stadium ('Starlight' strays into Coldplay territory), but when they thwack and spank their way through their hilariously brilliant homage to Prince, 'Supermassive Black Hole', you’ll forgive them anything. Ultimately, if HAARP has a point, it’s to serve as a persuasive ticket-shifting advert for Muse’s next live extravaganzas, whenever they may be. As a wise man once sang, ridicule is nothing to be scared of. Muse are taking the principle one step further: the ridiculous is something to be reached for.