Never has bombast been so welcome. Muse's concert at Madison Square Garden last night had all the markings of a big-name stadium rock concert - a towering set, laser light show, smoke effects - but all the raw enthusiasm of a band taking the stage for the first time. The circus of lights and colors never took away from the reason we were all there: the British band's dark, epic, face-melting rock.
Scottish rising stars Biffy Clyro (Simon Neil, James Johnston, and Ben Johnston) took the stage first, warming up the audience with razor-sharp guitar and pop rock along the lines of Admiral Fallow and Little Green Cars. The band has released six studio albums since 2002, gaining worldwide recognition with 2007's Puzzle
, and expanding their fanbase with ever-catchier folk rock straight from the heart. "Black Chandelier,"
the single off their most recent album Opposites
, got the diverse crowd moving, and judging by the shouts of recognition, there were quite a few audience members who were just as excited to see them perform as the main act.
What is most striking about Biffy is their emotional versatility within their relatively small genre: esoteric introspection, pleas of devotion, and cynical banter alike are always strung dynamically through their graceful melodies and energetic virtuosity. "You say 'I love you boy' / But I know you lie," sang Simon Neil in "Many of Horror (When We Collide)," his charming brogue expressing heartache like it was a fresh wound, culminating in "When you hit me, hit me hard!" The upbeat "Bubbles"
highlighted Neil's knack for playful and buoyant melodies, almost like a nostalgic All-American Rejects summer sound, with less whine and more soul. Another standout was "Biblical,"
a bittersweet, driving declaration of determination in love: "Let's make this biblical!" Their sound only grew in power as they played on, exploding in an ecstatic choruses like fireworks, stunning the audience and no doubt creating some new followers. After they electrified the air with nine songs and left the audience gasping, they finished with a humble message one doesn't always hear in New York: "Thank you very, very, very, very, very, very, very much!"
Watch Biffy Clyro's Baeble Concert from 2007
If there's one thing Muse has mastered, it's the art of the build-up. Their intimidating stage set-up revealed itself for a full four minutes: a giant alien pyramid emerged from the woodwork, made of television panels that showed the fragmented face giving robotic instructions. The audience never stopped cheering. When the tension couldn't last much longer, Muse burst into "Supremacy," with its heart-shaking militant drums, fanfare, and Matthew Bellamy's Freddie Mercury falsetto skyrocketing into a different dimension. The band played twenty songs over the course of two hours, with two breaks of three minutes, at most. They sped effortlessly between old material and new, and though their sound has evolved since their start in (yikes) 1998, it felt perfectly natural to hear "Map of the Problematique" follow the newer opener.
What struck me most was the fact that what one might consider the "low-key" numbers of the night - "Supermassive Black Hole," "Explorers," "Undisclosed Desires" - are actually powerhouses of force and grandiosity when you witness them live. It makes Billamy's stamina all the more impressive. Over the course of the night, he strutted the stage, leaped atop his piano, jumped from platform to platform, and got up-close with fans with all the stage presence of a cult leader (an even more impressive feat when you consider the sheer size of that stage). When he threw his fist into the air during "Follow Me," I could have sworn we were
in a cult, about to launch into outer space with Muse's prog-glam soundtrack as our guide and Bellamy as our leader. The unrivaled centerpiece of the night was "Stockholm Syndrome," off of 2003's Absolution
, which had seasoned fans and tiny teenagers alike rocking out to the point where the ground beneath our feet was literally shaking.
The evening hit a poignant note after the second (impressively brief) black-out. In an act of solidarity, the fans took out their cell phones and created a sea of swaying stars in the vast arena, and when the band emerged again, Billamy dedicated their next song, "Starlight," to the victims of the bombing in Boston earlier that day. Muse kept our hearts up, though, when they closed with their Olympic anthem, "Survival." All I could think upon leaving the stadium, elated and buzzing with the intensity they'd just injected into my veins, was, "I wish I'd seen them sooner." Hopefully, they'll be back to rocket us off into space once again.
Biffy Clyro's Opposites
is out now