Album reviews: Muse | Barbra Streisand | Charles Bradley | The Furrow Collective

Muse explore a dystopian world, while Barbra Streisand confronts the nightmare in the White House

Muse: Simulation Theory (Warner Bros) ****

Barbra Streisand: Walls (Sony) ***

Charles Bradley: Black Velvet (Dunham/Daptone Records) ****

The Furrow Collective: Fathoms (Hudson Records) ****

The mighty and marvellous Muse claim they have put aside concept albums for now. But even though their eighth album to date features a fairly middle-of-the-road number about something as everyday as homesickness, the globe-straddling Devon trio cannot help themselves from indulging frontman Matt Bellamy’s dystopian visions of technology.

Simulation Theory, titled after the hypothesis that life, the universe and everything is a computer-generated illusion, is the pomp rock equivalent of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror franchise, complete with its own 80s sci-fi movie poster-inspired sleeve by Stranger Things designer Kyle Lambert.

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Like much Muse music before, there is plenty of fodder here for film and TV soundtracks, explicitly so on atmospheric curtain-raiser Algorithm, a John Carpenter-influenced analogue synth stalk with ominous strings, which gives way to a number of typically Muse-y tracks which playfully repurpose arena rock, from the operatic pomp of Pressure via the falsetto funk of Propaganda to the downtuned guitars of Break It To Me.

Best of all is the prog disco single The Dark Side which features Bellamy in crooner mode playing a relatively restrained iteration of his trademark distorted digi-funk guitar before going on to brazenly reference Queen and Phil Collins in the arpeggiated guitar solo and booming drum fills.

One would expect nothing less of Muse, though something less is what the band offer as the album sags in the middle with the bland Something Human, dressed up with effects which can’t disguise its similarity to Ed Sheeran’s Radio 2 moments.

Chest-beating “inspirational” number Get Up and Fight and the would-be anthemic Thought Contagion about the virality of identity politics (“you’ve been bitten by a true believer… someone who’s hungrier than you”) are also tame fare, but they recover their mojo with lean stomper Dig Down and the batty pomp rock and tech metal riffola of Blockades, before decompressing with the classy synth torch ballad The Void, all in the space of a pithy 40 minutes.

Barbra Streisand sees Bellamy’s Brexit paranoia and raises him some Trump psychosis on her uncharacteristically political new album, with its tremulous title ballad on barriers and her swirling, moody riposte to the degradation of truth on Don’t Lie To Me. The legendary diva imagines “the next generation colourblind” on the breathy flamenco melodrama of What’s On My Mind, sprinkles a bit of stardust on America’s founding principles on the sentimental Lady Liberty and can’t resist an earnest but twinkly musical theatre mash-up of Imagine and What A Wonderful World.

The late Charles Bradley was, like the late Sharon Jones, one of the great unappreciated soul singers of New York, until Brooklyn’s Daptone Records facilitated a late blooming career revival. On what would have been his 70th birthday, this posthumous compilation showcases a man who lived the pain he sang on the timeless likes of (I Hope You Find) The Good Life and owned his astutely chosen cover versions, including an acid rocking Stay Away (from Nirvana’s Nevermind), an R&B big band take on Neil Young’s Heart of Gold and Rodriguez’s freewheeling Fly Away injected with a valedictory ache.

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Like The Unthanks, The Furrow Collective are adventurous in their interpretation of the traditional songbook of the British Isles, weaving together the haunting, beatific voices of Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton and Emily Portman with Alasdair Roberts adding baritone texture in marked contrast to the trebly tenor tone he uses for his lead vocals. The quartet also use their multi-instrumental skills creatively to underscore The Cruel Sea with sonorous bass vibrations, and come close to the heady hypnosis of Kate Bush’s mellower moments on Down By The Greenwoodside. - Fiona Shepherd


Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy (Coro) ****

At the heart of Star of Heaven are samples of the glorious volume of early 16th century English church music known as the Eton Choirbook. These range from the artful polyphony of Walter Lamb’s Nesciens mater and winding melismas of William Cornysh’s Ave Maria, mater Dei, to the pulsating fullness of Robert Wylkynson’s radiant nine-part Salve Regina. As ever with Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen, the performances are liquid gold. What really raises the pulse, though, are the group’s newer commissions, which give a living context to the older music. James MacMillan’s substantial O Virgo prudentissima provides a ripe centrepiece to the album, based on a extant fragment from the Choirbook, but transformed to sublime expressive heights by MacMillan’s inventive manipulation. There are attractive works by Joseph Phibbs and Philip Cooke, but of particular interest is Hallowed, a short sequence of settings by pianist Stephen Hough, written with inspired empathy for his texts. - Ken Walton


Marcin Wasilewski Trio: Live (ECM Records) ****

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Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski’s studio albums showcase his impeccable playing, along with long-time partners bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz. As a memorable Edinburgh Jazz Festival gig demonstrated a couple of years back, however, their live performances raise things to another level altogether and this is captured in this album, recorded at Jazz Middelheim in Antwerp. Mostly reworkings of previously recorded material, the tracks pulse with fresh vigour, right from the opening Spark of Life/Sudovian Dance, balancing delicacy and exuberance over a tidal surge of bass and drums. There’s a similarly powerful current to Night Train to You while the ballad Austin radiates a winsome melodic delicacy. The Police’s Message in a Bottle certainly travels, and with irresistible and ominous drive, a springy bass break spelling out the tune before piano whirrs back in, giving way to a boisterous drum solo before things subside in a sort of Morse code signalling from all three. - Jim Gilchrist