Muse at Leeds and Reading Festivals, UK - 26-28 August 2011

A curtain obscures the stage. Tom Waits is intoning the spooky What’s He Building in his gravelly voice. The lights on stage flicker on and off, throwing silhouetted shadows onto the curtain, prompting screams from the assembled fans. Muse are back. They’re back with a ten-year-old album and they’re going to play the whole thing cover to cover.

Risky? You bet. The festival crowd won’t know most of the songs and the die-hard Muse fans are a notoriously critical lot. Will the band disappoint? The answer is no. Will there be spaceships, robots, and fire? Not surprisingly for the barkingly over-the-top Muse, the answer here is a hearty yes. The spaceships and the robots are admittedly only seen as projections on screen, but the fire is real.

Reading Festival has been crucial in Muse’s career. It’s where they first proved that they could grab an audience’s attention in 2000, where they solidified their status in 2006, and where they are now coming back to play an anniversary tribute to their album Origin of Symmetry. Always a fan favorite and considered to be one of their strongest releases, some of the album’s songs haven’t been aired on stage in a decade. Time, then, to welcome them back.

Muse launch into New Born and the curtain goes up to reveal a stage set inspired by Origin of Symmetry’s cover with its weirdly shaped tuning forks. Predictably, some of the album tracks get a more muted response from the festival crowd, but to the long-standing fans, this is a dream come true. Standout tunes Bliss and Citizen Erased merge dreamy keyboard passages with thrashing guitar riffs and distorted basslines. Micro Cuts proves that singer Matt Bellamy can still hit high notes normally only perceptible to dogs, while Hyper Music and Darkshines hark back to the raw sound of their early work. Muse wouldn’t be Muse without at least one bonkers display of pyromania, so they unleash jets of fire during Megalomania that singe the eyebrows off the front ten rows and end the first part of the set with a bombastic, organ-pipe-blaring bang.

The second half of the set finds Muse and the general audience back on more familiar ground. The greatest hits are all present and correct. Uprising: check. Supermassive Black Hole: check. Starlight: check. Weaker live tracks from their last album – Resistance, Undisclosed Desires – cause a sag in the proceedings, but headbangers Stockholm Syndrome and Hysteria follow on their heels to revive the flagging momentum. Muse the musicians are outstanding in a live setting: operatic vocals, guitar and piano flourishes, intricate bass and drum passages are weaved together to create an eccentric whole.

Some of the most entertaining moments occur on the periphery of the shows: their between-song riffs; drummer Dom Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenholme in an instrumental jam; and Bellamy flinging his guitar into the drum set while Howard gamely continues to play with what remains standing.

Set-closer Knights of Cydonia is a madhouse of a song, the most demented compilation of Sergio Leone western themes, prog rock riffs and anthemic choruses imaginable, and it provides a fabulously satisfying conclusion to both their festival sets, the huge crowd chanting and dancing as one. How can a band possibly go any bigger? Muse, I am sure, will find a way.