The Dystopian Inspiration Behind “Knights of Cydonia” by Muse

British power rock trio Muse broke through to the masses with their striking third album Absolution in 2003. Bolstered by the aggressive and dramatic tracks “Hysteria” and “Time is Running Out,” it was a slow-burn release. The album topped out at No. 107 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart but would go Gold in three years and eventually sell a million copies. It set the stage for the more epic Black Holes and Revelations album and its epic closing track “Knights of Cydonia,” which is one of Muse’s greatest songs.

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Bigger and Bolder

While Absolution marked a strong step forward from their first two albums, Black Holes and Revelations magnified that epic scope with a bigger sound. There has definitely been a Queen influence in their work through big vocal harmonies and dramatic guitar work. The opening track “Take a Bow” had a clear Philip Glass vibe. Some of the frenetic guitar riffing in “Assassin” recalled the theme to the television series Knight Rider. Other influences on the album included Depeche Mode, Sly and the Family Stone, and classical music.

The closing and most striking track was the galloping “Knights of Cydonia,” which combined operatic rock, spaghetti western soundtracks, and surf guitar. Those latter sounds were natural given that at the time the trio was listening to a lot of music by film composer Ennio Morricone and rocker Dick Dale. The first half of the six-minute track opened with a Doctor Who-like soundscape, then combined the surf guitar and spaghetti western worlds with trumpet and string accompaniment. The second half burst into metallic, Queen-like majesty with gloriously multitracked vocal harmonies. Talk about a song perfect for an arena singalong.

Also noteworthy: The opening of “Knights of Cydonia” mirrors that of the 1962 single “Telstar” by The Tornados. It also invokes part of their song “Ridin’ the Wind.” Muse frontman Matt Bellamy’s father George played rhythm guitar for The Tornados and wrote the latter track. The famed instrumental “Telstar” went No. 1 in the U.S., UK, Canada, New Zealand, Belgium, Ireland, and South Africa.

Directed by Joseph Kahn, the video for “Knights of Cydonia” played on the song’s musical themes by creating a tongue-in-cheek mashup of spaghetti westerns and post-apocalyptic sci-fi that made nods to Planet of the Apes, Battlestar Galactica, and The Lone Ranger. It’s one of the most original and fun videos of the 2000s.

Universal Themes

In discussing the album for Under the Radar back in 2006, Bellamy said, “I think underneath the album there is an optimism which I think is different from previous albums. I think on the previous albums, the despair was more dominant throughout. This time there is a kind of strength, and I’m hoping to find it in myself, but also in the music. There is this feeling of waking up and trying to fight back, or it’s time to actually try and change yourself and the things that are going on around you. I think to me that’s very optimistic, this strength. Sometimes it comes out in a very violent form, like in song, like ‘Assassin,’ or a more obvious form like at the end of ‘Knights of Cydonia,’ when I’m just saying, ‘No one is going to take me alive’ and all that kind of stuff. I think it’s the strength of the human spirit fighting against the forces that are manipulating it.”

The theme of taking on an oppressive establishment has regularly reared its head in Muse’s work, including their last album Will of the People and songs like “Won’t Stand Down” and “Compliance.”

Come ride with me
Through the veins of history,
I’ll show you how God
Falls asleep on the job

And how can we win,
When fools can be kings?
Don’t waste your time
Or time will, waste, you…

Cydonia itself is a real place. On Mars. It is the location of the famous picture where the image of a face can be seen on the planet’s surface. In 2007, Bellamy told Q magazine: “I’d definitely be up for a trip to Mars. I’d love to record an album at zero gravity. Or at least go up there and do a vocal take. The area of Cydonia is very interesting. There are parts of it that resemble abandoned civilizations.” He also said that in the song, which was inspired by corrupt political leaders, he was taking the perspective of someone trapped in a dystopian nightmare and what that must feel like.

A Trippy Hit

Black Holes and Revelations continued Muse’s mainstream breakthrough, going Gold two years after its release and hitting Platinum status in 2016. None of the album’s five singles hit charted on the Billboard Hot 100, but they received substantial radio and video play. “Knights of Cydonia” in particular hit No. 10 on the Modern Rock Tracks radio chart, hit No. 1 in the UK, and sold 500,000 copies in the U.S. lists it as the fifth-most-played song in their concert history. During this album cycle, Muse started playing larger venues in America.

“Knights of Cydonia” remains one of Muse’s most potent songs. It frequently ranks in the Top 10 of any list of the band’s greatest tracks. It is both a musical and visual blend of wild musical influences that brought a refreshing sound to 21st century rock. Bassist Chris Wolstenholme usually starts the live version with a reverb-drenched harmonica piece, an element from Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” that sets an eerie scene before the band’s bombast sets in. While it may not have quite the vocal chorus that the album version does, the song still kicks in concert.

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Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartRadio

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