Even Muse’s most dedicated fanbase aren’t going to argue with the fact that the majority of Muse’s musical output is largely bombastic. For the better part of their (as of writing) 21-year spanning career, that word has summed up their music perfectly; with their sound embellishing in Queen-esque, anthemic vocal melodies and catchy hard rock in addition to dreamy synthesizer arpeggios and even elements of classical music here and there, the band don’t seem to be ashamed of it, and if anything, seem to revel in it. They’ve also been largely experimental throughout their career, and opinions vary wildly as to whether or not said experimentation has been sucessful at all. In fact, a teaser for their previous album that contained a bit of dubstep was enough to send them into chaos! And even the announcement that their seventh album, Drones, was going to be more versed in rock music than their pseudo-neoclassical sound that’s been largely dominant on their previous two records, drew some apprehension. And then, there are certain fans (a lot of them being on Muse’s very own official message board) that just aren’t pleased. But every band has those, right?
Muse’s promise that Drones is going to be largely rock-oriented has been lived up to, for the most part. Yes, there are a few backpedals into The 2nd Law and Resistance-era material (mostly in the form of the second half of “The Globalist” and the album opener and sophomore single “Dead Inside”), but for the most part, the large orchestras are gone, the electronics are gone- save for the typical synth arpeggios, and in their place are loud, arena-shaking anthems that, while maybe not living up to the classic standards set by Origin and Absolution, are for sure going to satisfy those looking for more rock ‘n’ roll from the Devonshire trio. Despite “Dead Inside” starting things off on an electropoppish note, after an interlude consisting entirely of a sergeaant yelling at a soldier, Muse floor the pedal with “Psycho”, a 5-minute bluesy rocker with one hell of a sleazy riff and a mean vocal delivery from Matt Bellamy. While the overall song isn’t indicative of the album’s sound, it does guarantee that you’re in for one hell of a ride.
Drones is a concept album that focuses on a 2112-esque oppressive government trying to recruit people into becoming emotionless and psychotic killing machines, and the protagonist is recruited after he loses the love of his life. Naturally, as you’d expect from Muse in this situation, there’s revolution stuff here and there, but narrative-wise, the story takes an interesting (and devastating) twist as it reaches its climax. In fact, Muse largely use the music to tell the story too, and perhaps the most effective example is “The Globalist”. If you remember the film Life of Pi, you’ll most likely remember at the film’s ending when Pi tells another character, “I just told you two different stories. Which do you prefer?” That line sums up “The Globalist”, where the protagonist tells the listener the same story you’ve heard for ten tracks, but with a different ending. In the first version, he successfully breaks free and leads a revolt against the system only to lose, for war to happen, and bond together with survivors. Here, in this version, he lets the government brainwash him, he destroys the world and expresses regret. The music plays a key role in this with being something of an unofficial three-part suite; the first part begins with a Morricone-esque intro with whistling and western-style strumming, before leading into a “Citizen Erased” style slow part with slide guitar. Then suddenly, a short heavy part erupts out of nowhere with a countdown signifying death and destruction, and then the final part being reminiscent of “Eurasia”, with pianos and strings. If anything, it shows how versatile Muse are, and daring they are too with their sound. Best of all, it’s 10 minutes long, and only feels like 5.
Back on topic of the music. As I mentioned, if you want hard rockers, you’ll find them here. I absolutely adore “The Handler”; aside from just generally being heavy and awesome, it’s almost like the marraige of an 80s power ballad, a Spanish guitar piece and a traditional heavy metal tune, with a crushing drumbeat and powerful vocals from Matt. The main riff is suitably tense, and it has a nice little solo to shake things up too. As expected, there’s a Queen-esque track to be found too, and that track is “Defector”. A JFK quote leads into a song that is something of a bizarre love child of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and one of RATM’s finer moments; boasting a simple but forceful riff, Matt’s typical “I’m free from your society” type ramblings in a Queen style, and a guitar solo not entirely unlike Tom Morello’s crazy and effects-filled madness, it definitely demands multiple listens, and sure to be a singalong at concerts to come. “Reapers” mixes the uptempo beat of tracks like “The Small Print” with some AC/DC and Whitesnake touches, and ends with a crushing coda with a “Stockholm Syndrome”-esque ending riff, with Chris screaming “Here come the drones!”. It’s insanely infectious and is definitely something we’ve been needing as far as Black Holes and Revelations. But probably the most unique track on the album is the closing title track. Matt sings along to ten overlapping vocal tracks meant to create something of a “Gregorian” effect, and it’s stunningly beautiful and haunting. It’s extremely different for the band and unexpected. The lyrics are depressing, although near-incomprehensible unless you listen closely, which is part of what makes this such a fascinating song. Chills are guaranteed upon hearing the closing “Amen”, combined with that brooding, dark synth note that closes the album.
Expectedly, not all is perfect, “Revolt” is a disgustingly corny track that, despite the tempo change in the chorus, sounds like something Hootie and the Blowfish would have thought twice about before using as a B-side. “Dead Inside”, while not particularly horrible, doesn’t really serve well enough as an opener, and “Mercy” is a decent track, but it’s basically another “Starlight” with some heavy guitar in the chorus. Admittedly, the album’s concept also costs it some of its lyrical integrity; hearing a line like “Your blood is blue/Your mind has turned green/And your belly is all yellow” in an otherwise badass track can be a tad jarring. Nonetheless, while Drones may not be Absolution or Origin levels of greatness, it’s a definitely an improvement from the preceding album, and if nothing else, the majority of these tracks will be great in concert. I am definitely looking forward to hearing how they’ll nail “The Globalist” and “The Handler” live, and no doubt will the stage show be spectacular. Oh, and there’s no dubstep too, so you have that to look forward to as well.
Despite some misgivings here and there, "Drones" is a further step in the right direction for a band that seemingly needed it. - 8/10
Despite some misgivings here and there, “Drones” is a further step in the right direction for a band that seemingly needed it.