English prog-rockers Muse have churned out another album release, their 7th, titled Drones. It seems like just yesterday we were being blown away by albums Origin of Symmetry and Black Holes and Revelations. To think those albums are both nearly a decade old is kind of mind-blowing. Their most recent releases, 2009’s The Resistance and 2012’s The Second Law seemed to pass by without so much as a cultural ripple, yet The Resistance garnered a Best Rock Album Grammy. Maybe it’s the rampant immediate connectivity today. With iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora it feels like we just consume release after release, moving on to something new at a rapid pace. Does this diminish an already established artist like Muse? However, the effects of music accessibility through media and technology is a conversation for another time.
Muse remain one of those rare bands that have stayed relevant both critically and commercially since the 1990’s, and with the release of Drones they continue their recent habit of leaning heavy-handed on the political musings (pun intending) but still provide the sonic-infused progressive rock that have propelled them this far.
In an interview before its release lead singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy promised a more hard-rocking, riff-orientated back to the basics approach. But Muse was never about just riffs, they were about layers of sound continually building—perfectly complemented by Bellamy’s operatic vocal style of singing.
The opener, however, couldn’t be further from Bellamy’s statement. “Dead Inside”, which is also the first single released, starts off like some long lost INXS song, slowly morphing into more familiar territory with a distorted coiling guitar solo. After a needless drill sergeant segue “Psycho” sets itself up perfectly with a killer guitar riff that almost transports you back to the Black Holes and Revelation days. However, the lyrics and echoing effect of the same drill sergeant’s voice ruins what could have been a great Muse song. The tipping point is the hook, “Your ass belongs to me now”, sung in high pitched falsetto. Beyond the laughable chorus line, the message comes across campy and heavy handed—taking away from its infectious guitar work.
If there is one thing that never seemed to work well with Muse, it’s the slow moving ballad. While Bellamy’s voice itself can acquiesce to those soft crooning moments in spots, Muse were always at their best when he was screeching over top of some machine-gun, effects-doused riff, with a wall of sound behind him. These two dichotic aspects are apparent on the songs “Mercy” and “Reapers”. “Mercy” is the sprawling ballad, steadied by Dominic Howard’s drumming. Ever ascending, the song builds until the chorus explodes that familiar Muse harmonizing middle, where every instrument and sound seem to be holding the same high pitch, before plunging back down again.
“Reapers” is the first song that really hits a higher gear. Opening with an Eddie Van Halen “Eruption” type intro, the frenetic pace is coupled perfectly with Bellamy’s lyrical spouting. Dirty space-rock riffs pepper the song, making it instantly likeable while a poppy chorus line makes “Reapers” a potential future single.
The album continues to sustain its progressive feel with “The Handler” and “The Defector.” While The 2nd Law and The Resistance served as expansions to Muse’s genre bending abilities—infusing as many elements as possible that elicited both praise and criticism. In Drones they keep the needless electronics to minimum with breakdowns consisting of Bellamy’s wail and futuristically charged guitar riffs/solos.
Other tracks like “Aftermath” “Revolt” and the “The Globalist” are decent songs, but forgettable. It’s not that Muse should only do hard-driving numbers, it’s just that the slower songs seem lost and meandering. Each melody has the same cadence and tone. The last song “Drones” doesn’t even count as a song, its just 1000’s Matt Bellamy’s sing “Killed by drones” echoed over and over.” At least in “The Globalist” there is a “Knights of Cydonia” type breakdown.
Muse claim Drones is concept album about the modern human journey, and how technology breeds a lack of empathy—that today we have the ability to hurt each other remotely without a care or second glance. In an interview the term “Drones”—In relation to album—was described by Bellamy as people who are “metaphorical psychopaths.” He goes on to mention the empathy gap (look it up) and World War III.
It seems Muse has forgotten how to infuse any fun or tongue-in-cheek nature into their prog-rock. Raging against some imperialistic machine or social cause, in every song is best left for… Well, Rage Against the Machine. For all of Bellamy otherworldly talents on guitar and his range of voice, his song writing has suffered these last few albums. Subtlety within poignant messages does not seem to be his strong suit.
Drones comes off too serious to be taken seriously. There is a fine line between socially conscious musicians and Bono. While you can still appreciate the musical talents of Muse, I find myself grasping more and more, while coming away with less and less, for reasons to keep listening.