Muse's last album, 2012's 'The 2nd Law' helped them scale new heights in the US but also divided many fans with its diverse, more experimental range of sounds. Promises of a stripped-back approach and a return to their roots on follow up 'Drones' were met positively, but those expectations were averted when the Teignmouth trio unveiled lead single 'Dead Inside', a distinctly average synth-rock dud.
Influenced by Jon Ronson's 2011 bestseller The Psychopath Test and Predators by Professor Brian Glyn Williams, the track forms one part of a typically bonkers concept album about drone warfare where the protagonist is brainwashed into becoming a human killing machine. Previous Muse albums have contained conceptual themes before ('Absolution', 'The Resistance', 'The 2nd Law') but this is the first time the band have tried to weave a specific narrative throughout the course of an entire album.
Despite the red herring of 'Dead Inside', 'Drones' lives up to the billing of being Muse's most rock-oriented album. Ushered in by a menacing drill sergeant, 'Psycho' — which recycles an old riff the band have been toying with for over 16 years — is loud, aggressive, trashy as hell and sounds very much like a heroin-infused 'Personal Jesus'. Coupled with 'Supermassive Black Hole' screeching backing vocals, Bellamy warns "your ass belongs to me now" and makes for a breathless start to the album.
This is followed by the less impressive 'Mercy', a fairly perfunctory and streamlined pop affair where our protagonist discovers he's "fallen on the inside" and begins to succumb to the dark forces. Things get a lot more interesting once we approach the halfway point. 'Reapers' is a blistering metal behemoth featuring some insane virtuoso guitar work from Bellamy and a solo Tom Morello would be proud of.
Introduced with another seismic riff and utilising that iconic sustained falsetto, 'The Handler' is classic Muse á la 'Origin of Symmetry' era. 'Defector' indulges the band's Queen obsession even further but again it's the guitars which stand out, something producer Robert "Mutt" Lange must be given huge credit for. The song's outro in particular sounds tremendous, full of sizzling bends and whammy pedal pitch shifts.
Unfortunately, there's a huge dip in quality during the latter half of the album. 'Aftermath' is the sort of U2-aping ballad you would only expect from Muse's lesser contemporaries and 10-minute long 'The Globalist' spends almost 3 minutes meandering aimlessly in an almost parodical fashion. The title track, most bizarrely of all, is a choral hymn created by nothing but loops of Bellamy's voice, resulting in a one-man choir. It's quite an achievement but the message of the song and perhaps the entire album, "Killed by drones / My mother, my father / My sister and brother / My son and my daughter" is lost behind the wall of never-ending overdubs.
After repeated listens, more problems begin to emerge. The album is littered with so many clunky lines and cliched conspiracy talk it almost becomes laughable, but the main problem is with the narrative itself which makes next to no sense at all. The themes which Bellamy attempts to explore are especially valid in the current political climate but the heavy-handed way in which he deals with them makes recent mainstream concept albums like 'American Idiot' and 'Welcome to the Black Parade' seem like subtle and nuanced works of art.
Luckily, a good sizeable chunk of this album is good enough to stand alone, stripped of the high-minded concepts. 'Another Origin of Symmetry' or 'Black Holes and Revelations' may be beyond them, but with 'Drones' Muse have proven once again that they still have the power to shock, amaze and entertain.
Words: Luke Winstanley
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