At this point Muse have got a reputation for being one of the most overblown and over the top bands of the 21st century, especially in the latter half of their career. Their last album ‘The 2nd Law’ explored the effects of global warming like it was some sort of crazy conspiracy, with them adapting sounds from Electronic music. They’ve become known by many as the prog-rockers who don’t know when to stop, especially when they started channelling more of a sound that enhanced their love of Queen.
It’s always been hard to fault the ambition of Muse but even Matt Bellamy himself admitted that ‘The 2nd Law’ was a bit too much. It’s because of this that they decided ‘Drones’ was going to be a ‘back to basics’ album with them returning to their guitar driven roots. The return of prominent guitars is the only thing that can in any way be taken as basic or at-all grounded like they made out because the idea for the album certainly isn’t. ‘Drones’ is a concept album about a man who becomes disillusioned with society, joins the army to become a ‘killer drone’, then frees his mind and becomes part of a revolution. Muse are even planning on making this album into a stage show because they must deem it to be that grand.
Not only that but the music itself still remains just as over-blown as ever with Bellamy’s vocals soaring alongside massive guitar solos on many of the tracks, production values (handled by Robert John Lange of AC/DC fame) that are so constantly in-your-face that they’re hard to ignore, and a 10 minute epic on the song ‘The Globalist’. A lot of the instrumentals themselves actually are as melodic as ever such as on ‘Reapers’ which has some of the always-impressive guitar work from Bellamy. Bellamy’s vocals are also impressive like in the final song on the album ‘Drones’ which has him singing acapella with a choir of a million clones of himself singing alongside him. Other instrumentals sound extremely awkward like the piano keys over the top of that grumbling guitar on ‘Mercy’ or the second half of ‘Aftermath’ which is so melodramatic with the strings and solos that it’s cringe-inducing.
But all of the good moments on this album are ruined by the fact that Muse don’t seem to realise how pompous and self-important the songs on this album actually sound. Muse would be a lot easier to handle on this album if they actually realised that the reason so many people like them is the because they can be so fun. Listening to this album’s story is extremely un-engaging despite the fact that they’re clearly trying to actually make a social-commentary on the way in which people conform to the powers that be and the way in which becoming disenfranchised with society can be extremely dangerous. They approach these topics with the mindset that ‘bigger is better’ to the point where it’s about as affective as watching Transformers for life lessons. When looking over some of the best concept of the last few years like Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Good Kid Maad City’ (which actually has similar fundamental messages to ‘Drones’ about the dangers of our society and becoming disenfranchised) or Sufjan Stevens ‘Illinois’, it’s the fact that they have the ability to be so intimate and nuanced that make them so fantastic.
I know that approaching Muse and expecting nuance is about a silly as expecting the same from a Transformers film but I at least wish they’d deliver interesting perspectives on SOME of these tracks. Albums with stories usually have conflict, tension and a central character that we follow and become attached to. There is none of that on here and it feels more like we’re spoon-fed an extremely one-dimensional take on people who join the army. Matt Belammy’s lyrics on this are so heavy-handed and clumpy that they’re difficult to take seriously such as on the lead single for the album, the cock-rock anthem ‘Psycho’ which opens following a drill-sergeant screaming at our protagonist and then later making our protagonist scream ‘I AM A PSYCHO KILLER’. The lyrics are so silly right down to the hook simply saying that the army turns everyone into a ‘fucking psycho’ and that ‘your ass belongs to me now’- edgy. Bellamy makes the drill sergeant sound like a villain from a terrible 80s TV Superhero movie.
In terms of the narrative everything seems to resolve so quickly inside our protagonist’s head with no chance of us being invested in him as a character or even caring about what’s happening around him. It’s far from opening our eyes to the world we live in as well with Muse’s typically sci-fi delivery smothering any realism. It’s slightly touched upon as to how terribly horrific it is to be one of the drones on ‘The Handler’, and it’s briefly touched upon what it’s like to be targeted by a drone on the track ‘Reapers’. Both of these songs contain eye-rolling lyrics that are so brief and ineffective. But nothing on this album comes close to the atrocity of a song that is ‘Revolt’; a song that’s meant to uplift people into rising against the machine which – other than being the worst song Muse have ever done – is the closest Muse have ever been to sounding like they’re selling their souls to those big arenas. With lyrics like ‘You’ve got strength, you’ve got soul, you’ve felt pain, you’ve felt love, you can grow!’ it sounds like they’re trying to write another Olympics anthem.
‘Drones’ is far from toning it down in terms in so many ways. It approaches the aesthetic they had on their first couple of albums with the over-blown attitude that’s got worse with age. This album fails partly musically and wholly as a compelling narrative. Muse are a talented band that somehow seem to be squandering their talent at nearly every corner on this album.
Best Tracks: Reapers, The Globalist