Now try disassociating that word from Muse, particularly their last two albums. We’re never quite sure if the trio is taking the piss with songs like ‘Exogenesis: Symphony, Pt. 1: Overture’ (actual title) and the hilarious bombast of ‘Survival’. Though their musicianship is unimpeachable and their inheritance of the mainstream prog mantle assured, it’s basically impossible to take them seriously when frontman Matt Bellamy is punching his fist to shit like ‘Unsustainable’.
But then again, their ambition has always been untrammelled. Despite the genre-hopping whiffiness of The 2nd Law, it at least stayed true to the band’s ever-escalating sense of the theatrical, dating back to the space-age anxiety of their de facto masterpiece Origin of Symmetry. For Drones, Bellamy declared a back-to-basics approach that doesn’t really manifest in the album; while the music is Muse at their rawest and most ferocious in years, the approach to songwriting has been largely unchanged, revealing no surprises of the ‘I Belong to You’ variety.
If nothing else, Drones seems like an uneasy blend of Origin and The 2nd Law, with bits of The Resistance sprinkled in. The latter informs this album’s preoccupation with conspiratorial sabre-rattling, always the most tiresome of Muse conceits. Finally admitting their progressive heritage, Drones is a concept album (a distinction The Resistance doggedly disavowed, despite blatantly being one) that’s upfront(ish) about its concept: A lone individual, indoctrinated by whatever, rebels against the system and asserts his individuality, because he’s an individual, since we’re all individuals, individually.
The worst instances of this concept are the spoken word “tracks”, ‘[Drill Sergeant]’ and ‘[JFK]’, entirely superfluous fluff of sub-Full Metal Jacket yelling and political rail-roading respectively. But who gives a shit when the riffs are as downright filthy as they are here? Drones is the most straightforward rock n’ roll record the band have released since Absolution, with the majority of the 13 tracks peppered with explosive guitar ferocity.
Take ‘Reapers’, for instance. Clocking in at six minutes, it’s a wonderful rifforama designed purely to showcase the band’s preternatural instrumental prowess, driven by Dom Howard’s propulsive backbeat and some screeching guitar heroics. Sirens blare into the closing minute as Wolstenholme plays a delicious bass lick and Bellamy turns his collection of effects into dark, chaotic soundstorms. An apocalyptic blast, it’s destined to become a concert highlight on par with ‘Knights of Cydonia’ and stands as one of the album’s peaks.
‘Psycho’ is cut from similar cloth. Originating from a funky old live riff (featured in HAARP), it’s set in the vein of a classic Muse stomp-rock showdown. The giggle-prompting chorus, “Your ass belongs to me now,” is taken from ‘[Drill Sergeant]’, the subject of which periodically shows up in awful spoken samples to remind us that, while this band did give us ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, it also gave us ‘Unsustainable’. But these samples are brief moments in an otherwise rip-roaring crowd-pleaser that ends on Bellamy’s ghostly falsetto vanishing into the distance.
The lyrics for ‘The Handler’ speak of mechanisation, with clunkers like, “I was lost in translation / And my heart has become a cold and impassive machine”; fortunately, the music reflects that only in the use of phasing and keyboards, its thumping percussion screaming on behalf of the analogue. After a noodly guitar-trilling bridge, the digital elements of the track dissolve beneath slabs of power-chord riffing and Bellamy’s vaulting vocals. Wolstenholme’s bass runs in the upper range are a joy to hear.
‘Dead Inside’ and ‘Revolt’ are two sides of the same coin. The former, drenched in layers of electronic noise and pivoting on a syncopated bass/drum stand-off, is a little too repetitive despite a gearshift toward the climax and Bellamy’s slinky singing. ‘Revolt’, meanwhile, is an anthem for disaffected 13 year-olds annoyed with their parents grounding them.
It’s an earnest paean in the vein of early 90s U2 (particularly ‘With Or Without You’), but Bellamy doesn’t have the lyricism or the songwriting chops of middle-era Bono. The only real uptake from ‘Revolt’ is its tempo shifts between singalong chorus and verse; it certainly isn’t the umpteenth Muse iteration of “escaping” from a “maze”.
‘Defector’ suffers similarly. It’s all about striking out against The System or The Man or whatever, but it comes off as jejune nonsense from a man approaching his forties. At least this has the brief addition of a ghoulish string section in the bridge, but the Queen-esque harmonies on “I’m free from SOCIETY” sound ridiculous, and not in the cod-operatic glory of, say, ‘United States of Eurasia’ – here, they just sound a bit stupid.
This is a deviant from the pattern of the tracks sounding like superior versions of songs from the last two albums. ‘Mercy’ bears the echo of lowlights like ‘Guiding Light’ with its simple, power ballad structure, but at least Howard is actually trying here, his snare hits adding much needed life to the track. The keyboards are too brightly-mixed in the verses but get spacey when Bellamy’s guitar rips into the chorus, recalling Origin’s ‘Bliss’.
‘Aftermath’ sounds like the result of David Gilmour popping into the recording sessions, its introduction consisting entirely of quiet strings and longing, scratchy bends. Lifting into delicate arpeggi, Bellamy leads a singalong of being “bound together / Now and forever”; the band soon joins at a trot. Wolstenholme’s bass is beautiful, running alongside Bellamy’s trickling guitar line, but then it all gets far too treacly. It did not need a key change.
The 10-minute creak of ‘The Globalist’, the band’s longest-ever track in three proggy parts, opens with a Morricone whistle and a yearning, gorgeous slide guitar, Howard beating out a military patter a la ‘Invincible’. The second part, triggered by a fuzzed out, hammer-heavy riff on both bass and 7-string guitar, feels like the sequel that ‘Citizen Erased’ always deserved; it even gets a countdown! Unfortunately, it downshifts into a concluding piano ballad that kills its momentum, trapping its fury in stadium pretensions.
The excess reaches its laughable peak in closer ‘Drones’, a disparate collection of vocal overdubs competing for space. Evoking a hungover congregation attempting a particularly complicated hymn, the result is an indulgent acapella mess that ends the album on a confusing note (or seventeen). But here’s the thing: Drones is a record of erupting emotion and mantras of fellowship with as much socio-political weight as driftwood, sure, but the band are at the peak of their musical powers.
There are enough riffs and distorted hooks to make the band seem hungry again, voracious in their appetite to rock the fuck out. Matt Bellamy certainly lacks the vicious political incisiveness of Roger Waters, but there is something admirable and endearing in the directness of his lyrics, how universally high he aims.
Drones is a bit of a wander at times, but it’s the most focused the band have been in years, condensing the operatic vision of their latter era and the insistent, malevolent rock of their early days into one weird, reaching and thoroughly unique offering.