Review Summary: Muse is back! Well, sort of…
For practically the last decade, Muse has just flat out missed the mark. The Resistance
lacked any real rock
aesthetics, favoring synthesizers and classical influences over electric guitars. That might have been okay, but they scaled all instrumental technicalities back to such a basic level that they were hardly recognizable as being even close
to the same band. When they trekked even further off the map with The 2nd Law
’s electronic fetish and pop that bordered on show tunes, many diehard fans lost hope of ever hearing another riff like the one from ‘Citizen Erased.’ It felt like they had become a lame cover version of themselves, and in the process they were subjected to mockery from nearly everyone who was alive when Origin of Symmetry
was released. The reason I’m able to use the past tense, fortunately
, is because the Muse we all grew up loving appears to finally be back. There’s riffs on this album that are more complex and energetic than even those on Absolution
or Black Holes & Revelations
, and Bellamy is once again singing his heart out in that shrieking falsetto that gives us goosebumps from time to time. Sure, Drones
is ridiculous in its posturing: it’s a politically charged concept album that’s executed with the bravado of a revolutionist and the mindset of an eccentric conspiracy theorist…but where lyrics and common sense have often evaded this band, they’ve always made up for it through their ability to sound larger than life. All the time
. This is no different, which in many ways makes Drones
the perfect encapsulation of what Muse is all about. Even if it’s far from beating out the most celebrated releases in their catalogue, at this point it’s just invigorating to see that the template for success is back in place.
There’s no better place to start discussing Drones
than right in the middle. Whereas the beginning and end of the album carries a lot of dead weight, it’s the stretch from ‘Reapers’ to ‘Defector’ that really keeps things afloat. ‘Reapers’ is a track unrivaled in its technical skill, commencing with a blistering electric guitar riff that’s followed by a rhythmic give-and-take between Bellamy’s epic falsetto and crunching breakdowns. “I don’t think I can handle the truth” he declares in between deceptively complex guitar work, before the song erupts into a chorus referencing the Drones
album title, “You rule with lies and deceit / You kill by remote control / And the world is on your side.” There’s also a delectable guitar solo halfway through, which precedes a raucous outro that could make anyone believe that the end of the world is actually nigh. It’s not overstating anything to say that ‘Reapers’ belongs among the top five Muse songs ever written, and after a pair of safe and inoffensive albums, it’s exactly what they needed to prove that they still have a heartbeat. ‘The Handler’ is almost equally as impressive, with an assortment of buzz saw riffs and another highly memorable solo, all atop steady drumming and Bellamy’s howls of “I have been programmed to obey / I will execute your demands…I must dissociate from you / You will never own me again.” Conceptually, it’s a turning point in the storyline where his character – militarized and brainwashed – breaks away from “the system.” It’s not the most original idea in terms of lyrics, but more on that later.
‘JFK’ and ‘Defector’ also work extremely well together, which is an exciting prospect considering Muse’s penchant for useless preludes. Whereas ‘Drill Sergeant’ gives us an early taste of the band at their worst, ‘JFK’ combines thunderous clashes with a John F. Kennedy speech from 1961. Each clashing sound seems to emphasize a concern not only of what could
be, but also of what probably already is
: "infiltration instead of invasion, subversion instead of elections, intimidation instead of free choice." The execution of this song brings the fear of a conspiring, secretive government to life and is the perfect lead up to ‘Defector.’ Out of the best tracks on Drones
, ‘Defector’ carries the most similarities to The Resistance
. There’s Queen-ish choral outbursts, relatively average percussive contributions, and completely forgettable lyrics; however, an approximately forty-five second guitar solo that shifts the tempo and adds an almost space-rock feel to the song is never to be underestimated. It just goes to show how far Muse’s rock roots really do carry them, because this song without that gritty edge is little more than just a poppy, alt-rock influenced desperation shot at an anthem. Thanks to the band’s reclamation of its core strengths, ‘Defector’ successfully rounds out one hell of a midsection for Drones
However, it’s the bookends that get Drones
into trouble, featuring some of their weakest material right at the forefront and back end. Well, that’s not entirely
true, as opener ‘Dead Inside’ – a track that has gathered some undue criticism to this point – kicks things off on the right foot. The song settles quickly into a groove, with reverberated electric guitars driving the rhythm until Bellamy’s (yet again) Queen-styled vocals pop up with shouts of “dead inside!” It’s a little gimmicky, but it will kill in the arenas. After ‘Dead Inside’, however, it’s a rapid fall from grace. The aforementioned prelude (and we're using that term loosely) ‘Drill Sergeant’ is absolutely nothing more than a drill sergeant shouting commands at someone who each time replies “aye, drill sergeant!” It reminds me a lot of Hoobastank’s ‘The Rules’, a fifty-two second track of brainwashing militaristic nonsense that serves no purpose. The futuristic oppressive government
vibe would have been realized regardless, making the track an unnecessary and annoying detour. However, it’s the song that it leads up to – ‘Pyscho’ – that will truly draw the ire of anyone who appreciates quality lyrics. Matthew Bellamy will likely never hear the end of the “your ass belongs to me now” line, and to be honest he deserves that. The over-the-top frontman has never been a poet in the lyrical department, but he could have chosen better lines at every single juncture within this song. Being an artist gives you a lot of freedom, and here it feels like he’s just abusing that power. Perhaps Muse doesn’t even write their own lyrics – but regardless – whoever penned the words for this song and was then able to say “yeah, this will do” should be immediately fired and signed up for a mental competency evaluation. I wish I could tell you that there’s something redeeming about the track - really
, I do - but since it follows a very basic structure and doesn’t progress at all, I simply can’t. The melody isn’t even that memorable. As it turns out, returning to rock n’ roll stardom isn’t like riding a bike, and ‘Psycho’ is a prime example of an absolutely laughable misfire from the band.
‘Mercy’ serves as something of a buffer between the horrid beginning and stellar middle, and it is appropriately mediocre. There’s a keyboard driven, synth-laden atmosphere that is reminiscent of ‘Starlight’, but unfortunately it repeats itself over and over again while the chorus is merely a lazy repetition of the song title (oh wait, Starlight does that too)
. Any disappointment stemming from ‘Mercy’ is relatively minor though compared to the unfulfilled promise of the ‘The Globalist’ – a ten minute epic that squanders all of its momentum with the most anticlimactic ending since the Exogenesis movement. Given ten minutes to do anything he wants to, you’d think that a multi-talented guy like Bellamy would employ his full arsenal. There could have been lush piano sections akin to ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ alongside insane riffing, space synths, and maybe even the apocalyptic horse gallops from ‘Knights of Cydonia.’ Unfortunately, we get none of those things, effectively placing 'The Globalist' in a now growing category of drab, lengthy movements from this group. With the painfully uninspired, U2 idolizing ‘Revolt’ and musically keen but wholly uninteresting ‘Aftermath’ thrown in there, the second half is easily the weakest part of the record. Thus, Drones
goes out with a whimper as opposed to the thunderous bang that it deserves.
There’s no doubt that Drones
contains flashes of Muse at their absolute best. Moments like ‘Reapers’ make me want to proclaim it to be an absolute triumph, but unfortunately there are just too many glaring (and at times mind boggling) lapses in judgment. If nothing else, Muse will definitely regain the respect of those who left them for dead following The Resistance
and The 2nd Law
. The fact that they’ve chosen to revitalize the rock sound that made them successful to begin with bodes well going forward, and even if Muse is only sort of
back, they've still taken a vital step in the right direction. With a little luck, maybe the next Muse album will finally be the one that has them live up to their astronomical potential.