In Brief: Longtime fans will jump for joy over the return to a less electronic, more in-your-face rock sound, with a generous helping of the usual acts of guitar heroism. But on my WORD, is this thing over-the-top and preachy, even by Muse standards. This is the first time I can honestly say that it’s significantly gotten in the way of my enjoyment of one of their albums.
Criticizing Muse for being un-subtle is a lot like criticizing a dog for being hairy and drooling a lot. It’s in their DNA. You should know by now what you’re getting into if you choose to spend your time with them. Some of us get enough enjoyment out of them to forgive the messy shortcomings, but we understand why they’re not for everyone. I can’t say that I was an early adopter in their case – it took a few tries before I warmed up to their overzealous and highly theatrical take on modern rock music. But they’ve been pretty good to me ever since I got on board with The Resistance. Sure, they might have chewed up a lot of the scenery, but so far they’ve been well-trained enough to not leave a huge stinking pile of crap for me to unwittingly step in. (And with that, I promise I’ll drop the awkward metaphor.)
When Drones came out at the beginning of this summer, I was briefly tempted to reconsider my stance on the band, because it felt to me on first listen like they were flaunting their absolute worst tendencies and validating pretty much every criticism I’d tried to defend them from. I couldn’t say that the entire album was bad – not by a long shot – but it was definitely my least favorite out of anything I’d heard from them, and keep in mind that I have gone as far back as Origin of Symmetry. I could see what they were going for, both musically and thematically – a tougher, more immediate rock album that dropped a lot of the stylistic experimentation found on The Resistance and The 2nd Law and that used its musical muscle to clearly state an unrelenting and deadly serious message about the dehumanizing aspects of war. I don’t mind putting that Aesop right out front for you, because they certainly do, and the ways in which they choose to do it are heavy-handed and sometimes downright schmaltzy, and in one case they use straight-up shock tactics for seemingly no reason other than the pure titillation factor. It’s all a bit childish, to be honest, and it takes my respect for them down a peg despite the serious chops the trio displays as musicians here. I get that Matt Bellamy is a guy who has always been fascinated by conspiracy theories and the shady political machinations that make the world go ’round. But there’s usually been some otherworldly, science-fiction sort of aspect to it that’s allowed me to keep my distance. Here it’s all terrifyingly real, and I can’t knock a band for trying to address the relevant issues of the day, but they’re not doing so in terribly profound ways, so it ends up making them sound like they arrived way late to a heated discussion that’s already run its course. War is bad and it’s easy to sit behind a desk and blow people up via remote control without considering them to be legitimate human beings. WE GET IT, GUYS. What now?
Despite the ham-fisted nature of Drones, I can say that it’s a more stylistically consistent listen than either of the albums that came before it. Aside from a few irritatingly misplaced spoken-word tracks and an opening number that sticks out like a sore thumb (despite being one of the most engaging tracks on the album), Drones flows pretty well from its first track to its last one, almost to a fault. A few of the song structures are labyrinthine enough that I start to feel like the musical twists and turns mattered more to the band than having a solid hook to come back around to. Then they’ll drop a track in there that feels like it’s pretty much Muse-by-numbers. It’s good when a band can remind longtime fans of the old days, but not so much when they just remind us that the old days were better. All things being equal, I’d rather be baffled by Muse attempting something new and falling flat on their faces (see a few of the clunkers in The 2nd Law‘s back half) than by them trying something they’ve done better before. A few tracks are still strong enough to stand out in my mind as instant Muse classics, and I’ll give credit where it’s due for attempting the most monolithically long and complex of any track they’ve ever recorded as the album lumbers on toward its fateful ending. But for the most part, I’m more fascinated by the ideas behind the songs than the songs themselves on this record. Listening to the whole thing in one shot can get tedious and tiring, and I’m simply not used to feeling that way about Muse.
1. Dead Inside
The opening track is a really good song. Probably my favorite on the album. But is it a good start? Debatable. It’s one of the more pop-oriented, rhythm-heavy songs in the Muse canon, building off of the sort of slinky grooves they’ve established on tracks like “Supermassive Black Hole”, “Undisclosed Desired”, or “Madness”, all songs that were perceived as un-Muse-like when they debuted, but that went on to become cornerstone tracks of their respective albums. There was something fun about rocking out for a few tracks and then having a very danceable or even minimal rhythmic approach to throw us a curveball. (“Madness” might have been pushing it at only track 2 of The 2nd Law, but that album’s track order is all screwed up no matter what you do with it.) When they suddenly take such a left turn right at the beginning, when you don’t know where they’re turning from, it gets the tone all wrong for what’s to come later. There’s a cheesy self-consciousness to the bumping bass and the little keyboard stings that punctuate this track, and it works if intentional campiness is what they’re going for, but this sort of thing doesn’t bear the weight of starting off an album-length story like it should. As a self-contained track, I enjoy it quite a bit. Bellamy seethes with bitterness as he sings of a lover whose soul seems to have gone hollow and ponders how it has affected him as a person. Try as he might to set this up as being about the protagonist of the album, who has nowhere to turn but to violence because he feels unloved by anyone, it’s pretty easy to read between the lines and take it about the recent breakup with his long-time lover and babymama Kate Hudson. Tracing the story up to this point, figuring out where a person or a couple went wrong and started dying on the inside, could be the concept for a whole other album. As soon as it’s over, I have to shift my expectations because nothing else on this album sounds like it and it seems like it was tacked on to the beginning of the story in a bit of an ad-hoc manner.
2. [Drill Sergeant]
This short track is simply a spoken-word dramatization of a drill sergeant putting a young recruit through verbal hell as he basically makes the poor sap scream “Aye sir!” at every suggestion that he’s a miserable, worthless automaton who only exists to kill on command without giving any back-talk. It feels more like it’s based on outdated tropes from every war movie we’ve ever seen than what really goes on in modern militaries in the developed word. It’s notable that even though Muse is an English band, the accents of the voice actors are American ones. I’m trying not to read too much into that, but it does bug me a little.
The horrendous voice-acting continues in the background of this intentionally trashy, glam-metal song that’s pretty much been designed to be the most aggressive and foul-mouthed thing Muse has ever done. It’s a bit of a shock considering most of their past output has been rather light on the profanity – this time around there isn’t even any salvaging it for a radio edit since Bellamy seethes, “I’m gonna make you A F***ING PSYCHO!” every single time the chorus comes around. Plus the main chorus hook is, “Your ass belongs to me now”, which is pretty mild as swears go, and of course we’ve heard this line from the Drill Sergeant Nasty in all of those cliched war films, but combined with the campiness of the entire song, it sounds oddly homoerotic, which I’m pretty sure is not what they’re going for, given how adamant they are that their protagonist is not and will never be loved in any way, shape, or form. If you take all of the vocals out of this song, it’s quite a fun tour de force of jagged guitar histrionics, but throw the deadly serious message in there about how it’s us, the supposed “good guys”, who are turning these hapless young sad sacks into violent killing machines, and it gets super uncomfortable. If their intent was to scare us, they should have held back on the campiness and made this thing unrelentingly dark. If their intent was to rock out and be silly, then well, this track belongs on a whole different album. (Do you see a pattern forming here?)
Muse wildly swings back in the opposite direction here, bringing out the piano and more of a radio-friendly guitar riff, bringing us back to the days of Black Holes and Revelations with a song that might as well be a carbon copy of “Starlight”, minus the confidence and swagger. Here is where Muse most blatantly echoes their past in an attempt to win back old fans. I have absolutely nothing against this band being poppy and going for radio play, but usually there’s something in even their most accessible songs that challenges my perception of who they are. Here, they’ve got an awkward lyrical flow and a rather ham-fisted chorus in search of a halfway decent hook. I have a pretty high tolerance for goofy lyrics if a chorus is catchy, but even I can’t sing “Show me mercy from the powers that be” without gagging a little bit on the awkwardly vague phrasing. The verse lyrics, with their overly wordy tales of “Absent gods and silent tyranny”, hint at something more provocative, but the way the chorus distills it into a “me against the world” sort of sentiment makes it too general to really hit home. Again, the musical genre chosen just isn’t the right vehicle for the message.
This is the first track where I feel like Muse is on point, both musically and lyrically. Bellamy hasn’t shied away from the guitar solo theatrics on any of the previous songs, even when it seemed ill-suited to the genre, but here he just tears it up while Dom Howard‘s drum beat lurches forward, and it’s just so satisfying. This is the sort of instantly identifiable goodness that made a number of tracks on Muse’s early albums instant standout; it may be old hat for the band but Bellamy still does it so well that I can’t help but get swept up in it, because it takes serious talent and isn’t the sort of thing that can be imitated mindlessly. Here the album’s central concept of “drones” as machines that enable soulless humans to kill other humans by remote control really starts to come into play, and that idea makes it all the more appropriate for some heavily synthesized backing vocals and other little electronic bits to show up in an otherwise muscular, live performance-oriented hard rock song. Here I don’t mind that the chorus is extremely catchy and highly singable, because it’s intended to be a bit of a sneer at the people in power who act as though might makes right (which, again, is an oversimplification, but if you’re gonna sarcastically stick it to the man, this is the way to do it). I’m a little less keen on the song’s outro, which slows down the rhythm and takes us more into prog metal territory, with air raid sirens and Bellamy viciously snarling, “Here come the DRONES!” while the guitar mercilessly pummels the landscape, laying to waste everything in its path and just sort of dragging out a song that had already made its point reasonably well. I can forgive the excess here, because the rest of the song is made of pure awesome.
6. The Handler
The opening of this track, with the guitar ping-ponging off of a pretty sweet drum riff, leads me to expect great things, so I’m a bit disappointed when the drums become so sparse and economical once the song really gets going – it makes it feel a bit stiff where it could have been as relentlessly energetic as the song preceding it. It’s still quite enjoyable to listen to overall, especially as Bellamy hits some of his most histrionic high notes on the chorus (which I realize is one of those love-it-or-hate-it aspects of Muse for newcomers – I think it works well in limited doses as long as the band doesn’t go into truly insane, “Micro Cuts” territory). This song marks a turning point as side A of the album comes to a close. We don’t really know why, but the human drone has somehow managed to grow a mind of his own, and now he’s telling those in power who used to give him orders that they no longer have any power over him. I feel like there’s a chapter missing in this story. Between the heartless devastation of the previous song and this one, there needs to be some contemplation of the lives lost and the trauma inflicted on the survivors from both sides of the conflict in order for this sudden change in loyalties to really make sense.
Another brief spoken-word intro shows up here, and this time I can’t criticize the voice acting because it’s an excerpt from an actual speech by John F. Kennedy (who you’ll note was an American president, implying even further that the protagonist of this story is also American), highlighting the difference between the democratic western world and the subversive powers seeking to destroy it (which at the time was in reference to Cuba’s fall to Communism, I think). I’m sure Muse is trying to make a point about the good guys slowly becoming the enemy they seek to destroy, as angry guitar chords begin to flare up in the background, but I feel like it’s kind of a lazy way to make it. Using skits or historical recordings can greatly enhance a point you’re trying to make if you can adequately articulate that point in your own lyrics, but Muse struggles with this throughout most of the album, so here I kind feel like they’re just pointing at a more eloquent speaker and going, “Yeah, what he said”.
The other thing that bugs me about these intro tracks is that they transition to the following song in a way that makes it awkward if you skip directly to the track with the actual song on it. Small nitpick aside, there’s some pretty good riffage going on here, setting a mood that’s more “muscle car” than “military coup”, but I can’t really complain. The group’s deep-seated love of Queen comes out here by way of the melodramatic backing vocals that chime in here and there to accent a word – or rather, part of a word. Unfortunately that makes an already choppy chorus even more awkward, since they’re chiming in on the last two syllables of the words “inciting” and “society”, both of which get mangled enough to sound like each other, highlighting how clumsy of a rhyme it is. Our protagonist has become a freedom fighter by this point, threatening to tear down a government that considers itself infallible. At this point the narrative is sounding a lot like that of Green Day‘s 21st Century Breakdown, and I’d say both records, while enjoyable, are flawed for similar reasons.
There’s a neat trick pulled at the end of the previous song, where it collapses into the sound of a police siren that syncs up with the beat of this song. As annoying as I usually find it when bands put siren sounds into their songs (because my wife will invariably turn down the music to hear where the siren is coming from if I play such a song in the car), I have to admit that was pretty slick. I like how the “woo-woo-woo” sound ends up being an excuse for a confident, anthemic beat here… then it goes into that nutso “twittering” sound you get when a police car really wants to get your attention, and the rhythm speeds up for the chorus. You should know by now that I’m not a fan of songs shifting tempo back and forth. It’s hard to pull it off in a believable manner. Usually I dislike the slower sections of these songs, but in this case, I’m digging the slower groove and I find the speedy chorus to be an unwelcome intrusion. It feels rushed and half-baked, and its encouragement that you can always revolt against a society that has betrayed its own ideals is stated with all the eloquence of a Hallmark card: “You’ve got strength, you’ve got soul/You’ve felt pain, you’ve felt love/You can grow!” (Insert cheesy Queen-esque echo here.) “You can grow! You can make this world what you want.” Jeez guys, is this song about overthrowing tyrannical governments, or finally achieving your hoop dreams?
Time for a power ballad! I could probably think of other moments where one could allege that Muse was ripping off U2, but it never seems quite so blatant as it does in this song’s long, quiet fade-in (which sets us up for Joshua Tree levels of epic-ness) and its opening guitar chords that pretty much use the exact same, vaguely bluesy filter effect that The Edge used at the beginning of “One”. Once the song really gets going, the emotional showmanship is more in the vein of Freddie Mercury than Bono, and we’ve already covered how Muse likes to borrow from Queen, so basically what I’m saying is that all the musical idol worship going on here ends up making the song feel more pedestrian than powerful. (Bassist Chris Wolstenholme rather anemically filling in on the main chorus vocal while Matt goes off and does his dramatic diva thing toward the end only makes it weaker – Chris proved to be a fine enough lead vocalist on the tracks he wrote for The 2nd Law, so I don’t know why he dropped the ball here.) It’s the only “love song” on the album, set against the backdrop of a soldier finally coming home from a terrible, dehumanizing war and needing true human contact again – and again, I feel like we’ve skipped a step in the story, because the revolution was just starting up and dude’s already had his fill? What actually happened out there in the streets or on the battlefield? We can only speculate. I feel bad giving this one an “only slightly above meh” rating, because its melody really is quite beautiful, and as the chorus promises “From this moment, you will never be alone”, it genuinely does tug at my heartstrings, because I’m a sucker for a good reject-finding-a-place-to-belong story. I could almost imagine this one being played at a wedding… until I think of the larger context of the album and realize that the person getting hitched is an up-and-coming tyrannical dictator. That’s kind of a mood-killer, y’know?
11. The Globalist
This one’s the piece de resistance, at least in terms of Muse’s ambitions. I suppose if you’re going to cap off a story about a war hero turning on his own country and becoming the very thing he once hated, a ten-minute “prog nightmare” suite (Muse’s words not mine) would be a good way to go about it. They take it almost up to Dream Theater levels of melodrama here, as the song progresses from a slow, whistled intro (which may be a subtle callback to the “spaghetti Western” feel of “Hoodoo” and “Knights of Cydonia” at the end of Black Holes and Revelations), to a sad ballad about a deranged man taking his revenge on the world because he was never truly loved by the country that raged him, to a total RAWK! breakdown intended to depict the destruction he unleashes, to the slow, bitter coda in which he realizes he has nothing left to rule over because he’s destroyed it all. Only two of these four segments of the songs have any lyrics (unless you consider the countdown to nuclear war in the RAWK! part to be actual lyrics, I guess), so again there’s that feeling like a chapter is missing from the story. Musically, the band gives their all, and I can certainly tell they’ll be milking the audience’s expectations for all they’re worth, probably with ghastly multimedia bombarding the audience from all sides, as they play this one live. I feel like there’s a lot more to be learned from the tragic story of a megalomaniac who realizes he’s taking things way too far just a second too late and now what’s left of the world has to live with the consequences. But for what story they were able to tell here, I think they’ve done a pretty good job.
The final track is really more of an extension to the “Globalist” suite – it flows perfectly from the somber piano ending of that track, and I figure the band only separated it out because it’s the title track and because its beautiful little aria of Matt Bellamys stacked upon more Matt Bellamys will be impossible for the group to reproduce live, so might as well keep it as its own separate thing, I guess. I love the dedication that it takes for any vocalist to sing this many parts and then arrange the recording make a one-man choir out of their own voice, and I love the creepy juxtaposition of what sounds like ancient church music with a survey of human life being wiped out and only unfeeling drones being left to survey the damage. At the same time, it’s more than a bit goofy, and this is clearly the point where it’s most important for us to take the band seriously, because this is some somber stuff, man. At this point I feel like I’m giving out points for sheer ambition more so than execution, and I’ve felt that way for most of the album. Come on Muse, you’ve explored a lot of diverse ideas in the past while managing to be awesome in more than just fits and spurts.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dead Inside $1.50
[Drill Sergeant]/Psycho –$.50
The Handler $1.25
The Globalist $2
Matthew Bellamy: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards, piano, synthesizers
Christopher Wolstenholme: Bass, backing vocals
Dominic Howard: Drums, percussion, synthesizers
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: