Drones could have been a return to form for Muse, but its heavy-handed political paranoia drowns out the music in a sea of unsubtle Orwellian buzzwords.
The Devon, England trio Muse had a good thing going for awhile. Then, somewhere along the way, just before 2009's The Resistance, frontman Matt Bellamy stumbled upon the writings of George Orwell.
Now, Bellamy could have already been familiar with Orwell's writing; in fact, it's likely. But beginning with The Resistance, especially its closing tripartite "symphony" entitled "Exogenesis", Muse's lyrical directive took on a tone not unlike that of a Glenn Beck broadcast. In many if not most cases, Bellamy is singing about genuine problems, from the neoliberal global order (The Resistance's "United States of Eurasia") to the instability of global markets (the title cut of 2012's middling The 2nd Law). However, Muse frames all of these problems in the most comically grandiloquent manner possible, what with the over-the-top Queen histrionics of "United States of Eurasia" and the regrettable dubstep wobble bass of "The 2nd Law". There are no doubt issues with the new world order, but Muse's take on the politics is more National Treasure than insightful critique. Because of this, it was predictable that Glenn Beck took a liking to Muse, even though they have dismissed the pundit as a "crazy rightwinger".
It should come as no surprise, then, that Muse's latest outing, Drones, sports an album cover that is the visual antithesis of the word "subtlety". The band might as well have titled the LP The Government Is Controlling Our Minds and That Is a Bad Thing. Lyrically, Bellamy dives deep into the well of dystopian cliché, resurrecting the "you and I against the world" brand of romance ("Aftermath"), the R. Lee Ermey drill sergeant (lead single "Psycho"), and paranoia over brainwashing ("Defector"). These ideas undergird both The Resistance and The 2nd Law, but they are most blatantly expressed on Drones. Anyone familiar with Literature 101 interpretations of Animal Farm and Brave New World will recognize Bellamy's impassioned pleas for rebellion against an unjust order. Bellamy has likened his political ideology to that of famed leftist dissenter and linguist Noam Chomsky; unlike Chomsky, however, Muse is all style and no substance. Hell, on the ten-minute "The Globalist", the band even rehashes the whistling trope that The Hunger Games popularized.
On the lyrical front, then, Drones is a regress; or, rather, the unfortunately logical conclusion of the technoparanoia that began with The Resistance. Even on classic tunes like Black Holes and Revelations' (2006) desert prog number "Knights of Cydonia", when Bellamy sings "No one's gonna take me alive / The time has come to make things right / You and I must fight for our rights / You and I must fight to survive", the "us vs. them" rebel mentality is generically expressed, and not tied to any specific political hand-wringing. "Knights of Cydonia" could function as a battle tune for any conflict, whereas the lyrics on Drones are most likely to be found on some budding high school anarchist's notebook. (To the group's credit, nothing here is as cringe-worthy as The 2nd Law's opening song, "Supremacy": "Embedded spies / Brainwashing our children / To be mean.")
Curiously, however, while Drones finds Muse peddling in Glenn Beck-worthy bumper sticker sentiments ("You can revolt!", Bellamy chants on "Revolt"), musically this is the strongest and most consistent the group has been since Black Holes and Revelations. Yes, the Full Metal Jacket-isms of "Psycho" are as overbearing as its chorus of "Your ass belongs to me now" is dumb, but the song nonetheless boasts a wicked, bluesy riff, something that The 2nd Law failed to capitalize on. That album's greatest weakness, as I wrote in my review of it for PopMatters, is that its inclusion of dubstep and other electronic styles is nothing more than a fancy gimmick, one whose purpose is ostensibly to beef up Muse's stadium rock sound, even though it in the end proves a nagging distraction. A track like The 2nd Law's lead single "Madness" doesn't actually need the EDM wobble bass when its 12-bar blues structure and Bellamy's lead vocal are its actual strong points.
Drones rightly refocuses the songwriting on the actual songs themselves: what rise to the forefront here are anthemic choruses ("Mercy" and "Aftermath"), flashy guitar parts (the Joe Satriani-esque minor key shredding on "Reapers"), and Bellamy's falsetto ("Dead Inside"). While prog flashiness and Freddie Mercury-channeling bombast have long been a part of Muse's style, at their core they're better represented by their comparatively straightforward tunes ("Hysteria", "Time is Running Out", "Supermassive Black Hole") rather than their unnecessarily convoluted prog suites ("Exogenesis"). Admittedly, little of the material on Drones matches the excellence of career highlights like 2004's Absolution, to this day Muse's best recording, but it is nice to hear the group come back to its wheelhouse. This shedding of the frilly excesses that have mired their LPs in recent years was apparently an intentional move on the trio's part, also signified by bringing on the famed "Mutt" Lange as producer.
There are a few foibles here, though, notably the penultimate song "The Globalist". On album and especially in a live setting, Muse can pull off longer tunes, but "The Globalist"'s ten-minute length feels more obligatory than necessary, as if Muse thought it just made sense to close out a record based on epic conflict with an epic tune. The track isn't distinctly bad, and certainly not eye-rollingly portentous in the way that "Exogenesis" was for The Resistance, but it plays out more like a couple of ideas stapled together to form a whole rather than a cohesive piece. Opening with the aforementioned whistle motif, "The Globalist" then features two other parts, one a prog rock riff jam and the other a chance for Bellamy to display his impressive voice and piano chops. With each transition, you can clearly identify the sutures where Muse brought the three main ideas of the track together. As such, "The Globalist" mistakes length for heft; a cut like "Reapers" is able to execute the blood-pumping surge that "The Globalist" aspires to without dragging itself out for ten minutes. On a better album, a slip-up like "The Globalist" could be more easily forgiven, but given how bogged down the music gets in trying to re-create 1984 for the 21st century, every weakness stands out even more distinctly.
Ultimately, though, anyone not keen on Muse's brand of alternative rock, wherein prog's instrumental wizardry and Queen's operatic flourishes keep the intensity dial hovering just shy of 11, isn't likely to be sold on Drones. The record's moderate return to form will be most noticed by those who have tracked the band in the last decade, particularly after Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations. Rather than opting to bring on new stylistic tricks in the hopes of making things sound fresh, as The 2nd Law so erroneously did, Drones gives the world the Muse that broke big in the mid '00s; in other words, the Muse that's most fun to listen to. Unfortunately, this record also makes it plain that these guys still have quite a bit to work on; as long as Bellamy continues to spout out conspiracy theory taglines, it won't matter how cool the riffs are or how appealing his classically trained voice sounds.
For now, Drones can be chalked up as one step forward, one step back for this British trio. If Muse is able to find a way to express its political concerns in a manner that doesn't bash the listener over the head, they might just find a way to get both feet headed in the same direction.