Drones is the byproduct of a pop/prog band that takes itself too seriously. I love it.
One must tread lightly when dealing with a band like Muse. On one hand, there’s the fans. Think, Radiohead fans, but take away a few years, and add belief that Matt Bellamy is Freddy Mercury’s second coming. Yeah, we’re talking X Files devotion here, man. On the other hand, the general opinion of the band lies on a “hate em’ or love em'” basis, leaving little room for objective criticism. If such a thing even exists. I don’t blame listeners, though. Muse is too prog for the pop fan, too song-oriented for the general prog head. There really isn’t a middle ground, but for eye rollers and coffee slammers like myself.
Muse is a band of taste, dabbling in prog excess without garnering too much of the pompousness required for a full blown member of the genre. Yes, Bellamy’s lyrics are pretentious and ofttimes cheesy. The concepts are often overblown and preachy. Yet, when stripped down, Muse explores multiple musical avenues, a unique blend of electronica, jazz, rock, and even metal. Not to mention Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations brought progressive rock back into the mainstream. That alone is respectable. Drones doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but continues Matt Bellamy, Dominic Howard, and Christopher Wolstenholme’s statement on the state of progressive rock.
Straight off, the album goes into Depeche Mode territory with opener, “Dead Inside.” Cringeworthy song title aside, the track does well as an introduction to the band’s bombastic sound. Drum machines. Drum machines everywhere! “Dead Inside” is as genetically close to a classic Muse song than any other track on the record. The track bleeps and bloops in a weird intro before hitting the listener with emotion. Muse emotion, that is. I say that because there’s a level of drama only Muse can create, and it is in this emotional crescendo, that listeners are divided. The lyrics, themselves, are suspect. Behind Bellamy’s still impressive falsetto, “Dead Inside,” brings out a healthy dose of Muse drama, spouting:
Your lips feel warm to the touch/You can bring me back to life/On the outside you’re ablaze and alive/But you’re dead inside.
Muse, “Dead Inside,” Drones (2015)
Overseeing the album is a convoluted concept of prog’s finest subject: individualism. As in the past, I try to focus on the music and lyrics alone, so concept falls low on my critical repertoire. However, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the lack of originality in Bellamy’s lyrics. They observe topics with the most shallow of executions, exploiting cliche after cliche as if wishing to frustrate the listener. In this regard, the juvenile lyrics take away from the music. Coming from a guy that places lyrics behind music, that’s saying a lot.
Luckily, the music is strong enough to mask the overdone concept. As listeners reach the album’s midsection, the music becomes abrasive, adopting elements of hard rock, even metal. “The Handler,” for instance, grabs this musical progression by the balls. Muse tackled heaviness in previous albums in tracks like, “Knights of Cydonia,” and “Stockholm Syndrome,” but Drones brings their heavier spectrum to the forefront. And I’ll admit, I like this new direction. For the first time, Muse’s album feels tied together, bringing in multiple markets, but still holding on to their trademark sound. Each influence comes through in album epic, “The Globalist,” the main highlight of the album, a track exploding with melody and aggression. This track is the pinnacle of Muse’s experimentation, while, “Revolt,” and, “Mercy,” tap into accessible, Queen-esque waters. If anything, Drones is an accessible progressive rock album, which — I must say — shows songwriting maturity.
At the head of this aggressive direction is Matt Bellamy’s guitar. Neoclassical, earpleasing shreddery. Although the album’s tracks fail to reach, “Stockholm Syndrome,” intensity, Bellamy still throws down memorable riffs in heavier tracks like, “Psycho,” and “Defector.” Besides lead guitar, each instrument plays for atmosphere over technical brilliance. That’s okay. My only complaint, musicianship-wise, is the absence of natural drum sounds. I get that the band strives for more of an electronic feel, but the drums, at times, make the songs feel…synthetic. Perhaps intentional, perhaps an aesthetic choice. Maybe it’s a production issue. Either way, Dominic Howard’s kit sounds lifeless and that’s a problem.
Overall, Muse’s seventh studio album, Drones, overcomes its shoddy concept and stale rhythm section with an accessible, but heavy approach to the progressive genre.
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