Muse have gathered a reputation as cock-rock titans and for the most part, they’ve earned it. Early albums such as The Origin of Symmetry and Absolution established them as the successors, in popular culture’s eyes, to Radiohead and the 90s wave of rock bursting to the surface. Drones is no different to the Muse of old, despite what you may have been told. The slant that the latest album has been sold as is a return to old form, more like Origin of Symmetry Muse. However, the reality is all of the same excesses remain, from the monologues to the overarching plot that has about as much subtlety as Slipknot writing a tearjerking ballad. The schtick of Drones is that Matt Bellamy has had some grand apiphany reading some conspiracy theories and is now just as scared of drone warfare as he was of humans destroying the environment on 2012’s The 2nd Law. There’s been some talk of this being Bellamy’s breakup album, though there are only a few songs (‘Dead Inside’) that showcase Bellamy’s heavyhanded approach to a relationship breakdown. Vulnicura, this is not.
‘Reapers’, the last teaser before the album was released, is definitely a track harking back to old Muse. From the metal-worthy guitar work and the fast pace, the song sounds like it has their headline appearance at Download 2015 directly in its sights. In fact, a good proportion of Drones delivers the riffs Muse need to headline a festival alongside Slipknot and Kiss. The song is vaguely memorable, with Bellamy’s elastic guitar solos that are laughably reminiscent of the old pre-Nirvana period of cock-rock guitars. However, the moment when the guitars actually do liven up are in ‘The Globalist’, Muse’s effort at a ten-minute prog-rock mash that has three passages – the whistling, western section, the thundering riffs and the piano ballad. If anything, it sounds like Muse chucked a second-hand view of ‘Paranoid Android’ into a blender with earlier track ‘Knight of Cydonia’. For the most part, the track stands out like a sore thumb against Drones campy rock, from the tremolo-heavy strumming at the beginning to the latter half of the track which features a thick, sludgy riff and some pretty subtle noises in the background from Bellamy, which is saying a lot.
The lyrics of the album aren’t hard to interpret. It follows the basic trajectory of the protagonist being brainwashed by the military in the heavy-handed sequence from ‘[Drill Sergeant]’ to ‘Reapers’ and the hero’s eventual rise against the brainwashers during ‘The Handler’. However, the lyrics are never subtly delivered, with Bellamy singing ‘You were my oppressor / And I have been programmed to obey’ and ‘Behold my transformation’. Like I’ve said before, Bellamy differs from Thom Yorke of Radiohead on the way he delivers his political message. Whereas on Hail To The Thief, Yorke never stated ‘I blame George Bush for the problems of the world today’, unlike Muse, where they go ahead and say ‘Unleash a million drones’ on the first song ‘Dead Inside’. The message Muse are delivering is solid, it’s just the method that comes across as tacky and pushed right in your face without other perspectives. Speaking of ‘Dead Inside’, the most pop-worthy song here on Drones is a bit of an oddball. As the first track on the album, it only briefly mentions the topic of drones and the military, unlike every other track on Drones. It feels like Bellamy said ‘I can’t not do a song about my divorce, we’ll throw it on at the start and get it over and done with’. ‘Psycho’ really is the ‘proper’ start to the album. Though the lyrics of ‘Dead Inside’ leave little to be desired, the extended bridge that seems endless really contributes to the song. Bellamy’s voice actually becomes something a little less campy on the line ‘Don’t leave me out in the cold’, giving the effect that this song had the most emotional impact on Bellamy and the rest of the songs on Drones are more clinical and cold, like Drones I guess.
The second half of Drones doesn’t do a lot to pick up from the first half. Apart from some moments in ‘The Globalist’ and ‘Defector’, ‘Revolt’ and ‘Aftermath’ are slower beasts which blend in with the rest of Bellamy’s vocals and the OTT instrumentation. The trouble here is that Muse didn’t make any attempt to expand on what they had already made on The 2nd Law and The Resistance. These albums were by no means good, but they showed Muse were willing to try and evolve from their tired rock. Drones sees them withdrawing back to the confines of safe-rock, but with the same cringe factor of their last two albums. Bellamy’s never been the most flexible lyriscist, but they’ve often made up for it with space-rock (‘Knights of Cydonia’) and killer instrumentation (‘Hysteria’). Drones is the sound of a band running from evolution and returning to the genre they once had to run from to survive.