Album review: Drones by Muse
Conceived as their first fully fledged concept album (something you always knew they would do eventually), Drones is a direct attack on modern drone warfare and the ever-growing lack of human empathy in a technology driven world, devoid of any allegorical or metaphorical symbolism. Bellamy has spoken of his fascination with the dark side of modern technology, the type in which military personnel can wipe out human lives from the comfort of their own homes via remote controlled killing machines, and how the taking of life in such a cold-hearted fashion has brought us ever closer to the dystopian future envisaged in 80s’ sci-fi classic The Terminator. The image of drones, both the remote controlled machines and the two legged frontline variety, is hammered home with noticeable regularity as the word appears on 5 of the album’s 10 songs. Opening track ‘Dead Inside’ starts with some electronically processed group vocals, Depeche Mode synths and a groovy ‘stop-start’ bassline before bursting to life halfway through as the album’s protagonist admits how the military has slowly drained him of his empathy and humanity: ‘you taught me to lie without a trace and kill with no remorse, on the outside, I’m the greatest guy, but I’m dead inside’. The stomping glam riff of ‘Psycho’ continues the narrative of being broken by the military system with a spoken word intro by a Full Metal Jacket style drill sergeant. ‘Love, it will get you nowhere’ […] ‘Your mind is just a programme’. So far so intense. However, latest single ‘Mercy’ lightens the mood, as the album’s first chink of the light of human emotion appears, pleading ‘show me mercy from the killing machines, could someone please rescue me’. Musically it’s a U2 style stadium balled akin to ‘Starlight’, full of glistening octave pianos and ‘wall of sound’ guitars.
‘Reapers’ is sure to delight fans of the band’s early work, a blistering 6 minute hard rock masterclass. Opening with some Van Halen-esque virtuoso guitar tapping before launching into an AC/DC style heavy riff chorus. It assimilates the best sides of those bands, yet the end result is unmistakably Muse. Keeping the pace up, ‘The Handler’ is a return to the thrilling sci-fi rock of 2001’s Origin of Symmetry albeit with a far more polished production. Its closing guitar solo mimics that of 2003 single ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and confirms Drones as Muse’s most guitar heavy album since their 2003 masterpiece Absolution. This also marks the turning point at which the album narrative begins to turn: ‘I won’t let you control my feelings anymore, and I will no longer do as I’m told’. A spoken word interlude which samples J.F.K’s 1961 speech (a particular favourite amongst conspiracy theorists) gives way to ‘Defector’. It’s mid-paced rock tempo detailing the protagonist turning on his oppressors. However, the overuse of the multi-layered Queen-esque harmonies, of which modern day Muse have become so fond of, sound overly comedic and threaten to dilute the song’s political power. Sounds of revolution signal the intro to ‘Revolt’ (which sounds a little too similar to Patrick Wolf’s ‘The City’), a song which features the record’s most outwardly pop moments, its sing-along chorus sounding ready-made for a musical. ‘Aftermath’ is a slow strings backed power-ballad and gives the album some much needed respite which is reflected in its lyrics: ‘War is all around, I’m growing tired of fighting, I’ve been drained and I can’t hide it.’
‘The Globalist’ is Muse’s most ambitious moment since 2009’s stunning ‘Exogenesis Symphony’. It rambles into view with some Ennio Morricone indebted whistling and slide guitar, an intro which could be easily mistaken for The Scorpion’s ‘Winds of Change’. A heavy metal mid-section ups the energy with atmospheric sound effects and some wonderfully intense string arrangements which give way to the songs closing section, a string and piano led ballad which sounds rather similar to ‘United States of Eurasia’ from 2009 album The Resistance. Coming in at over 10 minutes, it keeps with the band’s tradition of ending their albums with sprawlingly ambitious moments, a tradition which first started with ‘Knights of Cydonia’ from Black Holes and Revelations back in 2006. Eagerly awaited by fans, ‘The Globalist’ is Muse’s most ‘prog-rock’ moment yet and will surely be a thrilling highlight of their upcoming world tour (should it make it onto the setlist). The record draws to a close in an unusual manner, with the acapella title track sounding like it was composed for a 16th century mass. Muse can now tick ‘polyphonic sacred choral music’ off their checklist of genres to try their hand at. A lament for the victims of the conflict outlined in the preceding nine songs, it brings the album’s narrative to a close as a multi-layered choir of Bellamy’s sing ‘Our lives between your finger and your thumb, now you can kill from the safety of your home with drones. Amen’
The record’s ambition cannot be faulted, and with industry doom-mongers constantly predicting the death of the album format, it is refreshing to hear a modern act tell a story over the course of a whole record. The politically driven lyrics aren’t quite as powerful as the furious broadsides delivered on 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations, but the subject matters within are of real modern concerns. Listened to in its entirety, it bears the influence of a number of seminal British bands from Depeche Mode, Queen, Pink Floyd, right through to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in its heavier moments. With a slightly weaker latter half, the record is not quite at the same ‘A’ grade level as Origin of Symmety, Absolution or Black Holes and Revelations from their 00’s peak, but Drones is an immensely enjoyable blockbuster movie of an album and Muse’s most focussed and impressive work in almost a decade. Bring on the live shows.
Review by Gary O’Donnell