After the bizarre but ultimately effective flirtations with electronica that permeated Muse’s most recent albums, the English alternative rock trio announced their seventh full-length album, Drones, would be a return to the more primal, guitar-driven assault of their early work. Moreover, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Matthew Bellamy mentioned in interviews it would contain a sequel to fan favorite “Citizen Erased.” Naturally, longtime fans were excited by the prospect of a potential return to the classic Muse sound. Now that Drones has been released, the most obvious question is this: does the album live up to the high expectations placed upon it?
The short answer, unfortunately, is no. While there is a renewed emphasis throughout on guitars and rawer, heavier arrangements, Drones doesn’t move with the same jaw-droppingly kinetic force that early albums like Origin of Symmetry and Absolution did. That said, it still has its share of worthwhile qualities that make it a solid album; it’s just more impressive conceptually than musically.
Never shy about their affinity for progressive rock, Muse has often flirted with conceptual ideas, and recent LPs The Resistance and The 2nd Law were heavily thematic in their subject matter. On Drones, Bellamy and company finally go for the prog-rock jugular and serve up a full-scale concept album, a brave move that’s certainly commendable in today’s shuffle-driven musical climate but ultimately yields mixed results. Muse’s music has never contained any semblance of subtlety, and Drones is no exception; it’s absurdly overblown, each aspect so bold and direct, it borders on heavy-handed.
The concept Bellamy weaves over the course of Drones’ 10 songs concerns — you guessed it — drones, and its presentation is so straightforward, you can discern the general story from reading the titles alone. In brief, a man becomes “Dead Inside,” is trained to become a cold, unfeeling “Psycho,” goes about doing the evildoers’ bidding with the other “Reapers,” and eventually rediscovers his humanity, becomes a “Defector” and encourages others to “Revolt” with him.
There are a few deeper themes below the surface, like the inherent value of all living beings and the imminence of a Third World War, but you’d almost never know it: the lyrics are often so ham-fisted that it’s hard to find the urge to search for any kind of subtext. Still, despite a somewhat simplistic presentation of ideas, the story holds together smoothly enough and has a clear transformational arc to it, and the feeling of loss, darkness and eventual redemption shines through.
Musically, Drones is unmistakably a rock album. Thanks to producer Mutt Lange (of AC/DC and Def Leppard fame), the guitars are strenuously emphasized in the mix and the electronic flourishes are reined in to the point of hardly being present at all. In one sense, this blisteringly heavy atmosphere is effective — it does dovetail seamlessly with the grim, weighty tale of human drones it props up. “Reapers,” in particular, is stunning. Ferocious in tone and relentless in pace, it employs incredible instrumental virtuosity and creates an excellent sense of drama that comes the closest to capturing the essence of the group’s classic style.
On the other hand, there’s an inescapable sense throughout Drones that something’s missing this time around. Whether or not fans have approved of Muse’s sonic experimentation over the past decade, one thing is undeniable: with every album they’ve released, they’ve managed to consistently evolve and expand their musical style. With Drones, however, Muse seems to have hit a wall.
Sure, the songs are meticulously crafted and impressively executed, as is to be expected after years of headlining arenas, but in one way or another they’ve done all of it before. Singles “Dead Inside” and “Mercy” trace the familiar contours of past hits “Panic Station” and “Starlight,” respectively, while songs like “Psycho” and “The Handler” recall the heavier moments of Absolution without the sense of excitement that that album carried.
The 10-minute epic “The Globalist” (the rumored sequel to “Citizen Erased”) brings Drones to a close. Winding in and out of different moods and offering several dynamic shifts, the song is interesting enough to justify its lengthy running time, but since it arrives at the end of the album and stands apart from the actual storyline, it seems almost superfluously tacked on. Perhaps it could have been more effective if Bellamy had taken the time to work it into his concept.
All in all, Drones has enough bright moments to make it a worthy addition to any Muse fan’s collection, and with a full-fledged concept to dig into, it’s nice to see the band is still unafraid to take chances after nearly 20 years of playing together. The problem with Drones lies not with its subject matter but with its musical content. For the first time ever, Muse has broken down no new musical barriers and at times even border on sounding predictable, making Drones the weakest album of their career.