In the run-up to the recording and release of Drones, each member of the Muse trio have been quoted as saying they were aiming for a ‘back-to-basics’ sound. For a long time, the group have been known for a maximalist sound, using a plethora of effects, extraneous instrumentation and a wall-of-sound approach on such tracks as “Map of the Problematique”, “Stockholm Syndrome” and “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”, but the sort of ‘basics’ the group were heading for was unclear as the band’s influences are incredibly varied.
The recruitment of Mutt Lange as producer indicated a hard rock record, as his resumé includes working with the likes of AC/DC and Def Leppard among others, and for some fans, this would allow a sigh of relief. The presence of this hard/classic rock influence is felt through much of the record, but the band hasn’t really gone in a wholly basic direction. Many Muse idiosyncrasies are still present on Drones; operatic vocals, hefty bass lines and guitar effects are still here, but on the likes of “Psycho” and “Reapers”, longstanding rock influences such as Rage Against the Machine and Van Halen are hugely prevalent.
“Reapers” takes influence from “Eruption” as the song opens with an extended tapped guitar piece that sates the appetite of any hard rock fan. Moreover, for long-standing Muse fans, the riff from “Psycho” will sound familiar as it has been played frequently at Muse gigs in one of their ‘instrumental breakdowns’ over the past 15 years (most well-known for being played on HAARP – their popular live DVD). Further classic rock influences are apparent in “Dead Inside” and “Defector” as the group’s frequent shout-out to Queen in their close vocal harmonies are present in abundance.
The possible issue with going back-to-basics for a band like Muse concerns the group’s long-standing appeal as a group who take characteristics from a number of influences to form their sound. The issue may be moot, however, as, alongside these rock influences, the polar opposite is also utilised. The layered vocals in “Drones” hold an incredibly potent punch of church music and gospel as Matt Bellamy sings of how his family have all been “killed by drones”; completely unaccompanied. As the closing salvo of the album, it’s an incredibly different tack to take and it begins to display the true variety in what the band listen to and are influenced by.
Further to this, the presence of film soundtrack influences has been well-documented in Muse’s career. “Man with a Harmonica” by Ennio Morricone has been included in their live sets as a prelude to “Knights of Cydonia” since The Resistance tour and this is another influence that has made its way onto Drones in the form of “The Globalist”. The hugely ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ style opening to the piece segues into a modern prog/space/hard rock opus that lasts a good ten minutes in what is the most ambitious move for Muse since their “Exogenesis” pseudo-symphony.
“The Globalist” is pulled off in a much more successful fashion, however, and its fluid transition between genres and styles that wouldn’t normally be amalgamated is an impressive move from the Teignmouth alt-rockers. This large number of ubiquitous musical influences may have gone against what the group have said about going ‘back-to-basics’, but the utilisation of each in a well-fashioned manner forms a strong back-drop for the album’s message.
Lyrically, Drones is a concept album that plays to Matt Bellamy’s strengths as a paranoid conspiracy theorist and, as the album’s title suggests, Bellamy’s issue with drone warfare and his worry that the world’s population is turning into mindless parasites are the focus here. Previously, the band have built towards the current theme as The Resistance focused on the need for change after the economic crash, The 2nd Law took note of the world’s propensity to self-destruct (be it through the use of fossil fuels or by mindlessly following political leaders) and this progression in ideals has continued into Drones.
The album as a whole works to form an Orwellian dystopic world, where individualistic thinkers are maligned and ‘drones’ are used at the whim of “the ghosts and shadows” (as referenced in “Mercy”) of a ‘Big Brother’ type figure. To form this anti-utopia, Bellamy uses numerous personae to illustrate the lead character’s transition from a heartbroken person (“now I’m dead inside”) to a controlled individual (“who’ll kill on my command”), then to one who has broken free from the ties that bind (“I’m a defector”). While some lyrics are on the clunky side (“Now you can kill from the safety of your home with drones / Amen”), the overall sentiment and message behind the album are put forward in a rather eloquent manner that sees the trio purvey a serious idea that is fairly well planned out.
While Drones won’t be expected to win ‘Album of the Year’ from reputable music review outlets, the record is an incredibly well put together album that packs the punch required from this band. Operatic vocals, heavy doses of guitars, bass and drums and catchy choruses are all found in abundance on a record whose definition of back-to-basics merely means it’s just the Muse trio – no extra musicians. In short, Drones delivers exactly what a Muse fan wants and, when comparing the album to Muse’s back-catalogue, it could very well be their best record since 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations and will keep many critics, fans and casual listeners happy along the way. Drones is out now via Warmer Music UK, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hoyle