Muse are in a strange place for a 21st Century rock band to be. It’s a place where, no matter what they do on each album, and no matter how critically maligned their releases are, they’ll still be able to pack out the biggest venues on the planet. Their last album, 2012’s The 2nd Law, was a prime example of this. It saw the Devon trio branch out further than they ever have before, experimenting with electronics and dance music by drafting in dubstep giants Nero on co-production duties. Despite this – and despite their subsequent world tour seeing them take residence in the planet’s stadiums – the album largely felt flabby and as though they had lost touch with the spark that had made them special in the first place. Three years later, Drones looks set to redress that balance.
Much of the album is about as stripped-back as Muse are likely to go in 2015. The onus is on guitars for the first time in a while, resulting in a much heavier, less pompous band than recent times. Despite the relative paring back in sound though, there’s still the wideness in scope that even fairweather fans will be familiar with – they still reach for the stars but avoid grabbing them. The nuclear riff-storm Reapers is one of the most impressive songs the trio have come out with in ages, with its frequent fretboard dashes flaunting Matt Bellamy’s oft-overlooked and neglected guitar skills. Elsewhere, Revolt is pure Queen, and the ten-minute epic The Globalist flits between atmospheric Western guitars to near thrash riffs to delicate piano with the virtuosity and ease of a band who are well versed in this kind of histrionic U-turn.
Where Drones really comes into its own is when it’s played front to back, and the whole story can be taken in. For this heavier incarnation of Muse, the over-arching concept shows a concordant level of weight – a dictatorial regime brainwashing civilians to turn them into mindless killing machines. Dark stuff, but it’s compelling all the same. What’s more, not a single moment is wasted, with each song having its own purpose in progressing the narrative. There’s a reason that the brooding iciness of Dead Inside is what opens the album. There’s a reason that the two interludes Drill Sergeant and JFK are placed where they are. There’s a reason that the title track, the record’s most instrumentally bare but sonically opulent track acts as the story’s coda. In an age where the album format has essentially died a death, with Drones, Muse have singlehandedly attempted to revive it with the same sort of dystopian opus Pink Floyd would have created and, regardless of the music within, they’ve done a fine job on that front.
It certainly helps that the music is pretty great, but there are definitely instances that feel like a combination of recycled ideas and blatant laurel-resting. Mercy sounds like the midpoint between a Starlight sequel and a better Coldplay song, while the mawkish Aftermath resembles the most self-indulgent of Bon Jovi power-ballads, killing any momentum and being at odds to any sort of heaviness that had been done so well. Nevertheless, Drones shows just how good Muse still are at being a proper rock band. It shows that, for a band now over two decades into their career, they’re still attempting to push the boat out rather than coast along. And while it doesn’t work all the time, there’s no doubt that Drones is Muse’s best album in a long time, and the first one in years that fully justifies their lofty status. There are no plans for the future as of yet, but investigating this path further would definitely be something to consider.
For fans of: Biffy Clyro, Incubus, Coheed & Cambria
Words by Luke Nuttall