Matt Bellamy and co have seemingly gotten to that stage in their careers where a hefty dose of musical introspection is what the doctor has ordered. The solution to the questions posed by this self-analysis comes in the form of their 7th LP ‘Drones’.
Following on from the somewhat bloated and misdirected double of ‘The Resistance’ and ‘The 2nd Law’, ‘Drones’ largely offers a refreshing return to the melodramatic guitar-based modern rock that Muse made their name with. However there does remain the feeling that they have either not found themselves fully enough after having self-confessedly ‘lost sight of themselves’ over the past few years, or that this has become an exercise in damage limiting regression.
At times it seems that they are exorcizing ghosts of mistakes past. Leaving the perfectly brooding ‘Fury’ off of ‘Absolution’ or ignoring the imitable behemoth that is ‘Citizen Erased’ for the majority of shows since its inception are prime examples. The former is remedied by the fan-servicing ‘The Handler’, which is a pretty good song don’t get me wrong, but one wonders whether it comes half a decade too late, at a point where the group would rather be evolving their sound than reanimating early 20s versions of themselves. Much hyped 10-minute three-parter ‘The Globalist’, excitingly termed by band and fans alike as the sequel to ‘Citizen Erased’ doesn’t manage to make up for lost time. It is an awkward blend of spaghetti Western doodling, System of a Down b-side riffing and Elgar-infused meandering balladry – its greatest crime though, is being utterly forgettable.
Perhaps the greatest piece of scrambling for past glories, with respect to hard-core fan adulation and genuine critical excitement, is ‘Psycho’. I’ll confess- I bloody love this track. Recycling an excellently simple riff the band has been employing in live sets for nigh on 15 years is a bold move that, in the most part, pays off. The fact that they’ve managed to base an actual song around it, as opposed to just tagging it on to the end of something, does it the justice it deserves. Yes, the drill sergeant screams and borderline comic lyrics of ‘I’m gonna make you a fucking psycho!’ and ‘Your ass belongs to me now!’ may seem a little contrived and criticisms of this can be understood, but to do so would be to miss the point. Muse have always been a band who, in their later years at least, work best with tongue firmly in cheek; think ‘Knights of Cydonia’, ‘Uprising’, ‘United States of Eurasia’ or ‘Panic Station’. To that end, the playful ‘Pyscho’ is a fun rock track brimming with attitude that cannot fail to make you want to move.
The criticism I would level at it is a different one, which applies to large amounts of the album unfortunately, and that is, ironically given what they are trying to turn their backs on, its bloatedness. There is at least one riff/verse/chorus cycle too many and it is painful hearing the track flying past what feels so obviously a natural ending point. It is based on a simple idea, but the group can’t help but push it beyond its limit. The same can be said of lead single ‘Dead Inside’, the pointless reconciliatory chord section at the end ruining the infectious groove and defiance the first half of the track builds up. In the aforementioned ‘The Handler’ the solo section is at least twice as long as it needs to be and the solo from ‘Reapers’ spirals out of control.
However despite the apparent stream of negatives above there is a lot to love on this album, for hard-core Muse fans and casuals alike. The best moments come when you cannot hear the band ‘thinking’ about the music they are making, and instead just cut loose and do what they want. The album standout is the four track run of ‘Reapers’/’The Handler’’/[JFK] Defector’/’Revolt’. ‘Reapers’ is an amalgamation of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ in its heaviness and blasé riffage, and ‘Knights of Cydonia’ in its appealing campness. ‘Defector’ is Queen gone grunge, and ‘Revolt’ to all intents and purposes should be unstomachable cheese, a result of entering Muse into Eurovision, but somehow it really works. Honourable mentions should go to ‘Mercy’, a great rock-pop epic in the vein of ‘Starlight’, and album closer ‘Drones’ if only for its ambition, an acapella song about which members of your family are being killed by drones inspired by Gregorian Monk chants. At the end of the day, THAT is what Muse is all about, taking ridiculousness, melodrama and bombast to the next level, and at times it feels they are the only band who are trying to do this.
So perhaps we can forgive Muse’s identity crisis, Bellamy’s oft times clunky (or perhaps more accurately, awful) lyrics and the concept (literally, this must be a record for the amount of times an album’s name features in the lyrics) as at the end of the day this a pretty good slice of epic and listenable modern-rock. Also, thank god they’ve got a producer in this time to rein them in or who knows what could’ve happened. 7/10
Essential Tracks: ‘Psycho’, ‘Reapers’, ‘Defector’, ‘Revolt’