Muse have accomplished their long-term goal of hitting number one in America with the release of their latest album. Drones, the trio’s seventh studio album, features the band’s signature heavy guitar riffs, Orwellian concepts and falsetto vocals. While 2012’s The Second Law raised questions about the sustainability of life on Earth, Drones is a concept album focused on the protagonist’s struggle with the psychological cost of drone warfare. It explores the concept of human beings becoming indoctrinated and programmed to act like drones while also telling a story of love, loss and redemption.
The album kicks off with its first single, Dead Inside, which features Matt Bellamy’s typically operatic falsetto over a catchy bass line before segueing into an incredible fuzzy guitar solo. Over the course of the song, the lead character is slowly worn down from arguments with their partner, eventually becoming like them – dead inside. It’s a powerful break-up song, with Bellamy singing:
You like to give an inch
Whilst I am giving infinity
But now I’ve got nothing left
You have no cares and I’m bereft
After becoming “dead inside”, they decide to throw their life away and join the army in Psycho, which is built around a catchy outro riff Muse have played for years. The influence of the film Full Metal Jacket is clear on this song, with the drill instructor shouting that “your ass belongs to me now”, turning the character into a “killing machine”. Psycho is sure to be a mosh-pit favourite. After such a belting song, Mercy is definitely the weakest single on the album. It’s a tamer version of Starlight, although it is slightly relieved by its heavy chorus which sounds great live.
The heaviest tracks on the album, Reapers and The Handler, are a throw-back to Muse’s tone on 2003’s Absolution and 2001’s Origin of Symmetry. Reapers begins with a buzzsaw tapping guitar intro in the style of Yngwie Malmsteen, before transitioning into insane whammy pedal solos and meaty riffs. The heavy outro is a clear homage to Rage Against The Machine’s Freedom, as distorted background vocals shout “here come the drones!” It’s also the most directly political of the album’s songs, with the protagonist addressing their concerns over the future of drone warfare. It’s followed by the looming drums and dark riff of The Handler, clearly evoking the Absolution era of Muse with a hammer-on solo reminiscent of In Your World, as they comes to reject being controlled and rebel.
After the heavy drumming and crunchy riffs of Reapers and The Handler, the album takes a turn both musically and narratively, sampling JFK’s speech to journalists after Cuba’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion as an intro to Defector. It’s clear to see how JFK’s denouncement of the Soviet Union could apply to contemporary political events such as the Snowden leaks:
Its preparations are concealed, not published,
Its mistakes are buried, not headlined,
Its dissenters are silenced, not praised.
[JFK] marks a transition from oppression and despair to all-out revolution, with the belting, undoubtedly Queen inspired vocals on Defector. Revolt is stadium pop-rock at its best, with rapid climbs into falsetto choruses and a screaming guitar solo. The album’s main story is brought to a conclusion with Aftermath, which transitions from mellow Pink Floyd-esque guitar into Muse’s strongest power ballad so far. It’s the polar opposite of Dead Inside, as the hero finds love in the midst of the revolution.
The final tracks on the album, The Globalist and Drones, feel like an alternative ending, both musically and in terms of the story. At 10 minutes long, The Globalist, a spiritual successor to Citizen Erased, is initially reminiscent of Western film soundtracks composed by Ennio Morricone, with a melodic whistled introduction accompanied by a clean electric guitar rhythm that morphs into a softly galloping acoustic guitar punctuated by slide guitar. The lyrics mirror the main story of the album, with Bellamy describing a person who feels abandoned, unloved and alone, eventually becoming a power-hungry dictator who nearly destroys the world. It’s at this point the track shifts into overdrive, with a heavy drop-A guitar riff and an electronic voice counting down, presumably to nuclear war, before the track drifts into a final piano and strings section, ending with the dictator lamenting that “I just needed to be loved”. The album concludes with Drones, a multi-layered acapella track, which represents a novel direction for Muse.
When Muse began releasing the album’s singles, many criticised the song’s simple lyrics, especially on Dead Inside and Mercy. Bellamy has never been highly regarded as a lyricist (this is the man who gave us the line “stretch it like it’s a birth squeeze” on one of the band’s best songs) and it’s initially off-putting when you count the number of times the words “drones” and “babe” pop up on each track. Though this initial reaction is perhaps unfair, as Drones showcases some clever lyrics from Bellamy, such as the “trance formation” (sung: “transformation”) line from The Handler and the vivid description on Defector, with Bellamy criticising those with a “yellow belly”, “green mind” and “blue blood”.
Drones is, dare I say, Muse’s strongest album in years. Fans and new listeners will come to the album for songs such as Reapers and The Handler, but will stay for Aftermath and The Globalist. It’s an album you can, and should, listen to from start to finish, as clearly a lot of thought has gone into the track listing. While the album’s initial conspiratorial concept of drone warfare is weak, evoking the “evil government” paranoia many adopt when they first enter politics (myself included), the story grows to express concerns over the psychology of indoctrination, defection and revolution. Stripping away the electronic influences and string sections which feature on recent albums, Drones is a return to the massive and raw sound of their earlier albums.