Hello? Does anyone know what’s going on with Muse? They’ve been steadily reaching for an overdramatic, over-elaborate, over-theatrical (borderline self-parodic) version of themselves since 2009’s Resistance. And all of a sudden comes Drones, a concept album about modern warfare, World War III, dehumanisation (blah, blah, blah) that, if one were to anthropomorphise it, could be called a certified conspiracy nut. And you have Matt Bellamy yowling “Your ass belongs to me now” on Psycho, which is really quite ridiculous in his pitch-perfect delivery. Then again, Muse have never been great practitioners of the art of subtlety, with words or music — quite the opposite — so expecting nuance is futile.
And while it’s tempting to bemoan the decline of a band that promised plenty, Drones is in fact a return to the belting Muse songwriting of the past. The excess and in-your-faceness of the music is not for everyone, but Bellamy happens to be an exquisite guitar player — and a skilled singer with a phenomenal range — with an ear for a smashing hook, both with chorus lines and cracking riffs. Drones sort of returns to that big, dynamic, catchy, heavy pop song template the band created for themselves (Supermassive Black Hole possibly the most recognisable) and songs such as Dead Inside, Psycho, Mercy, The Handler, Revolt and Rage Against the Machine clone Reapers all have that vivid sing-along-and-jump/arena rock quality to them.
What defines Drones in the end, though, is not the singles or the involved concept of the record, but its unpredictability and weirdness. “Bonkers” is a word that’s been thrown about, and with good reason. There are little samples running around about being a “psycho killer”, an extended passage of whistling on a 10-minute song (The Globalist), an a capella, harmony-laden title track. There is rabid energy (The Handler), trademark bass fuzz and frantic arpeggiated guitar bits, grooves opening up, falsettos and deep hums tangling. Mammoth choruses, out of place breakdowns. Sometimes, you shouldn’t get too close and judge; it’s best to just put on protective glasses, maintain a safe enough distance, and admire from afar, like welding.