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Review: Even Muse’s Idea of ‘Back to Basics’ Is Complicated on ‘Drones’

SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: June 05, 2015
Label: Warner Bros. / Helium-3

Sometime after Muse released The 2nd Law — their nose-thumbing 2012 collection of dubstep dalliances, chopped vocal debris, and pure hubris — singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy had some second thoughts. “It was the first time we actually realized, ‘This is too far,'” he admitted in an interview with Q Magazine. But Muse’s brilliance, when they have been brilliant, is a result of their willingness to embrace both the absurd and the absurdly ambitious. The idea of retreating after their most stuffed-to-the-gills record seems like an uncharacteristic half-step for a band of Muse’s regal bloat.

So even though they’ve described their new album Drones as a “back-to-basics” effort, it’s important to remember that “basic” for Muse doesn’t mean anything close to no-frills. It’s a concept album about a man’s gradual awakening to the oppressions of modern society, soundtracked by the gleeful genre-hopping and totemic vocalizations that go hand-in-hand with their brand of guitar-driven prog. And as such, it’s only “basic” in the same way that one might consider a pair of sequined briefs a staple of a particularly garish wardrobe.

Like the best moments of the band’s now-expansive catalog, Drones largely uses guitar as the basis for melodic interplay that’s epic both in sound and scale — a line that’s picked up even from first moments of album opener “Dead Inside.”  Drummer Dominic Howard offers up some cavernous tom work that’d make Phil Collins proud,  then lets the track soar even higher on the back of Bellamy’s high-wire croon and the trapeze act of his anxious riffing. This tends to be the rule throughout Drones, but weighted down by the meaty work of legendary producer “Mutt” Lange (he of Back in Black bombast), Muse’s wings of wax and feather stay intact. Despite the fact that there’s some frayed synth-work in the margins (see “Mercy”) and detours into dystopian medieval chant (“Drones”), it still hearkens back to elastic prog-rock that the trio was making in their earliest days: explosive and unexpected.

What is expected for the band in the wake of their last couple of ostentatious records is an overarching lyrical narrative that focuses on overcoming some vague future threat of societal oppression. That’s certainly the case here, both for better and for worse. On one hand it makes sense that such a wonderfully overblown record would come with a dose of political sloganeering to match. Drones does so gleefully, by lambasting military aggression and sampling JFK speeches. But Bellamy veers occasionally into lyricism that’s only one thin layer of skin away from boneheaded. When he cries things like, “I’m free, I’m free, you can’t control me” (as on the chorus of “Defector”), Drones is too obvious by half.

But by now, Muse are already masters of everything overcooked and on-the-nose. The 2nd Law suffered because the band’s ideals were muddled in a number of scattershot sonic experiments, resulting in a record that was hard to stomach both for its sheer size and its occasionally goofy politics. Drones rights one of those problems, riding Lange’s monolithic production to their heady arena-rock manifest destiny. Even including the audiophile fetishism of Dave Grohl’s recent recording projects, there aren’t many radio-rock records that manage to sound as grand and dramatic as Drones.

This makes for something of a triumph for this multi-platinum outfit, even when Bellamy is writing big ballads called “Mercy” about “killing machines” and — someone call Death Grips —”the powers that be.” It’s a record full of fits and starts, baffling successes and giggly failures — at one turn, Drones will seem a savior for the world’s big, dumb stadium rock and at another it’ll be like a Queen record for dudes in Guy Fawkes masks.