Sound — 9
Having previously released one of my favorite albums of 2012 ("The 2nd Law," a nod to the thermodynamic principle that in a closed system neither receiving nor losing energy from an outside source, said system will become increasingly disorganized over time until there is a uniform distribution of energy and work can no longer be done), Muse is back to win my heart again in 2015 with their 7th studio album, "Drones."
"Drones" provides even more of the same Queen-meets-Radiohead Brit-prog as before, though interestingly foregoing some of the more electronic elements from the previous album. I may have thought this forfeiture of overt variety might hinder the album's impact and intrigue; but though the result seems almost less varied, they manage to keep things fresh even without incorporating more varied styles into their songwriting.
As such, "Drones" initially feels to be a more focused, congruent album overall than "The 2nd Law," doling out fantastic riffs, searing leads, and soaring melodies left and right while maintaining a very solid, impressive structure of hard-grooving, hard-hitting hard-rock.
Matthew Bellamy's voice is as it ever was, and with a rich vibrato and strong emotional presence, he belts out huge choruses and and falsetto verse melodies impressively over the course of the first eight tracks (not including the two "intermission" like tracks, "[Drill Sargeant]" and "[JFK]"), and even providing a fantastic final two-minutes and forty-nine seconds of rich, choir-like melodies reminiscent of the way A Perfect Circle concluded their 2004 release "eMotive" with a rich, layere, vocal-harmony solo-delivery of Joni Mitchell's "The Fiddle and the Drum." This closing track, the titular "Drones," is a fantastic showcase of Bellamy's vocal talent and compositional competence, and is a relaxing and wonderful way to close an otherwise rhythmically-powerful, hard-rocking record.
Other stand-out tracks for me include "Reapers" and "The Handler," tracks #5 & #6, which are my personal favorite tracks on the album as of writing.
"Reapers" features a fantastic main riff which makes use of a tapping lick rather reminiscent of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher," some wonderful, heavy, fantastically driving single-note riffs leading into and rocking underneath the chorus, as well as an awesome guitar solo from Bellamy, which makes frequent use of a whammy pedal throughout in a very Tom Morello-like way in order to shift his leads up and down, adding an extra dimension to Bellamy's trademark buzz-saw lead tone and expanding the licks, tones, and phrases into exciting places.
"The Handler" features a heavy, slow-burning groove, punctuated by Dominic Howard's drum beats. The melody is typical Muse, contrasting heavily with the the heavy, driving beat of the drums and the carrying pulse of the guitar and bass, with Bellamy providing a dreamy vocal scape to frame the choral synths and gritty bass tone with echoing falsettos and emotive vibrato. The bridge shifts the song into double-time, as if the song found itself beset by a predator and suddenly sprinting for its life, with a tense hammer-on lick reminiscent of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," for lack of a more tonally appropriate comparison.
The production is very clean, smooth, and deep, and the composition is full, interesting, and very well-done. Listening intently through headphones without distraction is almost a totally different experience from listening in the car while driving, or as the soundtrack to a web-surfing session. Listening more closely reveals a lot more neat little details in the recording, much like MCR's "The Black Parade." There's a lot of cool stuff going on, with the guitar often playing backseat to the other instruments and providing textures and quiet accompaniment usually reserved for a synthesizer, and these details could be missed if you're not paying close enough attention to the recording.
The guitar tones are rich, the drums are succinct and punchy (though perhaps lacking a touch in terms of the weight behind the punch), and the bass is situated firmly in a supporting role between the drums and guitars, working to carry the rhythm with the drums while helping the guitar to provide a firm base for the keyboards and vocals. There are some great tones on this album, from the gritty, fuzzy bass tones on "Dead Inside" to the AWESOME octave-fuzz guitar tones on "Mercy," the full, reverb soaked call-and-answer of the slow, calm guitar-work on "The Globalist," and the searing, floopy (for lack of a better term) sounds of the whammy pedal during the fantastic guitar solo on "Reapers."
Muse's sound on this new album is altogether a bit more focused than their last release, and though I have yet to decide, that solidarity of tone and style may end up making the record stick more firmly in the memory of its listeners as a whole, rather than as a few singles and "that dubstep track," as "The 2nd Law" did.
Lyrics — 8
Imagine if "1984" were written by somebody with a bigger interest in exploring the human side of things rather than illustrating the frightening implications of allowing governments too much control over their citizens.
That's the impression I get from the lyrics in general. It's hard for me to speak very specifically on them, because everyone might interpret them a little differently, or some people might not understand potential allusions, or maybe the songs are meant to tell a story, or maybe they're not all connected, or maybe they're not in chronological order, or SOMETHING, but that makes it difficult to say, really.
The lyrics here are competent. There is emotion, there is some slight narrative, and the rhyme and rhythm aren't so lazy that it has the impression of being trite or cliché.
Overall Impression — 8
Compared to Muse's past efforts (that I'm familiar with), "Drones" is a *very* competent offering. The tracks are fairly distinct, interesting, fun to listen to, and well-composed. The lyrics are great and worth reading along while you listen if you can't make them out well enough on your own in order to more fully realize the pieces.
My personal favorite, stand-out tracks, what I think to be the best representations of what this album offers, and the tracks I would share with a friend in order to convince them to purchase the album are "Reapers," "The Handler," "Dead Inside," and the fantastic a-capella closer, "Drones."
I love Muse's musical identity here. They build these rich soundscapes over simple, driving riffs, and hammer home the emotions and grooves by opening them up into huge, soaring choruses.
Muse is like the musical blend of Queen, Radiohead, and Daft Punk, and they rock just as hard as that makes it sound like they do.
If I lost this album, I would buy it again in a heartbeat. My only problem with the CD is the small, hard-paper case is a square with a side length only about as long as the diameter of the CD, so if you put it on a shelf with the rest of your CD collection, the edge will be sunk in around a half-an-inch compared to the full-size jewel-cases on either side of it and difficult to read.
Any fans of Muse would do well to pick this one up, as would any fan of broody, hard-rocking alternative, or driving arena rock. Muse really put in a great effort with this disc, and it's a great showcase of their collective talent, and of their performing and songwriting abilities.