Sound — 8
Welcome to "Drones," soldier. This is album number seven for Muse, who are, perhaps, one of the more notable "arena" bands and also perhaps, with one of the biggest albums of the year.
I'll start off by saying, my experience with Muse has been admittedly "little to none," but my experience with who they influence is something I've only just noticed (on a side note, check out "The Congregation" by Leprous and you'll hear what I mean).
As such, I like to think I'm approaching this in the right way, as someone who's a big fan of things that challenge the norm and as someone who'd give the mainstream a chance if it actually had anything good to offer. I think "Drones" does that. But what is it actually like?
So, we're starting off with "Dead Inside," an unabashed electro-rock piece that brings the '80s synth cheese like it's actually in fashion (begs the question, was cheese ever in fashion?). Note that this is also one of the many singles from this album and given how it kind of drops its rather punctuated, minimalist, groovy drive around the midway mark for what is undeniably the dreaded 4-chord progression, it's no surprise they'd want to get the flak out of the way. Not to say it's terrible, but I'm beginning to see why many might be initially turned off by this record.
However, this is not, in any way, what the album as a whole sounds like. I'm not ultra familiar with Muse's early 2000's work, but what I've heard indicates that the next track, "Psycho," would fit on something like "Origin of Symmetry" if it had a production overhaul: everything's based on this hilariously catchy riff that hits the right grooves with the precision you'd have come to expect from a veteran touring band. It's such a shift from "Dead Inside" that you'd think you were listening to a different album entirely.
Then you run into "Mercy," undoubtedly the weakest song on the album. Unashamedly cringe inducing in its cheese and style, and not something I'd recommend. Hang on, third single in a row? Whatcha playing me for, Muse? Don't think I have the patience for the rest of your album?
If anything, this pattern shows how the band is influenced by their fan base. All that the first 6 songs basically want to showcase is pretty much everything the band has done or can do in a painfully short amount of time. Really, they just want to throw singles at a wall and see which ones will stick. I'll tell you which one does for me, and that's "Reapers." People might call it garish or bombastic or "too guitar driven" (as if that's ever a bad thing), but I say this is probably one of the strongest songs Muse has written, speaking as a non-Muse-fan. It has what I can only describe as the heaviest breakdown you've heard all year. It's the only popular song I've heard in what feels like forever that has actual guitar leads (really tasty Malmsteen-esque tapping). It's certainly my most favourite track on the album. I'd say that the other singles, apart from perhaps "Psycho," are some of the weaker parts of the album and you'd be doing yourself a pleasure by giving the second half a chance.
I could honestly ramble on about what's actually great in this album, like the super '70s prog bassline of semi-ballad "Aftermath" and the really powerful, dropped-tuned build up of classically-respectful ten minute wonder "The Globalist," but that might be spoiling it. Their general theme of "pop-prog" is incredibly engaging, and I'm pretty much sold.
Production/mix wise... I mean, I get that if you've already done the electronic/influence thing (i.e. "The 2nd Law") you kind of need a bit of consistency, but I think it pervades a bit much on "Drones." Most notable in the overall drum sound, which is very "modeled" sounding, it's not that in itself which is the bad part, it's that you've got this incredibly rock driven album with a great human feel to it but then suddenly this rather at-odds, electronic-ish drum sound starts bursting through the mix. It's just something that doesn't quite work, given the genre. However, that's actually my only real gripe. The production is just overall fantastic, where pretty much everything fits in and blends comfortably with each other.
Lyrics — 7
A lot of people are at odds with Muse entirely for Mat Bellamy's particular voice. Obviously, if that's what dissuaded you previously, then you're probably not going to enjoy this album much. I, for one, think he has a certain Freddie Mercury-esque flair and think that the actual Queen vibe of the vocals is not a bad thing. As ever, Bellamy delivers his impassioned, theatrical performance that is so demanded by their instrumentals (also, the Shining (NOR) style distorted vocals on certain tracks are frickin' great). I find little fault in the performance, aside from whatever possible, personal tonal preference could arise.
Lyrically, this is one of the more notable things about this album, and probably the biggest clash I have with it. The drone concept is represented both as the (somewhat) topical flying machines of death and as an allegory for anyone who is basically a part of the governmental system (i.e. pretty much everyone, right?). The main fault here is that this narrative concept is not portrayed with any kind of "hard-hitting" power through the lyrical themes. By all means, do listen to "21st Century Schizoid Man" for some actual mastery in this area.
I'd like to bring up a Tom Waits track as an example, "Hell Broke Luce." It tells of an army officer who could not deal with the horrors of war after coming home and Waits' retelling, revitalizing and respect for the reality-based story. I feel as though "Drones" is portrayed in the same way as a particularly blustery musical or as a concept two stoned guys came up with and it got way out of hand ("hey, dude... what if... what if drones, can also mean us..." "That's deep, dude"). Not to belittle the vocalist's other talents, but I think this subject was approached with some sort of flippancy in "Drones," like it was just something to get people talking rather than a fully immersive concept.
Overall Impression — 8
Well, overall, this album is pretty strong, possibly their strongest? Not sure, but certainly the most inclusive. I can say that don't be too lead on by the singles, give the stronger second half a chance. I appreciate that Muse are at a position where they can actually do very popular music and still be able to include the generally "un-pop" things that the mainstream is lacking a fair bit of.
Also, if you know you don't like Muse, you probably still won't like Muse.
Songs to look out for: "Reapers," "The Handler," "Defector," "The Globalist."