When The 2nd Law dropped in 2012, long-term Muse fans were conflicted: it had some of the swagger and grandeur we had all come to know and love of the alt-rock superstars, and it came with some, excuse me, “absolute bangers”. But it also contained a few songs that exhibited a questionable new direction for Bellamy and Co: really boring songs. Some of the songs were clearly developed to work behind a big-budget music video or in a packed football stadium, and as a result were lacking that key ingredient that made Origin of Symmetry and Absolution so good: interesting musical ideas. Drones continues to develop this new style, in that with a runtime of almost an hour, it contains almost nothing that can be branded interesting or worthwhile, in terms of the music, the “concept”, or the performances. Muse have become a caricature of themselves: they have taken the elements of their music that made them popular, reduced them to their barest possible forms, and run them through a computer. Drones is the result.
Let us begin with ‘Psycho’, which has been the lead-in to Drones for many, as the trio have been playing it live in parts for years. This is not just an interesting piece of trivia: this is emblematic of much of what is wrong with Drones. ‘Psycho’ hangs on a mediocre dad-rock riff, repeated ad nauseam, and the falsetto vocals which Matt once dusted over Muse tracks but now uses as a way of saying “the chorus is here!” It also contains a guest appearance from an angry Drill Instructor, who provides about as much originality and validity to the song’s message as a guest spot from Bono or Sting. That being said, I can imagine a stadium full of fans bobbing their head to the riff quite contentedly, distracted by the giant balloons and the “risqué” swearing in the chorus (the message is that important) and not caring a jot about the collapse of Muse’s reputation as interesting musicians.
For the most part, the album follows this model. The opener, ‘Dead Inside’, doesn’t even have the dad-rock riff, but sounds almost exactly like ‘Madness’ from The 2nd Law, an equally bland Queen rip-off. ‘Mercy’, ‘Aftermath’ and ‘Revolt’ really are quite dreadful, and sound like they could have been written for any modern pop-rock outfit: their only purpose seems to be to drive the “concept” element of the album on towards what little conclusion there is. ‘Reapers’, now decked out with its very own anti-drone music video (they really have thrown any subtlety in the nearest skip here), is undeniably catchy, but ends with an unremittingly immature half-time reprise that boggles the mind when trying to reconcile this with the same band’s earlier work. Yes, it really was the same band back then.
The only tracks deserving of any mention in a context other than abject disgust are ‘The Handler’ and ‘The Globalist’, which are interesting perhaps only because they are set alongside such unremarkable material. The former has a genuinely cool riff that, admittedly, could have easily appeared on Absolution or Black Holes and Revelations, matched with classic Bellamy vocal stylings and some interesting little falsetto improvisations. ‘The Globalist’ harks back to ‘Citizen Erased’ and the trio’s other more progressive efforts (it even has a tumbleweed intro like ‘Knights of Cydonia’), running over ten minutes and containing a wealth of genre-fluid sections. It’s interesting, but it’s out of place, too long and does very little but mark time until the abortive choral mess of the title track and closer, ‘Drones’.
Finally, a note on performances and production: Matt’s vocals, even in their current caricatured form, are now the only thing to come to a Muse album for. Dom Howard, who once wrote iconic drum grooves like ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘Muscle Museum’, is reduced to a sample machine on Drones. He plays literally not one worthwhile groove or fill, and every iota of life has been squeezed out of his kit in the mix: for all I know, they might have used Superior Drummer instead so he could have a holiday in the Bahamas. Something similar goes for the usually prominent Chris Wolstenholme, who took more of a lead role on The 2nd Law, and as a result seems to have been benched for the follow-up. And finally, a nerdy plea to Mr Bellamy: Matt, your guitars do not sound good. The grating fuzzy feedback style has been done to death, and you aren’t an edgy underground alt-rocker anymore. Please purchase (or rather, get sent, in bulk, for free by any amplifier manufacturer who will ship internationally) an amplifier with a good drive channel. Signed, a Muse fan who cares.
As film critic Mark Kermode would say in this situation, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed”. If they write another one like this, I might be angry yet.