When Muse announced their return by means of Psycho’s mental redneck riffage, many assumed that the Teignmouth trio had stuck to their promise and gone back to their simple, three-piece rock format. Although new studio album Drones has done that to a certain extent, it still sees Matt Bellamy and co. add layer upon layer of bombast and grandeur to their already eclectic sound. Drones is a concept album, with frontman Bellamy describing it as the “journey of a human, from his abandonment and loss of hope, to his indoctrination by the system to be a human drone and eventual defection from his oppressors”.
The record opens on Dead Inside’s grand electro pop, a world which most Muse fans had already said their goodbye’s to following the release of lead single Psycho. Its electronic drum beat, wispy synth line and Matt Bellamy’s euphoric vocals all intertwine seamlessly to make way for an emotion-laden outro. “You taught me to lie without a trace, and to kill with no remorse” wails Bellamy towards the end, before the track comes to a sudden end courtesy of Dominic Howard’s drums and a robotic voice. Dead Inside may portray a whole story in itself, yet it’s merely the building blocks for a whole adventure which Drones’ main protagonist experiences. He’s lead into a dark place after his loss of love, with interlude Drill Sergeant and comeback track Psycho brainwashing him to become a psycho killer. “Love, it will get you nowhere” sings Bellamy ahead of a riff which first surfaced back in 1999. That Muse have taken a 16 year old riff and morphed it into a fully-fledged monster of a track is something you have to credit the Devon three-piece for, particularly when the track is as powerful as this one is. It perfectly portrays the brainwashing which Drones’ protagonist undergoes, eventually recognizing that he has lost something on new single Mercy. “Show me mercy from the powers that be” sings Bellamy during its chorus, with the melody line and general structure resembling that of 2006’s Starlight. Mercy bears one of the strongest choruses on the album, encompassing everything that a Muse chorus should feature – thundering guitars, pounding drums and Matt Bellamy’s instantly recognizable falsetto á la Queen.
By this point on Drones, the protagonist has lost love, been brainwashed and realized that he has lost himself. Reapers goes on to deepen the story further by having the protagonist be sent to war by his bosses. The six-minute long song features some of Matt Bellamy’s best guitar work in years, something which is evident all the way from its opening tapping sequence through to its chaotic ending. “You’ve got the CIA, babe” sings Bellamy through a vocoder during the chorus, later on pulling a massive solo out of the bag. Although a majority of Reapers definitely flies the Rage Against the Machine flag, a clear AC/DC influence also makes a passing appearance. This is mainly down to producer Mutt Lange, who produced the Australian rockers classic Back in Black album. The Handler follows, presenting itself as the darkest track on Drones. A menacingly brooding riff holds the whole track together, as the protagonist begins the process of fighting back against those in charge of him. “Now you are my handler, and I will execute your commands” starts Bellamy during the verse, before asking to be “left alone” during the chorus. A massive falsetto enters the frame later on, before the track builds up and intensifies drastically. The Handler definitely resembles earlier Muse cuts, in particular 1999’s Showbiz and early 2000’s B Side In Your World. “I won’t let you control my feelings anymore” declares Bellamy at the start of the build-up, his voice bubbling up in intensity as he wails, “you will never own me again”. It brings Drones to its halfway point, both musically and conceptually.
The protagonist begins his transition during JFK, in which an old Kennedy speech is used to represent the situation between protagonist and antagonist. As his short speech comes to an end, swirling strings and fleeting guitar chugs enter the frame and lead straight into the pounding Defector. Defector sees the protagonist once again free to do as he pleases, something which Bellamy declares during the chorus by way of Queen-esque falsettos. “Free, yeah I’m free from society” he sings, before later adding, “you can’t brainwash me, you’ve got a problem”. The track is upbeat for the most part, encompassing a heavy riff and Chris Wolstenholme’s distorted bass. Wolstenholme is Drones’ unsung hero, his powerful basslines being more prominent than ever before. Revolt subsequently sees the protagonist believe in himself, adding an extremely positive tone to the record. The track kicks off with police sirens and gang chants, yet these noises are quickly suppressed by simple power chords, buzzing synths and a happy-go-lucky chorus. It may sound rather un-Muse, but Revolt is still enough to put a huge smile on anyone’s face. “You’ve got strength, you’ve got soul” claims Bellamy during the chorus, before accompanying this with a falsetto-d “you can grow, you can revolt”. The chorus could just as easily be lifted from Muse’s debut record, 1999’s Showbiz, with the guitars once again demonstrating Mutt Lange’s influence. As the track comes to a vibrant end, it makes way for Drones’ power ballad, Aftermath. This is the point on Drones where the protagonist once again finds love, reassuring his lover that they’ll “never be alone”. The song encompasses a Gregorian chant during the intro, with Bellamy’s brooding guitar lines quickly entering the frame. It bears many resemblances to U2’s One, something which is definitely not a surprise considering Muse’s longstanding reliance on U2-esque elements. “I am coming home now, I need your comfort” sings Bellamy pre-chorus, before serene strings accompany a Rod Stewart-esque chorus. The track takes a while to build up, eventually coming to a huge climax.
Penultimate album track The Globalist (also dubbed Citizen Erased Part II) may signify that Drones is nearing its end, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Spanning 10 minutes, The Globalist is one of Muse’s most progressive and encapsulating works yet. The track describes the rise and fall of Drones’ antagonist (and subsequent confrontation by the protagonist) by way of three separate sections. The first section encompasses a whistled Ennio Morricone melody and Pink Floyd-esque guitar lines, both of which eventually make way for Bellamy’s vocals. “You were never truly loved” sings Bellamy, before continuing, “you have only been betrayed”. This is sung from the antagonists’ point of view, using the imminent downfall of society as a way of confronting the defected protagonist. As the first section comes to a close, a huge metal riff and chanted vocals enter the frame to ramp up the intensity levels. It’s here that a fight scene is staged, with a female voice counting down from 10 to 0 as drone rockets are launched. Once the rockets have been launched, the riffs get heavier and it’s very clear that Muse are back at their absolute best. Society has been diminished, and Bellamy makes note of this as he mourns his losses. “There’s no culture left to love and cherish” he wails over a glorious sounding string section as it’s made clear that the protagonist and antagonist are the only survivors. “It’s you and me babe, survivors to hunt and gather memories of the great nation we were”. It’s by far the most beautiful moment on the album, perfectly demonstrating Muse’s sublime musical ability. The end of the song sees a lighters-in-the-air moment surface as the antagonist sings of needing “to be loved”. If the end of The Globalist doesn’t make you cry, then something clearly must be wrong. As the song fades out, Bellamy’s soothing vocals enter the frame on album closer Drones, a three-minute long a cappella piece. The song consists of nothing more than layers upon layers of Bellamy’s vocals. “My mother, my father, my sister and my brother, killed by drones” goes Bellamy, before he asks, “can you feel anything? Are you dead inside?” The song may be a calm, vocal-only ending to the whole story, yet it showcases some of Bellamy’s best vocal work to date. The album subsequently ends on a harmonious “Amen”, which sees all of Bellamy’s voices come together to form one solid whole.
If there’s one thing that Drones has taught us, it’s that Muse are back to their absolute best and have just put out a full-on masterpiece. Everything about Drones is nigh-on perfect, from its concept all the way through to its instrumentation. It sees the reintroduction of elements which made Muse the band they were, as well as the introduction of elements which Muse can certainly use to their advantage on future recordings. It may not be an Origin of Symmetry just yet, but let’s keep in mind that that record also wasn’t considered a classic until a handful of years and successful tours later. Welcome back, Muse.