Since Black Sabbath’s War Pigs and Iron Man, hard rock has enjoyed warily eyeing the interface between robotics and warfare, themes generally untouched by the more house-trained species of pop music.
For their seventh album, Teignmouth trio Muse have grasped this paranoid sub-genre with both hands, riffing on a tendency already glimpsed on albums such as 2009’s The Resistance and 2003’s Absolution.
Never a band to shy away from a prog-rock statement, Muse’s Drones is a concept album about remote killing machines, dehumanised drones in thrall to authority – psychotic soldiers, and the rest of us – and the possibility of sedition through love. It’s heavy on Orwellian vibes, the grand gestures of Queen, and the fancy fretwork of singing guitarist Matt Bellamy, whose neuroses about control (or, really, his lack of it) have sold a tidy 17m albums to date, making Muse one of the biggest rock bands in the world, one who finally found themselves on the cusp of cracking the US with their last album, 2012’s The 2nd Law.
The mechanical elephant in the secret control bunker, however, is the Bellamy’s breakup of Bellamy’s relationship with the American actor Kate Hudson, with whom he has a three-year-old son. The tension between what Drones says it is – a threnody for those anonymous souls killed in faraway lands by joystick jockeys – and its subplot – love dying – first rears its head on Dead Inside, a nagging first single in which it is not clear who exactly is dead inside, the concept album’s protagonist, or two people reducing each other to husks. At once operatic – Bellamy’s falsetto – and punchy – a thwacking beat – it finds Muse confining their often elaborate sound to just drums, bass, guitar and the odd electronic flourish.
The whole album is meant to be a back-to-basics exercise, stepping away from extraneous string sections and EDM, one that none the less finds room for a closing chorale (the title track), a speech by John F Kennedy decrying the sneaky methods of communists, and a 10-minute, several-part denouement called The Globalist, in which our hero seems to go nuclear. At no point do Muse deliver a new anthem to rival their most outré song, Knights of Cydonia (off 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations) or their slinkiest moment, Supermassive Black Hole (ditto). On the eve of the band’s 20th anniversary, titanium-grade super-producer Mutt Lange (AC/DC’s Back in Black, much of Def Leppard’s oeuvre) does not seem to have coaxed a truly game-changing album out of the trio. Bellamy’s lyrics can be trite (“Yeah I’m free/From society,” declares The Defector) and the longer the album goes on, the more confusing the plotline becomes.
There’s a glaring missed opportunity here to incorporate more musical drone, a rich seam of elegiac, heavy music. Aftermath does start with a faintly eastern hum – the calm after the storm of Revolt, the previous track – but the moment quickly passes.
Psycho, though, has a persuasive glam swagger to it that recalls both Depeche Mode (say, Personal Jesus) and Marilyn Manson (the scary whispery bits)., The pacy Reapers, in which Bellamy unleashes both his inner Yngwie Malmsteen and a series of meaty riffs, once again exposes the overlap between the unfeeling destruction of drone warfare and the unfeeling destruction wroughat by people tearing each other apart (although press reports stress the parting is amicable). Drones is, in these places, fist-pumpingly ace; a timely restatement of the need for popular music to evoke both thought and dopamine rush.
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