Since they first entered the musical landscape in 1999 with the progressive rock-buster “Showbiz”, the guys from Muse have consistently helped reform, revitalise and reshape the sound of modern music. Some might even call them the Queen of the millennial generation. No matter how you feel about their grandiose production choices and sometimes excessively experimental approach to their music, you can’t turn away from the fact that they are one of the most innovative and ambitious artists still waving the flag for larger-than-life concept albums. Last time they tried to push the envelope was on the 2012 release “The 2nd Law”, for which they received both praise and criticism for the varied flirtation with everything from dubstep, arena rock and electronica, to tightly orchestrated string sections and funky bass-lines. Now the trio is back with yet another attempt to take rock n’ roll to new heights. The project is called “Drones”, and is a welcomed return to form for the british musicians, who soar in more ways than one would expect.
As with most Muse albums, the songs are thematically strung together by an overall concept, telling a story in some shape or form. In this case, the subject is drone warfare and its relation to human empathy. The ways in which we allow autonomous machines to make crucial decisions as to whether or not life is to be taken away is a terrifying thought. I mean, how can you in good conscious kill people thousands of miles away, using only a remote control? How can you sit behind a desk in a clean office space and play god with real people’s lives like they were 2-dimensional characters in a video game? It even goes as far as using the current drone technology as a metaphor for the relationship between humans, and the album cover perfectly reflects that metaphor with some rather chilling artwork by american artist Matt Mahurin. The idea of the hand controlling a handle in a suit controlling another handle is really scary to think about, because isn’t it true that we all in some way are trapped in systems bigger than ourselves? That a higher force is sitting comfortably somewhere, making us think that what we do is for the greater good of society, when in reality it’s not? It’s the illusion of freedom that fuels this conspiracy theory, which is now more relevant than ever.
Unlike most other entries in the band’s discography, “Drones” is not just a loose concept. It actually has a story-arch, a structure, and god forbid a little honesty. All throughout the 12 tracks we follow a man as he loses his humanity and becomes indoctrinated and brainwashed into a mindless killing device, before eventually breaking free from his oppressors and regaining his empathy and compassion. The opener “Dead Inside” is pretty self-explanatory, describing a character who has lost his ability to feel anything. He has become cynical and cold inside, just like the mechanic clockwork-rhythm of the song itself. He is vulnerable and weak, and that is when “Drill Sergeant” and “Psycho” come into the picture, turning our protagonist into a sheer killer with no other goal than causing destruction and pain in the name of his handler. This is also the point where we get our first real taste of the heaviness that awaits. The riff is explosive and distorted, and the bass is thick and punchy, just they way we like it; hard, aggressive, politically charged, and full of ferocious energy.
“Mercy” continues the story with a symphonic piano melody and stadium rock drumming, as we learn that our hero is becoming increasingly aware of his own internal demise. “Show me mercy from the powers that be”, Bellamy sings in his signature falsetto range, conveying deep frustration and feelings of powerlessness and manipulation. The last piece of his humanity is being extracted from him, and this song is his cry for forgiveness for whatever he may do in the future. After that we go straight into darkness with the guitar-driven headbanger “Reaper”, talking specifically about the usage of military drones in the war on terrorism. “The Handler” takes it one step further, harkening back to the old-school Muse sound, painting a horrifying picture of the relationship between the oppressor and his meat puppet. Then something happens with the inclusion of an old JFK speech, preaching about communism vs. the free world. The sound becomes less brooding and the lyrics become more optimistic. Queen influences start to seep into the compositions, leading off with “Defector”, a rock-opera inferno of rebellious resistance that transitions into the equally energetic but more accessible “Revolt”.
“Aftermath” provides a nice break from the otherwise apocalyptic and Orwellian feel of the rest of the album. It’s one of the longer cuts on “Drones”, but despite being relatively slow in pace, it proves to be one of the highlights on the disc. It’s soulful and bluesy in all the best ways, oozing with tenderness and hunger for peace. The battle has been fought, our hero is free at last, and he is tired of fighting and wants nothing more than to go home to the ones he loves. “The Globalist” clocks in at a lengthy 10 minutes and 7 seconds, summarising the entire journey of the protagonist, from his doubts about his own independence to becoming a self-thinking individual who doesn’t have to follow orders. The song itself is perhaps a little too tightly wound in parts, but the interesting thing about it is that it doesn’t give us a clear answer as to whether our main character ultimately will remain free or end up as the very thing he sought to fight. It’s all very ambiguous and up in the air, as the album closes with the title track; a 16th century renaissance church choir tune with 4 different vocals layered on top of each other, mourning the loss of all those who died at the hand of selfishness, lust, greed and hate. It leaves you haunted, contemplating the meaning of it all.