Imagine eating a gigantic chocolate cake in one sitting. At first, it takes delicious. “Oh my god, the CHOCOLATE! The SPONGE! The BUTTERCREAM!” It’s still good after a few more mouthfuls. However, the more you eat, the more uncomfortable you feel, and by the end you just want it to go away due to how sick it’s made you feel.
Listening to Drones, the seventh Muse album, takes one along a similar trajectory. After a couple of LPs that explored fighting back against The Man and panicking over the ever-diminishing lack of resources, singer and lyricist Matt Bellamy has turned his attention to drones. He’s done a bit of light reading into the subject, and you know what? They’re awful! Who knew! Next he will be asking what war is good for. That said, regardless of what you think of the concept (that the narrative that runs throughout the 12 tracks is preposterous, that it’s really a covert album about his break-up with Kate Hudson, that it would make the most ridiculously insane stage musical, etc.), this distils almost all of their good qualities into a surprisingly concise record.
After the vicious electropop leanings of opener Dead Inside, Psycho blares out of the speakers with a riff of such force that it makes you mercifully forget all the hit-and-miss experimentation that dominated The Resistance and The 2nd Law. Guitars are at the forefront in a gigantic way, even in the record’s poppier moments. Mercy has a piano line that echoes U2‘s City Of Blinding Lights, but the chugging choruses are meatier and tougher.
Then come the best two tracks by quite some distance. Reapers is a monster of a tune that has all of the genre trademarks – widdly noises, solos that last at least a minute, crushing riffs and an outro that, whilst borrowing far more than is strictly necessary from Rage Against The Machine, is heavy with a captial H. The Handler follows this – initially a slow-burning creature, it accelerates at pace in a way that recalls the Absolution days.
If this was an EP, it would be a career highlight. Sadly, the second half happens. Not that it’s terrible by any means, but it doesn’t quite have the thrills of what came before it. After a re-purposed JFK speech comes Defector – a rousing anthem that is firmly placed on Queen Mode the whole way through. It’s good fun though. Meanwhile, if you ever wondered what a combination The Killers‘ All These Things That I’ve Done and U2’s With Or Without You with a pinch of Glee would sound like, there’s the chorus of Revolt.
But the final three songs are what really stops Drones from being a career highlight. Aftermath, with its Pink Floyd aesthetics, is a lighters-in-the-air tune that feels a little tame. Then there’s The Globalist – a 10-minute epic that drags out the Ennio Morricone intro a bit too much, turns into a terrifying and rumbling metal instrumental and then veers towards classical piano balladry. This kind of thing has worked for Muse before, but on a record that is all about being succinct, it’s a major misstep. At least the title track is a bit more focused, but it’s also a bizarre conclusion – consisting of just Bellamy’s vocals as he finishes the story. Words can’t really do it justice.
So, in summary, Drones is utterly bonkers and silly. And yet, it’s for the most part enjoyable. There are so many reasons not to like this album – its overblown pomposity, its ham-fisted lyrics, the concept itself, the fact that ‘drones’ is mentioned so many times that you could invent a whole drinking game out of it – but it’s hard to resist its grandiosity and sheer lunacy. It was widely reported months ago that Muse wanted to go back to basics. The end result is a band trying to get back to their core three-piece sound whilst at the same time embracing some of the operatic tendencies that have served them well over the years. It’s almost a success, even if they’re having their cake and eating it.