Tuesday, June 9, 2015

album review: 'drones' by muse

There's no easy way to talk about Muse. Fans of the band love them for their genre-pushing style, their imagination, their technically potent melodic construction, and Matt Bellamy's uniquely powerful voice. Non-fans hate them for their lyrical pretentiousness or outright absurdity, their self-serious appropriation of progressive, alternative and arena rock tropes without getting the substance, their hyperbolic presentation, and Matt Bellamy's shameless caterwauling, especially in his high falsetto range.

In other words, they're a polarizing group - and unlike most, I tend to fall in the middle, in that they're not a bad group by any stretch of the mind, but they are definitely uneven for me. The odd issue for me across their first four records is that outside of the few songs they have on every album that are just goddamn amazing across the board, they tend to fall into an agreeable confort zone that can start to run together a little. This started to change around the mid-2000s, with the broader embrace of styles on records like Black Holes and Revelations, but it was also where my opinion on Muse tends to get more mixed. Yes, I can appreciate the genre-bending and the worship of progressive rock and especially Queen, but lyrically it often felt Muse was spiralling into a rabbit hole that was interestingly sketched but increasingly incoherent, and the band took themselves way too damn seriously to realize it. In other words, it's the exact same path that so much progressive rock took in its heyday, especially around the tail end of the 70s. Credit to Muse for always maintaining a distinctive sound in the face of going over the top in a half-dozen different genres, but by the time we hit The 2nd Law, I worried that I'd lose my ability to take the band remotely seriously, especially when they got political with the subtlety of a tactic air strike.

And on that topic, I can't tell you how sceptical I was about their upcoming record called Drones. On the one hand, I was a little fascinated that Muse was going for a 'back-to-basics' approach of all things, but I wasn't sure grabbing producer Mutt Lange, most known for producing albums from AC/DC's Highway To Hell and The Cars' Heartbeat City to Shania Twain's Come On Over and Nickelback's Dark Horse was the best way to do it. And let's be blunt, Muse does not do subtle or complex when in comes to their political material, and while I dug their populism, drone warfare and modern geopolitics are kind of hard to boil down into anthems for monstrous live sets. So did Muse pull it off?

To be blunt, no, they didn't. I completely get why people like this record - for those of you who were sick of Muse hopping genres with grand operatic flair and wanted them to make something more 'gritty' and serious, they certainly delivered with Drones. And as such, they've made one of the most punishingly colourless and bleak records I've heard in a long time that's too ponderous to be fun and yet has nowhere near the intellectual heft to earn its gravitas. Yes, there are solid heavy grooves and those have the chugging intensity you'd expect from a modern Mutt Lange album, but beyond that, Drones is easily one of the least enjoyable records I've heard from Muse and all the more evidence that populist swell is the only part of Muse's political material that works at all. 

But before we get to the massive elephant in the room that is the lyrics and themes, let's talk about instrumentation and production - and yeah, Muse wasn't kidding when they said they'd be going back to basics. Because for the first half of this album, the symphonic swell and off-kilter musical ideas are completely gone in favour of chugging, monochromatic distorted guitars, blocky percussion, and oily synth lines and electronic flourishes straight from a late-period Linkin Park album that certainly evoke a military atmosphere. And it helps that Matt Bellamy still can write good guitar grooves that stick no matter how much they're crushed into chunks that really could use a little more actual fire. And most of this is Mutt Lange's fault - I can't blame Bellamy that the tone on 'Psycho' sounds like someone crossed 'Psychosis' by Poets of the Fall and 'Burn It To The Ground' by Nickelback but decided to make it more staccato and damage that roiling groove, the same problem that hurts the first half of 'Dead Inside'. And that doesn't take anything away from Bellamy's playing or some of the stronger basslines - the skittering thrash-like riffs and a great solo on 'Reapers' is destined to become a Guitar Hero staple and would have kicked a lot more ass if Lange hadn't chopped the feedback and vocal samples to pieces and smeared a film of static over the damn thing to make it feel more industrial. 

And there are other places where the actual musicianship is damn impressive - the riffing on 'The Handler', the bounce to the groove on 'Defector', the fusion of the siren into the fuzzy groove of 'Revolt' that tries to recapture the Queen-like bombast of earlier Muse records - but Lange drowning the mix in feedback instead of picking a cleaner tone that actually has muscle strikes me as a complete misstep, mostly because it only further de-emphasizes the melodies. And I'll say it - for as much as I like Matt Bellamy's vocals, he gets no room to really breathe on this record thanks to all of the rough-edged filters piled on, and his clearer, more strident tone doesn't match the guitars which demand a singer with raw grit who can pull them off. You want proof of that, look at the 'wedding-song-waiting-to-happen' 'Aftermath', one of the better songs on the album simply because it has more of a sense of melody thanks to the strings and cleaner presentation. It's destined to become a staple of Muse's live sets and will probably sound fantastic there, but again, the choice to shove the guitar riff on top of the back half of the song strikes me as a poor choice. 'The Globalist' turns out better, a ten-minute epic that begins with a lonely whistle, echoing guitars, and acoustic strums that recalls spaghetti-westerns that's damn near classic Muse before diving into the titanic riffs and ending with a well-executed piano outro. And of course there's the multi-part gospel-reminiscent vocal harmony of the title track that serves as an album closer, but it feels more like an extra than anything.

But enough dancing around the issue, let's talk about lyrics and themes - and fair warning, this is where we get into controversial territory surrounding international politics. Now as the title suggests, this is a record surrounding the whole concept of drone warfare, a hot button topic in the United States. Let's put aside the whole issue that Muse is an English band sampling John F. Kennedy and that the UK drone presence is far less substantial than that of the US, and focus on the main issue, in that the usage of drones in warfare is complex. From a broadly utilitarian point of view, they're significantly cheaper in both cash and human lives in eliminating the enemy, a hands-off approach to killing terrorists that has proven effective in keeping troops off the ground - and that's something that's hard to discount in the War on Terror, a broadly mismanaged conflict that has its roots in complex geopolitics going back at least five presidential administrations. On the other hand, it's also a program with dangerously low oversight by the government, veiled in secrecy, has killed more than its fair share of innocents, and lends even further dehumanization to warfare. The point is that you really can't paint this conflict in black and white, especially in the Middle East, where there is no easy answer to the problem.

And herein lies the reason why Muse's Drones doesn't work - it attempts to boil down the issues to such broad strokes that context goes completely out the window. You could have made a compelling concept album out of drones as a concept, but instead of asking the tough moral questions, Muse instead goes for broad slogans about 'war is hell' dehumanization, using drones to add creeping inhumanity. And that's a huge problem when it comes to tone - if you play everything completely straight and intentionally hammer on the drone dystopia, your lack of nuance in the conversation becomes glaring and a huge problem. And not just that it makes the appropriation of the drone issue feel clumsy and ignorant, but it feels boiled down to the same thematic strokes as every other half-formed industrial-inspired dystopian record. While I have many, many issues with Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero and its commentary on the Iraq War, it at least tried for more ambiguity than this. Muse instead does the worst possible thing and wraps much of their anti-drone rhetoric in conspiracy theory jargon that feels imported from your average free website made by a teenager who just read Orwell for the first time with zero self-awareness. And I say teenager because the writing on this record frequently is flat-out embarrassing. People have already mocked 'Dead Inside' for reading like a mid-2000s emo track, but then there's 'Psycho' that rings as so monumentally homoerotic complete with lines like 'your ass belongs to me now' that it's borderline parody. Hell, I might have even bought it as subtext... but that would imply Muse was capable of subtlety, which definitely is not the case here. The one thing I do like is the implication of the later tracks that global citizenry will aid in breaking the dehumanization of drones, but again, it's placed in such broad strokes that I have a hard time really buying into it.

So to summarize, I doubt that Drones conceptually could have possibly worked as a Muse record, but it could have been better than it is. Putting aside the lyrics - arguably the least important part of any Muse record - what I think hurts this album the most is Mutt Lange's production. It's nowhere near abrasive or heavy enough to be industrial or metal, yet too dour and monochromatic to be anything close to have real texture, yet too ponderous and jerky to really have potent grooves or a raging punk sensibility. And the infuriating thing is that if I turn off my brain, ignore the lyrics, and just try to rock out, there are moments where the musicianship is good enough for me to enjoy a few songs - in other words, the only way I can enjoy Drones is becoming a drone myself. And in celebration of that sick irony, this album gets a strong 5/10 and only a recommendation for hardcore Muse fans. Otherwise, I'd stay away.


  1. Hey, you probably won't check this review because it's an old review, but I'd like to know what you're favorite songs from Muse. You say they have a few goddamn amazing songs every album, and it would be nice if you mentioned what those were.