Aural Impressions: Muse, Drones

For the first time since I started this blog almost exactly three years ago, a band for whom I’d done an Aural Impressions post has released a second album.  Since I’ve covered my history with Muse already in that one, there’s not much to say here about that.  Their newest work, their seventh (!) album titled Drones, had been touted as a stripped-back production, more focused on rock rather than operatic, symphonic, heavily produced experiments teetering on the edge of popular music.  Their previous album, The 2nd Law, featured ventures into classical music (nothing new for Muse), dubstep, electronic dance music, some funky R&B stylings, and a pair of tracks sung by bassist Chris Wolstenholme, rather than Matt Bellamy.  It was all over the place, hit and miss (mostly hit), but it certainly had a Muse-like flair for the dramatic.  Now, the stripped-back intention was revealed before that album as well, so naturally I’m a bit skeptical about this one living up to that ideal.  Let’s see if they followed through on their word, shall we?

  1. Dead Inside: Fade into a harshly sung “Dead inside.”  Already, we’re off to a start that rubs me the wrong way, but let’s continue listening.  Can’t judge an album by its first two seconds.  Switch to heavy stuttering percussion, bright organ interruptions, and bouncing fuzzy bass.  Matt sings about people being drones.  Lyrically, it certainly seems to be more of the paranoid, government controlled, military musings alluded to on The Resistance, this song being almost a continuation of the narrative of that album’s title track.  The chorus includes some electronic sounding pizzicato strings, and Matt’s guitar cries and flutters, seemingly without structure.  Dom’s drum beat remains relatively unvaried throughout.  Where this song shines, however, is the bridge.  More acoustic sounding drums come in to support a ringing, slightly-crunching rhythm guitar as Matt croons.  It turns anthemic and big toward the end, but it’s not quite impactful enough to be considered a strong opener in my eyes; in fact it’s probably the weakest opener of any Muse album (not counting “Intro”).
  2. [Drill Sergeant]: The first of two non-musical interludes.  This one is an angry, clichéd drill sergeant yelling at a weak sounding recruit.  Needless to say, I’ll be skipping this track until further notice.
  3. Psycho: Where have I heard that riff before?  To those who’ve followed the band for the last few tours, it might stick out as the extended outro to their live performances of “Stockholm Syndrome.”  This one adds a few new chords, moving into a Doom-like 12-bar blues-ish structure until fading for a fuzzy bass solo descent into verse.  A marching beat and interspersed riffs drive the verses along.  So far, so good on that stripped-back rock promise.  The chorus is sung over the bluesy guitar transition.  The lyrics leave a little to be desired here, though — not crazy about the line “your ass belongs to me now,” neither its words nor the manner in which it’s sung, rather rotely and passionlessly.  This is also the second album in a row Muse has included a song with the word “fuck” in its lyrics, albeit a bit masked with effects here.  Additional drill sergeant scenes are played over the breaks between chorus and verse… if only there was a way to skip those too.  Again, the bridge includes a sustained guitar with a change in chord progression, this one harkening back to an Absolution-era sound, which fits with the relatively ancient main riff.  It’s better than “Dead Inside,” maybe even a stronger candidate for an opener, but still not that great.  Expectations are high here.  It’s a bit simple for Muse, a solid rock song nonetheless.
  4. Mercy: More fuzzy bass, but this time it’s joined by a bright piano.  It’s got me thinking “Starlight” immediately; also early Keane, which is a really freakin’ weird comparison to make from the perspective of where they both were in their careers in 2004…  Synth arpeggios and distorted guitars bring about a loud, sing-a-long chorus featuring a multi-multi-tracked vocal.  This must be the radio-friendly contribution (except it’s actually not…)  Seriously though, that chorus is huge; production here is quite fantastic.  And who doesn’t love Muse’s trademark undulating arpeggios?  The bridge is falsetto-breaching Matt over clean guitar, a common sound of the band’s recent few albums.  White noise laden bass joins the empty space below, transitioning into an entirely different progression.  The ending is strangely unlike the rest of the song, ending on a minor chord after a flurry of quick major somewhat odd chord changes.  Really curious about that decision.
  5. Reapers: A reverberating kit coming out of someone’s garage.  A screech, then shredding arpeggios.  What is this song?  The bass wobbles in the background like the soundtrack to a Nintendo game’s boss battle.  It’s like someone put Absolution on a turntable upside-down and cranked up the speed in reverse.  An interlude with a Rage Against the Machine-like heavy riff.  Heavily distorted chorus vocals sing a harmonized melody straight out of 90s alt-rock.  The guitars burst forth.  More arpeggios.  A pinpointed, jittery, synthed-out guitar solo that belongs in the 8-bit world.  The bass is right there below, playing its own complementary riffs as a stuttering vocoder adds texture.  A minute-long outro hammers away, guitars, crashing cymbals, feedback, chaos, and a long droning release.  This will be killer live.  Aside from a thrice repeated chorus and twice heard verse, the song is mostly varied across its the rest of its six-minute run time, a welcome change from the void of adventurousness on the album’s first three tracks.  Seriously, I don’t know what this song is.  At first listen, my jaw was on the ground.  A true standout, not just of Drones, but of Muse’s entire catalog.  Wow!
  6. The Handler:  Halfway through and we’re still ripping along with mostly heavy distortion guitar riffs and limited lush.  Chris Wolstenholme’s bass is excellent here, riding up and down the neck during the refrain.  I’m gonna have fun trying to learn this one.  Its mood beneath is sorrowful, a tonal sequence continuing in the sonic footsteps of “Micro Cuts.”  Dom’s toms burst around during the verses, while Matt continues to do his thing.  Hopefully there are still some decent guitar riffs left in existence after this album; we’re building up steam here toward something huge by the end.  A baroque-styled guitar solo (which would sound just as good played on a pipe organ) sprints over the bridge, urgently picked bass acting as a straightforward undercurrent.  The chord progression is classic Muse; that is to say, you wouldn’t hear it on a regular rock record and it’s certainly reminiscent of past works such as “MK Ultra” and “Liquid State.”  The vocals, especially at the end, are haunting.  The falsetto screams and the way Matt ends each half of the song with rotating up-and-down half-steps will certainly linger in my mind for some time.  Gotta love those falsetto screams.
  7. [JFK]:  An excerpt of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 “Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association” also known as “The Conspiracy Speech.”  Muted guitar strikes fill in the spaces between lines until a sea of strings float up and usher the piece directly into its next track.
  8. Defector:  Another heavy riff, a normal Muse-ish rock song, then BAM, trajectory change!  Society!  We have liftoff.  Massive sounds, massive vocals, massive guitars.  Then is settles down for a reserved bass-laden verse, which only serves to lead into another blusteringly loud chorus.  The lyrics are somewhat absurd, but sung in a way that can only indicate Matt had fun doing it.  A spacey guitar solo brings the song together, echoing the strings from the previous interlude, building upon them and joining a new fleet with heavy reverberations and 60s science-fiction-like production.  A hodgepodge of different elements, it’s an interesting piece — gluing a strong open with subdued verse and lofty soloing.  The middle of this album is easily the high point.
  9. Revolt:  Stuttering synth breaks into a decidedly upbeat and poppy sound.  That vocal melody sounds super familiar though.  The way Matt sings it is reminiscent of something.  Bear with me as I figure it out.  The chorus is another big sound, featuring numerously harmonized lines over the lead vocal.  It’s aurally fuzzy, but clean in its lack of musical challenge.  Oh!  I figured it out!  This is totally Eve 6.  Here’s to the nights we felt alive.  Hell, that line even works sung over the chorus.  Anyone up for a mash-up?  I have mixed feelings about this song.  It’s a grower, maybe.
  10. Aftermath:  Calm.  Not sure “Revolt” is the kind of song that needs a dramatic lull after it, yet here we are.  And it’s pretty great to start.  Relaxing, but slightly unsettling strings joined by lightly wah-wah’d guitar that turns a little bit bluesy as it goes on.  At one point it declares a minor chord when I was 100% expecting a major one — love curveballs like that.  The chorus is encouraging and uplifting among the surrounding sadness, again not entirely unlike “Invincible,” “Guiding Light,” and “Explorers.”  I was really hoping the band would retire that motif after two consecutive albums retreading it.  A nice guitar solo fills up the bridge, clean and light while Chris’s bass dances beneath.  He’s been at his best on this album, to say nothing of Matt’s mastery of his instrument.  Which reminds me, where’s the piano been?  The end recalls a song like “Falling Away With You.”  They’re certainly linking back to Absolution quite a bit on this record, which to me makes it instantly more nostalgic.
  11. The Globalist:  A flanged guitar strums whilst a western melody is whistled.  I see a cowboy walking alone.  This could almost be a prequel to “Knights of Cydonia.”  Military snares augment the movement as the guitar shifts into the front of the mix, playing mournful sliding notes.  Strummed acoustics, drums and vocals enter near the three-minute mark, at one point lifting the chorus melody from “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist,” albeit shifted and fragmented.  Near the halfway point, a grungy electric enters playing a dirty, closely arpeggiated riff.  Choral vocals hover above; drums build from quarters on the kick to include a flurry of toms.  Guitar and drums intensify.  Strings and deep deep bass shake the mix.  Then, piano.  There it is!  A quick Romantic interlude, not unlike Tchaikovsky, divides the third act from the mess of the first two.  Matt croons over a lovely classical piano and bass, which at a few points adds a few extra bars in moments of 6/4 time unexpectedly, especially once the drums come in again.  It becomes a full-on, almost Queen-like ballad to close.  Looking back at where we started from, it’s really quite an odd linearly constructed, non-repeating epic song.  Ten minutes never seemed so short.
  12. Drones:  A Capella harmonies swirl inside a dark cathedral.  It’s an intricate choral arrangement.  The only thing that’s missing is candlelight and incense.  It’s meditative and peaceful, except that the lyrics describe drones killing people and being dead inside.  That’s Muse for you.  It’s a decent song, but it kinda ends the album on a whimper.  Remember “Megalomania,” “Ruled By Secrecy,” “Knights of Cydonia,” or “Isolated System”?  Now those were endings!

The more I listen to Drones, the less I know what to make of it.  For the most part, Muse follow through on stripping their music back; most of the songs, especially in the middle, make us of a standard guitar, bass, drum setup with scattered, but not overpowering or distracting, production elements and additions.  After the one-two-three killing blow of “Reapers,” “The Handler,” and “[JFK]/Defector,” the album loses steam.  Revolt might be the least creative Muse song in existence, while its following tracks, though somewhat ambitious in comparison, incorporate already used lines and motifs from Muse’s previous albums.  Where it lies within their discography in terms of ranking, I don’t know.  I like it; I’m just saddled with extremely high expectations.  If only they’d taken the energy and wild music ideas from the albums centerpieces and run with it throughout, then we’d have an instant classic in the spirit of Rage Against The Machine.  Instead we’ve got an okay album, good enough to listen to multiple times, with a few standout tracks that make it worthwhile.


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