But in retrospect, it is true that something is missing from their most thematic effort: fun. Perhaps that's not surprising for an album based on the dehumanization of modern warfare, but its seriousness makes Drones stand out in a discography built as much on playfulness as experimentation.
Muses's latest album, Simulation Theory, isn't necessarily a return to form, only insofar as the trio's mercurian nature seems to prevent them from having such a thing. You can safely say that the return of synthesizers and other electronic instrumentation feels a bit more in line with a 'typical' Muse album, but this time around the principal tool is actually a blender.
Simulation Theory blends a lot of things, principally musical eras. From the album's cover (by Stranger Things artist Kyle Lambert!) and many of the videos they released prior to the album, you won't be surprised to find a lot of the 80's up in here, but there are elements of '90s power pop, '70s guitar riffs and road-trip rhythms, and even record scratching reminiscent of the nascent days of hip-hop.
Genres are blended too, with lead off track Algorithm opening with a cinematic, synthesized bassline that The Guardian described as "none more jackbooted" and bears its nerdy, sci-fi roots proudly in the synthesizer leads before briefly turning things over to the graceful tinkling of a proper piano.
Thematically, much of the album deals with idea of our existence being a computer-driven artificial reality, but it isn't applied particularly coherently across the album. Since ST was produced one single at a time with a variety of producers, the simulation angle gives Matt Bellamy and company the ability to indulge themselves in whatever way they fancy, and to explore the idea of fantasy becoming reality.
For my part, I think Simulation Theory is Muse's most enjoyable album since The Resistance. Despite the sometimes jarring juxtaposition of styles and tempos, I've yet to find any skippable tracks, and the anthemic choruses of many of the songs make them a great fit for the band's high energy arena shows. (With any luck, I will go see them in Houston this February, so I will let you know how that works out.)
Most importantly though, the fun is back. Pressure is the catchiest Muse track since Knights of Cydonia, and incorporates some of the horns that made Panic Station so infectious, as well as some the fuzziest guitar I've heard from Bellamy yet. And the video featuring Terry Crews is straight-up brilliantly cheesy.
(What's that? Oh, you like horns? then check out this version by the UCLA Bruins Marching Band who backed the band on the deluxe edition of the album!)
Muse plans to release a video for every track on the album, actually, which I suppose makes suckers like me who buy physical media kind of suckers, huh? But hey, you can try it before you buy it, and here are some of my impressions for no additional charge.
Road Trippiest Track: Something Human
A melancholy yet hopeful paean about finishing a long tour, this track somehow manages to blend Peter Gabriel rhythms, Kenny Loggins acoustic strums, and dreamy synths into a mellow yet insistently paced track. Those jangly beats and sing-along chorus make this a great highway song, or maybe it's just all the driving in the video.
Weirdest track: Break It To Me
Incorporating loosely tuned guitars, Arabian-themed vocal flourishes, a theremin, and the aforementioned record scratches, this may be the least accessible track on the album, and I still like it.
Vocal Treat: Darkside
Bellamy is renowned for his falsetto, used to great effect here, but he is also capable of richer sustained tones which we don't get too often. And you can't go wrong with another great bass line from Chris Wolstenholme and a wonderful '80s synth riff.
Full disclosure: the opening of this song kind of put me off initially, with its Cylon-vocoder-EDM-stutter-sample. It very quickly settles down and becomes, well, a Prince song, pretty much. And not a bad one at that - kind of a strange hybrid of the Paisley One's Kiss and Muse's Madness.
(Quick sidebar though: I have mad respect and appreciation for Prince, but if you're Matt Bellamy, why on earth would you want to be anyone else? Not that long ago, you could wake up and go, "Hey! I'm Matt Bellamy! I'm a musical polymath and bona-fide, electrified guitar hero who sold out Wembley with his schoolmates! I was married to Kate Hudson, who is not only gorgeous but also meant my father-in-law was Kurt Russell!" I mean, Prince is great and all, but dang...)
Most Persistent Earworm: Thought Contagion
Best bass line on the album, accompanied by a soaring vocal chorus that was originally based on a theremin solo, some dramatic tempo changes, and a strong video that includes a Thriller-inspired dance routine make this one of my favourite tracks on this album. Now if I could only get that chorus out of my head...
Simulation Theory is a genuine musical smorgasborg; if you don't like synths or retro vibes, I doubt it will change your mind, but there's probably a track on here for nearly everyone who likes prog or alt rock and at least tolerates electronica. Blockades has best elements of the score to Big Trouble in Little China and a chanting chorus reminiscent of We Will Rock You. Get Up and Fight starts out dreamy and poppy, then explodes in a cacophony of power chords and a wailed chorus like early Weezer.
As discomfiting as it can sometimes be to follow a band whose zig-zags can sometimes leave even dedicated fans spinning in their wake, what a delight is to be surprised once in while. I assume at some point we can expect a Muse album that mashes up disco and bluegrass, but int he meantime, this nostalgic and creative pastiche is a wonderful experiment that turned out well, at least for me.