Friday, June 12, 2015

Mercurial Muse's Modern Warfare Monstrosity - Drones, Reviewed

Suffice to say, Muse's polymath frontman Matt Bellamy considers himself a man with an axe to grind with the military industrial complex.

Fair enough; as long as his axe is this sharp and sounds this good, I say more power to him. And power is something the British power trio's seventh studio album, Drones, has in spades.

Following their 2012 excursion into dubstep and electronica, The 2nd Law, Muse felt a call to return to basics. The result is an album with both feet planted firmly in a rock stance, but maintaining the musical complexity and layering of their progressive roots.

In addition to presenting a strong theme about the dehumanisation of modern warfare ( and modern society, to some extent), Drones also visits the old school by virtue of being an honest-to-goodness concept album:
To me, drones are metaphorical psychopaths which enable psychopathic behaviour with no recourse. The world is run by drones utilising drones to turn us all into drones. This album explores the journey of a human, from their abandonment and loss of hope, to their indoctrination by the system to be a human drone, to their eventual defection from their oppressors

The narrative is fairly implicit and not thrust upon the listener, and as such, the concept can be taken or left as one desires.  Thematically, I think it works, but it lacks the cohesiveness of something like Pink Floyd's The Wall, which I suppose is pretty much the gold standard for concept albums.  And while us grown-ups may turn up our noses at choruses like 'Yeah, I'm free/free from society/you can't control me" (Defector), it is hard to dismiss the central message about the cost and convenience of using remote control to exercise lethal sanction from one's home country.

So philosophically, this album is not particularly nuanced, and 'war is bad' is an irrefutable but potentially naive position in a lot of respects. Musically though, Drones is one of the best Albums To Be Played Loudly Or Not At All that I have heard in quite some time. So much so, in fact, I put on my headphones so I could listen to it while mowing the lawn, despite having already paid my youngest to do that for me!

Now, maybe I'm still carrying a torch for Guardians of the Galaxy's groovy retro soundtrack, or maybe it's because my copy of the Spirit of 77 rulebook came in the mail last week, but I got a tremendous 70s vibe off Drones on its first listen-through a couple days back.  Is it the 'stick it to the man' attitude that pervades the album? Is it the blistering arpeggios from the beginning of Reapers, so reminiscent of AC/DC? Is it the clever and understated (seriously, I missed them the first time around) use of police sirens (including the 'phaser' effect used to clear intersections) on Revolt? Listen carefully and you can hear echoes of Ziggy-era Bowie and even the arena rock operatics of Queen running through Drones.

In short, I think it is the leaner, purposefully stripped down 'rawk' sound, achieved in part by their first collaboration with a producer, their previous albums all having been self-produced.  Robert John "Mutt" Lange is best known to some as the former Mr. Shania Twain, but he has produced great stuff for artists as diverse as Nickelback, Foreigner and Lady Gaga.  At The Warehouse in Vancouver Lange exhorted some truly powerful music, with a little less reliance on keyboards on most tracks, and giving the band's musicianship a chance to shine.

The lead single, Psycho (featuring voiceovers by Tom Sizemore as an overbearing D.I.) is actually based on a riff Muse has used as an outro to various songs during their legendary live performances, and as trite and potentially embarrassing as I might find a song with a prominent f-bomb in the chorus, I still find myself singing (shouting) along.

The token power ballad, Aftermath, does little for me, and the repeated "From this moment" had Fenya wondering if it was meant as a wedding song.  I don`t think it is, having such an undercurrent of desperation in it, but it is a lovely sentiment that supports the concept.  I don`t think it`s awful, it just pales in comparison to so much else on the record, and has never been one of my favourite genres at any rate.

In terms of dancing with the prog-rock that got Muse where they are, Mercy is probably the best example, balancing a powerful, mixed-tempo beat, great guitar work supported by keyboards content to work the sidelines, and Matt Bellamy`s powerful voice on the chorus.  And a solid music video to boot:

Overall though, this is a stripped down effort for Muse, that while still complex and ambitious in its own right, hearkens back to the raucous, blues-influenced guitar dominated rock sound I grew up with.  And as possibly the greatest living interpreters of arena rock, I simply cannot wait until they return to North America so I can hear these tracks played live.  The accompanying DVD depicts 4 tracks played live in the UK and is a great teaser for the yet unannounced world tour, probably coming to Canada in 2016.

There are some nice callbacks to the classical world so influential to prog rock: The Globalist is a ten minute epic that incorporates elements of Edward Elgar`s `The Enigma Variations: Nimrod`, while the eponymous acapella track is based on an Italian madrigal called 'Sanctus and Benedictus', and is a tremendous capper to the album.

In another nod to the good old days, a big chunk of the CD booklet (Yes, I continue to maintain my addiction to physical media. Leave me alone.) is devoted to haunting artworks inspired by the tracks, like this evocative one for Psycho:

You can't please anyone, and there are certain to be those who feel Muse has strayed from their roots with Drones,but part of the appeal of the band is their fearless willingness to experiment.  It takes just as much courage to present such a 'basic' sound compared to more recent efforts, and you can still clearly hear the musicians of Absolution and Origins of Symmetry in these tracks, so if they have roots at all, they haven't strayed far. It's a Frankenstein monster that incorporates the best of what Muse does, in many ways.

Fans of loud music should definitely give Drones a shot.

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