Go ahead and make fun of Muse—they’ve seen all your insults of “prog-rock pretentiousness” and raised you a bombastic concept album about WWIII. What’s funny is that Drones, the British trio’s seventh LP, was fashioned as a return to simplicity, a chance to “reconnect and remind [themselves] of just the basics of who [they] are,” following the electro-symphonic sprawl of their last two albums, 2009’s The Resistance and 2012’s The 2nd Law. But Muse’s version of “stripped down” is most bands’ version of “orgiastic”: Across 52 winding minutes, frontman Matt Bellamy shrieks and croons about a brainwashed soldier—a human drone—rising up to destroy the world himself. And while the arrangements are narrower in terms of sheer size, they’re no less manic—from the Gary Glitter glam-metal of “Psycho” to the art-disco death march of “Dead Inside.”
Drones is the band’s first collaboration with “Mutt” Lange, a producer best known for micromanaging mainstream pop and rock albums from the likes of AC/DC, The Cars and Maroon 5. Perhaps coincidentally, the new singles offer Bellamy’s sharpest choruses in a decade: “Mercy,” with its chiming piano hook, cuts out the theatrical fat, picking up where Black Holes highlight “Starlight” left off; “Dead Inside” condenses the band’s operatic sensibilities into a four-minute blitzkrieg, building from fuzz-bass clatter to a volcanic guitar solo to a lighter-waving arena-rock climax.
But in spite of its melodic clarity, Drones ultimately succumbs under the weight of its narrative, which strains for political and social commentary but winds up closer to parody. Bellamy’s intentions are pure, using drone warfare to symbolize our modern world’s terrifying lack of empathy. The problem is delivery: Dude still sings with the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow, and the abundance of slow-moving balladry gives the album a weird whiff of camp. Ten-minute epic “The Globalist” gets lost in its own texture—orchestral simmer, sampled rain drops and TV commercials, and a grandiose whistle worthy of Garth Algar’s midnight car hood reverie from Wayne’s World. The soggiest stretch is “Aftermath,” a sub-Queen snooze with canned strings and offensively clichéd singing. (Close your eyes, and it’s easy to picture Bellamy belting on-stage in an off-Broadway production, a tattered Union Jack in flames behind him.)
Drones concludes with an eerie coda, a choir of Bellamys mourning, “My mother, my father / My sister and my brother / My son and my daughter / Killed by drones.” This title-track, seemingly an afterthought, is the album’s peak, ironically underscoring its earlier weaknesses. Only here—freed from pageantry, using the simple but vivid imagery of death—do Bellamy’s words resonate among the living.