As I was stuck on a boat Sunday afternoon forced to listen to the drivel that is Fleetwood Mac (even worse, the album was recorded live showing the true banality that becomes that band) and then followed up by the Killers’ terrible album, Battle Born, I waited in hopeful anticipation to listen to the newly-released Muse album, Drones, on Monday. I have found the last two Muse albums (the Resistance from 2009 and 2012’s The 2nd Law) to be musical experiments that should have just become unreleased basement tapes. I was hoping that the newest Muse album would not be the third consecutive disappointing album the band released. I like what the band did early in their career, I must admit, so maybe what the band had done over the last few years, and my distaste for it, just proves that I am an old man who tells new sounds to stay off his lawn, metaphorically speaking. Early Muse is simply great, though, and the band promised me personally via interviews with very public magazines that this new album would be like their old days, and so I held out all hope that the album would drive from my brain Fleetwood Mac’s creative emptiness.
Before we get to Muse, though, I do want to touch on the Barenaked Ladies album, Silverball, which was released last week. I understand the differences between the way the Barenaked Ladies and Muse approach making music are vastly different. One, BNL, is truly a band that makes pop records and usually an album that is a collection of singles from the band would be better than any specific album of original music they would release. The band has a number of very good singles. Those releases cover 20 years. The albums, though, are hit and miss. BNL has now gone three straight records without former co-lead singer/writer Stephen Page. While Page was not the sole driving force behind the band’s commercial success, he was one of two driving forces, along with Ed Robertson. The group misses Page’s influence. Nearly all of their best singles come from the Page-Robertson era. Consider “If I Had a Million Dollars” without Page; it is not fun. I wonder what BNL would be like if Page were still with the band, and though this may be just popcorn dreams, I hope he one day returns. The group still produces quality pop music, just not at the level it did when Page was a part. The band also appears to have made a carbon copy of their previous release, Grinning Streak, in terms of song flow. This is not necessarily bad until the end song, “Tired of Fighting with You.” This song sounds exactly like the last song on Grinning Streak in terms of production and pace. The problem is that “Tired…” is not a good song and should not be on the album. Why the band chose to mimic the previous album so closely, I do not know, but songs like “Tired…” would not have made the cut had there been three or four Page-Robertson offerings ready to go. I am afraid that a band that the world really needs (because the world needs bands that make very solid, not overproduced, pop songs) does not have a lot of ideas left. Page does not have to return for the band to continue, but I think the group, and therefore the world, needs him to rejoin. Silverball is not a bad album, but it lacks charisma. If you like the Barenaked Ladies, get this album. It is not their best, but it has a number of good songs (“Toe to Toe” being my favorite). If you do not care for BNL, I would move on from this one.
Muse has, at times, had the opposite problem of the Barenaked Ladies. The band is three very talented musicians who tend to have too many ideas and then they let those ideas control the making of a record. The 2nd Law is an experiment in electronic music. The Resistance was overtaken by too many wind instruments. Muse is a band that rocks! They have the capability of making great music that incorporates electronic and symphonic influences without the need to have those be the primary driving forces of an album, but sometimes the band seems to lose singular focus. Maybe it is a rock trio thing? Rush is another great band with talented musicians, but for a good portion of their later career they became so self-engrossed they seemed to lose sight of the fact that people wanted to hear Rush, instead of three guys in a band called Rush. My worry over the last two Muse records was that they were turning into Rush. The two groups are not dissimilar. Both bands like a big sound with driving guitar with songs that can border on epic. Is it coincidence that an English band like Muse chose to get back to basics in the Canadian homeland of Rush? (The album was recorded at The Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, B.C.) Probably. But it is pretty chewy scenery nonetheless.
So, do Muse get back more to the older sound? Mostly, yes. The beginning of the first song, “Dead Inside,” was a little scary, though. The song starts off plastic and electronic. I was thinking, “Oh no, guys. You promised!” Two minutes in, things change. The group’s sound morphs into something resembling a track from the album, “Absolution”: enveloping production, big guitars and drums and lead-singer Matt Bellamy singing strongly. Bellamy’s voice has always been one of the band’s most underrated but important qualities. There are many bands that can successfully create a wall of sound, like Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson, but none of them have singers who can carry songs on their own like Muse. Bellamy’s voice is an instrument and it is one of the best in rock. He is at his best when his singing adds to the tension of the often-rising bridges and choruses of the band, and while he accomplishes this many times on Drones, the first time I heard him sing this way on “Dead Inside” I realized I could relax and that this album would be ok.
The second proper track (there are two tracks on the album that are basically segues and one falls in between tracks one and three, the other between tracks six and eight), “Psycho,” is more of the same as track one. The bridge of the song has a vocal texture that sounds exactly like a Manson song. The texture is a bit different for Muse, but it works well. Other standouts from the record are “The Handler” and “Revolt,” and all these represent a Muse sound from five years ago.
One song that might be the difference between a Muse fan finding the record to be really good or not so good is “Aftermath.” I would not call the song pop, but others might. The song sounds like Muse, but does it sound like a watered-down Muse? That is a question all Muse fans must ask themselves. On this particular track, I will not try to convince you either way.
The album’s penultimate song is one that few rock bands would dare try. “The Globalist” is a ten minute opus that takes slight twists and turns, but ends up on the right road. Muse has done this type song many times before and has no issues with successfully pulling it off. Your top ten singles recording artists for the most part would never dream of doing a song like this, and hardly any would have the talent to know how. The final song, “Drones,” is purely vocal and a bit overproduced. If the band had left “Drones” off the record, the album would have suffered nothing.
There has been some criticism of the record, but it has received mostly positive reviews. The criticism seems to come mainly from the fact that Muse has made a concept album, and therefore tried to do something serious. The album follows a protagonist’s journey from abandonment to indoctrination as a “human drone” and eventual defection. The question is, if a person were not interested in how a band sounded in the first place, would a concept album draw them in? Did Muse make this album thinking, “We will pick up so many new fans if we address this issue!” First of all Muse has addressed serious subjects before, just not as an entire album. Secondly, the album is full of great rock music. Take what you will from the lyrics and subject matter, but can you sit back and turn the volume up and enjoy this record? Absolutely! And that is why you purchase the album today. Right now. And it sure as hell beats Fleetwood Mac any day of the week.