Skimming through the rock stratosphere carrying a riff payload capable of levelling entire districts, Muse drift further off radar. Down on earth, the stage is set for the uprising they foresaw back on 2009’s ‘The Resistance’ – protest marches are already descending on Whitehall to rally against another five years of Conservative government. But instead Matt Bellamy’s eyes are to the skies, squinting at his next obsession: drone warfare.
The 36-year-old’s new fascination with the backroom soldiers who “kill by remote control”, might mark a frustrating shift away from immediate, tangible issues, but when you take into account Muse’s own story arc, it’s an unavoidable one. After ‘The Resistance’ and 2012’s ‘The 2nd Law’ tackled globalised control and shrinking natural resources, Muse doing a full-on concept album was as inevitable as a Kanye Glasto backlash. ‘Drones’, the trio’s seventh album, follows the story of a soldier trained to be a brainless killing machine, becoming disillusioned by the blind brutality of battle, rebelling and rising to power himself.
The two pre-release tasters, as usual, were red herrings. ‘Dead Inside’, considered by some to be an attack on Bellamy’s ex Kate Hudson with its quivering cries of “Do you have no soul?/ It’s like it died years ago”, threw back to ‘The 2nd Law’’s electro-pop bangers ‘Madness’ and ‘Panic Station’. ‘Psycho’, in which our hero is trained to become “a super drone” by a bawling drill sergeant, apes every glam rock stomper from Tame Impala’s ‘Elephant’ to Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ to Muse’s own ‘Uprising’. But from there, ‘Drones’ swoops and dives like its navigation system has malfunctioned. ‘Mercy’ is infectious electro-rock about the “men in cloaks” and “puppeteers” at the controls of the world, while ‘Reapers’ has Bellamy indulging his hair-metal bent alongside android backing vocals.
Once our protagonist has reached peak drone on ‘The Handler’ – “I have been programmed to obey… I will execute your demands” he parrots over ‘Radio Ga Ga’ powerchords – and starts fighting back, ‘Drones’ likewise reaches peak Muse. Wrapped in a sample of a JFK speech decrying shadowy cold war tactics, ‘Defector’ is a brilliant slinky pop squealer, while ‘Revolt’ is among their most creative songs, a two-speed storm built on monumental riffs.
The lack of an indulgent multi-section symphony like those on ‘The Resistance’ and ‘The 2nd Law’ makes ‘Drones’ the most focused Muse album since 2006’s ‘Black Holes And Revelations’, but the weirdness (obviously) lingers. ‘Aftermath’ is an after-the-battle singalong in the vein of Rod Stewart’s version of The Sutherland Brothers’ ‘Sailing’ or, oh yes, Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers In Arms’. ‘The Globalist’, in which our hero starts his own nuclear state and destroys the planet, is a 10-minute epic taking in chunks of Ennio Morricone funeral scene metal and Elgar’s 19th century ‘Enigma Variations: Nimrod’. The title track – do not adjust your NME – is a choral piece based on 16th-century hymnal ‘Sanctus And Benedictus’, featuring a choir of Matts intoning “My mother, my father, my sister and my brother, my son and my daughter, killed by drones”.
‘Drones’’ trademark Muse themes of brainwashing, warmongering superpowers, suppression of The Truth and the urgent need to fight the hand that bleeds us still resonate in 2015, but obliquely. It’s Bellamy’s job to prise open deeper socio-political dimensions as much as it is to comment on the times, and Muse’s music once more matches his adventurous intrigue.