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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Album review: Drones – Muse

Muse claim to go back to basics on album number seven, but Drones still gets bogged down in conceptual sci-fi silliness about flying robots.
Muse's Drones. Courtesy Warner Bros. Records
Muse's Drones. Courtesy Warner Bros. Records

Drones

Muse (Warner Bros)

Three stars

Matt Bellamy is like a naughty schoolboy who can’t stop playing with his toys. The restless inventor behind Muse has spent the past decade creating increasingly bigger, sillier, ­proggier records.

The last couple – The Resistance (2009) and The 2nd Law (2012) – appear to have been conceived primarily to prove that you can mix dubstep and classical music with rock. At the same time.

After such sonic excesses, the British trio simply couldn’t get any bigger (or sillier, or proggier). It was time to rein things in and return to “the basics”, said Bellamy.

But, perhaps guessing he simply wouldn’t be able to control the wanton alchemist within, after the last two largely self-produced efforts, for album number seven Muse called in Daddy. And who’s the Daddy? Robert “Mutt” Lange – aka the iconoclastic producer behind the best-known records by AC/DC (Highway to Hell, Back in Black) and Def Leppard (Hysteria), among others.

It’s a weird pairing – the godfather of reductive, macho 1980s jock-rock, with a space-rock band floating so high in their own pretentious prog stratosphere that only an almighty gravitational force could pull them back to Earth. Was Lange’s ego-planet enough?

Yes and no. Drones is Muse’s most focused and enjoyable release since 2006’s Black Holes & Revelations. Things open with the (slightly) funky strut Dead Inside, channelling the proto-Prince disco sound of Supermassive Black Hole and Panic Station.

They let rip with Psycho, a mammoth, head-bangin’ guilty pleasure of a riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on their 2001 second album, Origin of Symmetry.

Mercy is a chocolate box of piano-tinkling, stadium-chewing, glam theatrics, while Reapers begins with ridiculous Eddie Van Halen-style guitar pyrotechnics (the Lange effect?), before another storming classic rock riff. So far, so fun.

But I lose patience with Drones at track seven, a one-minute JFK speech set to guitar gnarls and cinema strings. Because Muse couldn’t just make a great rock record. No, Drones is a concept album about – sigh – “the dehumanisation of modern warfare”. What?

Bellamy’s flying robots are, apparently, a “metaphor for what it is to lose empathy”. Why?

Clearly one thing Lange couldn’t or wouldn’t veto were the lyrics. Or maybe he just clocked off early, because it’s during the album’s final third where the baggage of Bellamy’s conceptual conceit starts to drag like a boulder.

As with any concept album, at some stage music and melody become bent awkwardly to the shape of lyrics and message. Exhibit A: The Globalist, a bizarre 10-minute country-metal yodel, referencing Elgar and Ennio Morricone.

Like Icarus, Muse’s greatest gift and biggest downfall are one and the same: their relentless ambition and scope create some of the most inventive modern rock out there – but it’s basking in so much teeny, sci-fi silliness it’s too often impossible to take seriously. Or enjoy.

rgarratt@thenational.ae