"A return to our roots" was how Matt Bellamy described Muse's seventh studio album, announced as having themes of 'deep ecology, the empathy gap and World War III'. After flirting with themes on previous albums such as the realisation of Bellamy's intention to record a symphony (The Resistance's three-part sci-fi mini-opera 'Exo-Genesis') and the running theme of mind control and brainwashing, The 2nd Law's two-part finale, Muse finally go all out and deliver what could only be the next step on their journey through space and time - a concept album. While this may be at odds with the suggestion it would showcase Muse returning to the balls-out, uncomplicated rock of their 1999 debut, it does provide the band a chance to bring all they have done before into one cohesive whole, a culmination of the ideas that have been floating around in the past.
Kicking off with 'Dead Inside' the retro-futuristic (we're yet to be persuaded that's an actual genre, but it probably describes the track the best) stomp introduces us to the album's protagonist, a man left empty and burnt out after the apparent break-up of a relationship, who appears unaffected on the outside. It's a bleak sentiment for beginning an album, yet one that is cloaked in a defiant melody that acts as a suitable metaphor for the song; on the exterior you don't get a feel for the meaning of the lyrics, which are fairly hard hitting.
Things get no better for the unnamed character as he's subjected to an extreme form of bullying, training and brainwashing by a hardy drill sergeant and conditioned to become an unthinking, unfeeling killing machine or "drone", all to do the bidding of an unseen master ('Psycho'). This song is notable for having a riff that has actually been around for some time in live performances, and has only now been given a full title and lyrics. Despite this apparent recycling, it's one of the stronger tracks on the album, harking back to their earlier, heavier sound.
Having been faced with this mind-battering, there's a plea for leniency in 'Mercy', which, taken out of context, has the potential to be seen as one of Muse's more light-weight crowd-pleasers, a 2015-retread of 'Starlight' or 'Invicible' for instance. Within the world of the 'Drones' album however, it fits in perfectly as a final wish to return to normality before the dark side takes over the main character completely, much like the mental malaise of the main character from Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' - the "worms" are setting in, and soon his mind will have been consumed.
'Reapers', with it's falsetto vocals, Rage Against the Machine riffs and a disquieting urge to 'follow the yellow brick road' at the track's conclusion, neatly summarises the first half of the album in great form. Aired quite early on live shows before the release of the album, it perhaps doesn't hit home as directly as other tracks, but does focus on drone warfare and the ability to kill by remote control. It also hints at radicalisation, a topic very much in the news headlines with UK citizens travelling to Syria to join the ISIS group.
'The Handler' is another strong candidate for "track of the album", where the central character realises that, despite being under the control of his masters, takes a stance and decides he doesn't want to carry out "killings on demand" and starts to fight back. Extremely dark in terms of both subject matter and lyrics, and again features great echoing vocals and a much heavier tone than much recent Muse material.
Acting as an intro to 'Defector', 'JFK' uses it's namesake as the basis of the track, sampling a speech on the nature of conspiracy, and how covert military practises are becoming prevalent. 'Defector' itself has echoes of the Queen-like sound first heard on 'United States of Eurasia', with the storyline again continuing the fight-back of the main character against the powers that be, insisting that he cannot be brainwashed or controlled any longer.
'Revolt' is perhaps the lightest moment on the album, and definitely the most positive. With an almost U2 bent to it, it perhaps doesn't fit the mould of the other album tracks as much, but is perhaps included as some much-needed relief from the dense storytelling and heavy riffs that feature elsewhere.
'Aftermath' begins with ambient sound of wind, with violins and synthesisers introduced, until a very Pink Floyd guitar melody comes in, building the song up slowly. With the main character finding love and faith in the human race again, it hints at a happy ending, although it seems there can be no such outcome given the story.
The longest track on the album, 'The Globalist' (reported as being Bellamy's favourite) is a multi-part ten-minute epic forming either a self-contained story (rumoured to be the sequel to 2002 'Origin of Symmetry' track 'Citizen Erased') or the true ending to the album's story. In it, the protagonist fights off the influence of his masters and, having overcome his demons, finds he is in control of his own drone army. In a fit of rage, World War III is started, with all the planet's nuclear arms detonated in one fell swoop, causing the downfall of modern civilisation. Beginning sedately as it explains the fact the character has never truly experienced love, it seems he has not actually escaped the effects of his prior brainwashing ("you can build a nuclear power/transform the earth to your desire"). With the chilling line "I have given you the code", the song launches into a dramatic build-up featuring a military countdown to zero, where the nuclear missiles hinted at in the lyrics are unleashed. After perhaps Muse's heaviest riff assault, the coda (again featuring a passing resemblance to 'United States of Eurasia' and it's piano-led outro) laments the fact that "there's no country left...I think I destroyed them all/A trillion memories lost in space and time".
It's perhaps the ultimate in downbeat endings, but is infused with a posivitity that it may not be the end for life as we know it (until the next Muse album) but we're not exactly done there.
Ever fancied a bit of Gregorian chanting on your Muse albums? Done! Essentially a prayer for the fallen victims of the drones in action around the world, the song is definitely one of the oddest tracks Muse have recorded, with Dominic Howard's drums and Chris Wolstenholme's bass both absent, replaced by looping layers of Matt Bellamy's voice as he sings a memorial to those killed (possibly over the course of the album).
So, was this the 'back to the roots' album we were promised by Muse? Of course not, but we should by now perhaps learn to take what we're told in interviews during recording with a pinch of salt, seeing as past albums have been mooted as "being full of ABBA-esque pop songs". Taking the concept album approach was the next progression for Muse, allowing them to plough their creative energies into one succinct story, which in turn makes their intention of creating their 'best album' ring true. While a couple of the tracks may meander and not score direct hits, the album as a whole has a great plot, with the aforementioned shades of both Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' and Roger Water's solo album 'Radio KAOS' (which ends with a narrowly avoided global nuclear catastrophe). Overall, it's an album to take in during a single listen, and then immerse yourself in over time. If this is the results of Muse's first foray into a fully-fledged concept, then the prospects are good for the future. For a band seven albums in and entering their 21st year as a going concern, things are looking bloody good for the lads.
Review by Pete Muscutt