Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week Ryan Book, Yasmin Merchant and Ryan Middleton chat about Muse's new album Drones. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Ryan Book: THIS IS A CONCEPT RECORD. That, caps lock aside, was basically a quote from Matt Bellamy in the promotion of Drones, the new album from Muse. When a band is that blunt about labeling a song collection as a concept record, we're more-or-less forced to consider how well it operates as one. Therefore I pose the question to you, fellow Junk Mailers: How well did Drones stick together for you?
As a side note, I find it interesting that Muse has gotten this far-being about as big a prog band as it is/was-without releasing a proper concept album (your correspondent argues that Absolution and Origin of Symmetry were not).
Yasmin Merchant: If I didn't read what the story behind the album was before listening I'm not totally sure if I would've gotten it through the music alone. Some of the lyrics were a little vague and could've been applied to several situations. Also I was a little confused that they kept saying this album was "back to basics" when this seems pretty complex.
Ryan Middleton: I think the album has a clear common theme throughout—Muse's anger at the expanded use of drones throughout the world. However, musically, it feels a little disjointed. The six songs prior to JFK's speech have a real bite to them as they try and convey their political message and the the last five take a more theatric turn with slower rhythms and less fearsome guitar, notably on the almost choir-like title track "Drones."
How did it flow for you Book?
RB: I was actually quite surprised how connected the album was as a whole...at least compared to the concept records by Mastodon that I normally adore.
I think the trick is to consider the story from viewpoints that switch off. The more narrative of the two is that of the protagonist, whom I'll call "Matt" as I don't believe we get an actual name. This character is introduced during "Psycho," and you can tell when a song focuses on him, not just because of the content, but because Bellamy prefers a fuzzy guitar setup when he's in this role. This tone is especially noticeable across tracks such as "Psycho," "Reapers" and "Defector," as Bellamy has tended to prefer a cleaner guitar tone from Black Holes and Revelations on.
The other tracks, much cleaner and "rock opera" in approach, take a more overarching look at the theme. I don't think "Drones" refers to the flying military devices so much as a conformist society, engineered to be steered by big government and big business. Guest songwriter Ron Paul?
YM: I definitely think that's the message. Especially judging by the album cover, which shows the drone operator being controlled by what looks to be the hand of the government. I wonder if they picked the drone aspect of the military since it is very removed and remote from the action. It's killing from afar and there's less responsibility felt by those commanding the attack, such as in the lyrics "you will kill on my command and I won't be responsible." Also it's interesting that you say it sounds like a rock opera, because it truly does give off a theatrical vibe. I think I read somewhere that Muse wants to make Drones into a musical. Funny because while listening, the concept reminded me of American Idiot by Green Day and that was also turned into a rock opera.
RM: Muse, when they get political, can wander off subject on albums, but this one is remarkably more focused from start to finish. That could be them channeling a real anger at the subject of Drones, the military-industrial complex and a complicit society. As Bellamy says with his voice layered over itself like a full choir in "Drones," "Are you dead inside" (referencing song 2) and then getting ominous with their non-very-subtle final warning of the unmanned death machines, "Now you can kill safely from the safety of your home with drones." The crunchy guitar seems to try and highlight how blunt and jarring warfare, notably drone warfare can be and as a way to try and wake up society to the lies being spun by a powerful government.
Muse have always been a bit theatrical, but this one seems to take that one step further, notably on the 10 minute power-ballad "The Globalist," which highlights that second voice you mentioned, Ryan.
Maybe some joint-writing by Ron Paul and the show 24 based on this past season?
What are some highlights for you guys? For me the meat of the album—"Mercy" "Reapers" and "Defector"—are the strongest tracks.
RB: "A bit theatrical" is an understatement...Muse probably comes in just behind Queen in terms of theatric British rock acts.
I was prepared for the worst when the band dropped first single "Psycho." Bellamy had been such a blowhard about how it would be "banned from the radio" (because we haven't heard the f-bomb before, bro)...and the lyrics about the military brainwashing soldiers to form super soldiers...I was fully prepared for a brick-handed political album with all the subtlety of Castle Wolfenstein. I mean, hell, you couldn't even shell out to license the actual soundbites from Full Metal Jacket?
So...in case you didn't get the gist..."Psycho" was a tremendous disappointment for me. But then again, so were the albums The Resistance and The 2nd Law. "Mercy" grabbed my attention in a good way this summer, as did "Dead Inside." "The Globalist" packs the most promise for the future of the band, in my opinion. Genre definitions are debatable, but I'd label Muse a progressive rock outfit and I'd rather see them making 10-minute experimental singles than straightforward singles (a la "Madness") any day.
YM: I got the feeling that they were trying to channel Queen. I think with "Psycho" they tried a little too hard to be edgy, especially with the screaming scene between the soldier and commander in the beginning. I agree that "Mercy" was a highlight on the album. It was one of the few songs that got stuck in my head and I could actually sing alone with. My favorite part was how they incorporated the JFK speech with "Defector"—that time period really reflects a lot of the problems we have today so I think it was really smart to tie that in.
RM: Yeah I agree "Psycho" was a bit over the top. It serves more as shock value then anything else here. The track "reapers" is interesting not just because of how progressive it is, but also how much it embodies lyrically the message delivered in the rest of the album. The third verse: "You kill by remote control / the world is on your side / You've got reapers and hawks babe / Now I am radicalized." Muse was not subtle with the album title and this track as well. Reaper is the model of drone used by the RAF in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have flown more than 4,500 sorties since 2008.
"Mercy" is also a standout because it has that piano that Muse have used so effectively in the past. They wanted to make this a bare-bones guitar, drums and bass album, without all of the other stuff like EDM, which was incorporated in The 2nd Law, but I guess couldn't help it on this one. I agree Book, "The Globalist" is a promising direction for the band with longer, evolving tracks, kind of reminding me of Dream Theater a bit.
You guys kind of touched on it already, but how effective were those spoken word segments in the album?
RB: I've gotten to the point where any vocal interlude is viewed with extreme caution...in hip-hop they just add time to already overlong albums and in rock they tend to tread like a bull in a China shop with the message. "[Drill Sergeant]" is a joke but "[JFK]" does touch a nerve within the theme of the album...perhaps not quite in context but still striking.
Side note: My wife (a teacher, out for the summer) has been binge-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I was surprised at how much better Jean-Luc Picard seems to understand the combat of terrorism than recent heads of state.
Other side note: Despite my previous comments, I'll never tire of hearing "I have become death, destroyer of worlds" in any media.
YM: I agree that "Drill Sergeant" wasn't necessary and it didn't really add anything. But I like the spoken segments because I felt like it was a nice transition into the songs. I feel like a lot of them started too fast too soon and didn't have a lot of build up, like "Dead Inside."
RM: The first interlude with the sergeant yelling at the soldier is a bit much, but that is probably the point. The JFK speech is better suited for the album as Kennedy warns against the nefarious powers of communism and the Soviet Union, though he remains vague in his wording without naming those two specific parties. That vagueness can be applied to Drone Warfare and asymmetrical modern war in general, as the UK fights against vague ideas like "extremism," which are embodied in forces like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS, but the fighting an ideology remains the primary challenge.
RB: Alright, let's break it down then.
In my questionable esteem, Drones offers hope for Muse fans of old. The Resistance and The 2nd Law had me turned off for a while, but Matt Bellamy and co. show a reestablished commitment to pushing the progressive elements that grabbed listeners from 2001-'06, from alternative song structures to alternative time signatures. The best album that Muse has ever made, as Bellamy claimed? Nah...but it builds promise for future Muse albums...which I wouldn't have said last week.
YM: I'm not a regular listener of Muse, but I agree that this album holds enough promise that I will want to listen to them again in the future. There are a few songs that miss the mark, but I think overall the album is very energetic, thoughtful, and worth checking out.
RM: Though the album is a bit over the top, there are signs of greater things to come for Muse. They touch on a very topical issues here with the use of drone strikes and unchecked military power, as they have in the past with climate change and government power. They mostly stripped away some of the extra elements found on their previous couple albums and went with a rawer sound with just drums, bass and guitar. They managed to keep with the theme throughout, a big step and them and set the stage for more conceptual work with "The Globalist." Some songs fall short of their intended mark and the first interlude isn't really necessary, Muse have another quality piece of work to add to their discography.