British rock trio Muse has got the dehumanizing qualities of modern warfare and technology on its mind on its seventh album, "Drones." Frontman Matt Bellamy (above) has said that the album was partly inspired by reading UMass-Dartmouth professor Dr. Brian Glyn Williams's book "Predators: The CIA's Drone War on al Qaeda." The hard-hitting, mixed collection ruminates on war (of both human and remote-controlled varieties), hopelessness, mind control, empathy lost and found, and, ultimately, the crucial need for the human touch to remain a factor in contemporary life.
The concept is a loose one and not a necessity to enjoy the individual songs, many of which serve as reminders of why Muse has become such a popular band over the course of its first six albums. The group has successfully synthesized bits and pieces from the pop, rock, prog, and metal worlds — including forebears like Queen and Van Halen — into accessible, tuneful mainstream rock. The trio has also masterfully translated its studio work to the arena stage, swinging for the fences with admirably shameless rock-operatic zeal.
One of the more notable aspects of "Drones" is that it was coproduced by the band — multi-instrumentalists Bellamy, Dominic Howard, and Chris Wolstenholme — alongside the legendary, and somewhat reclusive, Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who has helmed blockbuster albums for AC/DC (including "Back in Black"), Def Leppard, the Cars, and ex-wife Shania Twain.
Muse's members were clearly already students of Lange's ear candy hallmarks — giant stacks of harmony vocals, sweet pop melodies wrapped in barbed guitars — and incorporated them into its sound. Unsurprisingly, they double down on "Drones" to satisfying effect.
That means broad strokes, big beats, and expertly placed electronic filips and vocal processing as the band explores its big themes in ways both satisfyingly corrosive, such as the speedy metal riffage of "Reapers," and oddly saccharine, as on the somewhat corny and generic uplift of "Revolt."
Muse fares better when churning out inspiring head bangers where nuance isn’t a major factor, including the urgent, rumbling “Psycho”and the catchy, defiant “Defector,” than with “Aftermath,” a ballad that sounds for all the world like a wedding song, or with the clunky lyrics of the otherwise enjoyable “Mercy.” But lead single “Dead Inside” is among the delights, a fuzzy wriggler that conjures fond “Radio Ga Ga” memories. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL "Dead Inside"