Put on your headphones and strap them onto your ears with a belt. Don’t text, talk, Snapchat, Vine or Tindr for the next 53 minutes. Submit to a swirl of clumsy metaphors and a been-there-done-that narrative and become one with “Drones,” the cerebral new concept album by the British art rock band Muse.
The contemporary rock equivalent of an Andrew Lloyd Webber production, “Drones” pits man against the Machine, exploring mind control through heavy-handed lyrics about militarism, “men in cloaks,” a “CIA babe” and rebellion. As such, it addresses ideas better explored in classic works like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” George Orwell’s “1984" and Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy.”
Metal concept albums are a dime a dozen. Early templates such as Yes’ “Tales From Topographic Oceans” begat later indulgences from Rush, Queensryche and 30 Seconds to Mars. At their best, concept albums surprise. Mastodon’s “Leviathan” masterfully retold “Moby Dick.” Norwegian black metal band Emperor’s brutal “Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise” was set amid the birth of fire.
Pretentious? Perhaps, but the real crime here is blandness and predictability. “Drones” is a simple story that reads like a failed short story idea from Sci-Fi 101. Nuance? Not in “Dead Inside,” about the loss of the psyche, or in “Aftermath,” the telegraphed “love song” told from the perspective of a homesick soldier. Choice lyric: “I am coming home now / I need your comfort.”
The worst part of “Drones” is how flat it sounds in the hands of veteran producer Robert “Mutt” Lange. Muse are musician’s musicians, rightfully lauded for their skills and creatively labyrinthic structures. But the drums during “Defector” would have sounded dull even in the ‘80s, when Lange’s jumbo production techniques propelled acts including Foreigner, Def Leppard and AC/DC to the top of the charts. “Drones” sounds like Lange’s studio has been in storage ever since.
Given the right fuel, “Drones” might have charged right up. Unfortunately, Muse’s efforts can barely get off the ground and wouldn’t survive a war against a fly swatter.
1.5 stars (out of four)