The journeymen of Muse are masters in the art of subversion. It can be heard in their mingling of message and melody as singer Matt Bellamy urges, "You can revolt!" on the trio's new album, "Drones," within the most disarmingly sunny vocal imaginable.
Most of the new album is a lot noisier, and just as angry. The band from Devon, England, is often at its best while operating in a state of grand ambition and generational panic, not unlike Pink Floyd's later albums with Roger Waters. Its concerns are geopolitical and human-scale, and were enough to fuel a massive high-concept stage production Friday at Staples Center, in the first of two sold-out nights.
The band's two-hour set began in the dark, with the rising, ethereal voices of the title song, "Drones," as several large transparent globes floated above the crowd like Spielberg UFOs, both peaceful and vaguely threatening. The song had the sound of ancient, sacred music, but on a circular screen were the lyrics: "Our lives between your fingers and your thumb / Can you feel anything? Are you dead inside? Now you can kill from the safety of your home with drones."
Muse is clearly uncomfortable with the concept of drone warfare, but the larger themes of its "Drones World Tour" are longtime interests of the band: war and peace, oppression from government and technology, the coming apocalypse and what comes after. In 2011, that sociopolitical angst was enough for Muse to be invited by Rage Against the Machine to perform at its L.A. Rising festival at the Coliseum. Where some hear only prog overkill and pop hysteria in Muse, fans find meaning and an ongoing legacy of engaging hooks.
Before the new album, we last heard the trio during repeated airings of "Survival," its theme song for the 2012 Summer Olympics, which soared with eccentric melodies and images of triumph like a collaboration between Sparks and Leni Riefenstahl ("I'll never lose / And I choose to survive / Whatever it takes ...") It appeared on the album "The 2nd Law."
Things have grown only bigger for Muse since then. Its performance at Staples was marked by multilayered computer animations and flying objects, as Bellamy and bassist Chris Wolstenholme sprinted across three circular stages connected by a catwalk. Fans surrounded on all sides, absorbing a collision of modern rock, metal, electro-pop and '70s prog.
The concert's peaceful hymnal opening song was shattered by the guitar crunch of "Psycho," with a thumping beat from drummer Dominic Howard, as Bellamy pushed the message further, singing: "Are you a human drone? Are you a killing machine?"
The pleading vocal on "Dead Inside" was contrasted by "Hysteria," the 2007 single that erupted with an operatic wail and an Aerosmith-style riff played by Bellamy. "The 2nd Law: Isolated System" began with a heartbeat rhythm on drums, and fans clapping along, as computer-animated hands controlled strings that reached down to Bellamy and Wolstenholme.
Bellamy shifted into some Hendrix-style feedback and falsetto vocals to open "Supermassive Black Hole," as globes returned to float around the stage. He sat at a grand piano for "United States of Eurasia," which began almost too quietly for the room, then exploded with crescendo after crescendo, far more Queen than Floyd, before Bellamy and piano descended into the stage floor.
The trio was augmented throughout by keyboardist Morgan Nicholls. Muse piled on more career hits late in the set ("Time Is Running Out," "Uprising") but never broke character from the larger themes of the night. Even President John F. Kennedy made an appearance, through footage from a 1961 speech that warned of "a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence ... on intimidation instead of free choice."