In April 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed a group of U.S. newspaper publishers on the value of a free press in a world threatened by "a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy," a government by "intimidation instead of free choice" where "dissenters are silenced, not praised." He didn't mention communism by name; he didn't have to. The British power trio Muse sample Kennedy's speech in the middle of their seventh studio album, Drones. Singer-guitarist Matthew Bellamy does not cite specific evildoers in his lyrics, but the implication in this progressive-metal holocaust is obvious: They are us.
Drones is a truly guilty pleasure, like watching The Daily Show and knowing Jon Stewart's best jokes start with someone else's colossal error or hurt. The concept here is even darker than Muse's 2012 planet-death treatise, The 2nd Law: the long-distance killing of modern warfare and the collateral damage in conscience and ideals. Drones, of course, can come on two legs. "I am crushed and pulverized/Because you need control," Bellamy wails in the stark opening electro-funk of "Dead Inside," like an anguished mash-up of Bono, Freddie Mercury and Jason Bourne.
But Drones is also Muse's welcome jump back from recent ornamental extremes to the simpler brawn and riff heroism of 2001's Origin of Symmetry. While the marching-ghosts beat and robot-choir effects in "Dead Inside" suggest a totalitarian Depeche Mode, Bellamy's guitar solo — loaded with fuzz and death-yelp sustain — pierces the gloom with advanced-grunge vengeance. And the rolling snort of his guitar figure in "Psycho" is malicious bliss, bulked up with Chris Wolstenholme's caustic, descending bass and Dominic Howard's punch-to-the-heart drumming. As Bellamy points out in his mock-opera chorus line — "Your ass belongs to me now" — resistance is futile.
This meaty dystopia was co-produced by Robert John "Mutt" Lange, famous for stuffing every air pocket on Def Leppard's Hysteria with vocal and guitar-lick detail. But he also produced AC/DC's Highway to Hell and Back in Black, and he serves Muse's sci-fi-Cream strengths with the same focus. There are plainly Eighties flourishes: the U2-style raindrop piano in "Mercy," the blatant Queen-harmony grenades of "Defector." But the heart of the action in most of these songs is a chunky update of the guitar-bass-drums charge of Origin's "New Born" and "Stockholm Syndrome" on 2003's Absolution. It's what Muse do best; it's good to hear a lot more of it.
Bellamy's narrative actually ends early; the warrior comes home, spent and done with fighting, to a spindly-soprano guitar solo in the spacey "Aftermath." The final tracks, "The Globalist" and "Drones," are basically wreckage: the first a grand hymn of despair with a hot jam in the center; the latter an a cappella death toll sung by a choir of Bellamys. It is a nervy finish, just short of mawkish, about a real and present danger: When a great nation surrenders its principles, it becomes just lines on a map, not worth the dying.