Muse 101: English Rockers to Return to Their Beginnings on ‘Drones’
Ahead of the their seventh full-length, Drones, Muse frontman Matthew Bellamy told Rolling Stone the album is a return to form of sorts. “Our intention was to go back to how we made music in the early stages of our career,” he explained, “when we were more like a standard three-piece rock band with guitar, bass and drums.”
That’s a somewhat radical statement from a band that is nearly unrecognizable since its 1999 debut, Showbiz, in terms of sheer scale alone. Since then, the English stadium-rockers’ arrangements have become heavier and more experimental; their concepts more heady; and their stage antics more theatrical and over-the-top. Nevertheless, Bellamy promises that Drones -- their first LP since 2012’s The 2nd Law -- will strip back their arrangements in a way that is reminiscent of the band’s beginnings, which date back to when the trio first met as college students in their hometown of Teignmouth in Devon, England.
Muse got their start when Bellamy auditioned to join Dominic Howard’s band, Carnage Mayhem. However, they soon struck out on their own, bringing Christopher Wolstenholme in on bass, with Howard on drums and Bellamy providing guitar and vocals. Before settling on Muse, the newly minted outfit ran through a series of names that ranged from Gothic Plague to Rocket Baby Dolls.
Together, they made their debut with a pair of EPs: 1998’s Muse EP and 1999’s Muscle Museum EP. The latter garnered the band critical attention and radio play, eventually landing them a deal with Taste Media, which would release Muse’s first three albums in the U.K. Muscle Museum also helped fuel the band’s debut full-length, Showbiz -- which arrived later that year -- which included four re-recorded versions of the EP’s title track, “Sober,” “Uno” and “Unintended.”
For the album, the band gathered a collection of songs largely written over the course of the past three years that established their signature prog-rock sound. Bellamy’s vocal delivery and introspective songwriting, however, drew comparisons to Radiohead.
It was their sophomore follow-up, 2001’s Origin of Symmetry, that acted as the band’s breakthrough moment in the U.K., peaking at No. 3 on the charts there. The album saw Muse shifting from their guitar-bass-drums setup and adopting pipe organ, mellotron and an expanded drum kit. The English alt-rockers’ adaptation of Nina Simone’s rendition of “Feeling Good” became emblematic of the band’s original direction and impressive experimentation.
However, Muse parted ways with their U.S. label Maverick Records after it requested Bellamy change his falsetto vocal style for something more radio-friendly. The band refused and, as a result, the album wasn't released stateside for another four years.
Muse went on to drop Hullabaloo in 2002 -- a collection of live cuts and rarities -- before releasing their third full-length, Absolution, in 2003. The LP built upon Origin of Symmetry’s dark and ambitious dynamics with string arrangements. “Butterflies and Hurricanes,” specifically, brought with it rock opera-esque grandeur.
The album marked the first time the band honed in on a single, coherent theme driven by Bellamy and company’s political inclinations. As a result, Absolution employed apocalyptic imagery to deliver a message steeped in skepticism and distrust. The album debuted at No. 1 in the U.K. and charted for the first time ever in the U.S.
The trio returned three years later with Black Holes and Revelations. Co-produced by the band themselves, the album added electronic elements into their continually growing arena-rock. As the title suggested, the band used their fourth album to explore sci-fi concepts alongside the Bellamy-led crew’s political commentary (as heard on “Take a Bow” and “Exo-Politics”). However, The album’s second single, “Starlight” -- which delivers lyrics containing the album’s title -- served up a more optimistic and earnest stadium anthem that peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. charts.
In 2009, the band dropped their fifth LP, The Resistance, for which the band took on all of the production duties. It also boasted a Muse more confident and ambitious than ever, exploring an Orwellian concept while Bellamy and company incorporated classical influences and took cues from Queen -- even closing the album with the three-part “Exogenesis: Symphony.” The Resistance was the band’s third straight No. 1 album in the U.K., and it even earned them the Grammy for Best Rock Album and an opening slot on U2’s 360 tour.
Ahead of Muse’s 2012 album, The 2nd Law, Bellamy revealed that the band had plans to integrate more electronic elements, dubstep and funk into their cinematic prog-rock. Likewise, the band’s live shows were becoming increasingly larger-than-life, implementing pyrotechnics and the latest sound and video technology.
In keeping up with their esoteric streak, The 2nd Law’s title referred to the second law of thermodynamics, which asserts that an environment that continuously expends its energy is inherently unsustainable. It’s interesting then that Muse have chosen their forthcoming follow-up album as the time to take a step back from the sheer magnitude in sound established on their preceding albums. At the rate Muse were going, their brand of towering prog-rock was becoming more and more unsustainable one album at a time.
Nevertheless, Drones already boasts the distinctive Muse thumbprint. Even more political than before, Bellamy says the band’s latest album will delve into a dystopian concept that touches on the detached nature of drone warfare, its lack of humanity and a society that blindly submits to it. While Drones may strip back some of the bombast and theatrics of recent Muse albums, lead single, “Dead Inside,” still depicts Bellamy and company as being just as ambitious and adventurous as always.