Muse bringing stripped-back Drones show to Hong Kong
Matt Bellamy and co go back to rock basics with a concept album about the dehumanising effects of remote warfare
When Muse last played in Hong Kong in 2010, the conspiracy-theory-obsessed three-piece staged a gig that was heavily laden with implied doom – robotic machinery, monolithic slabs that seemed to pulse with life and roving lasers hinted at a hidden menace that was yet to come.
With their latest album and tour, that hellish reality has arrived. As its title suggests, Drones explores the dehumanising effects of drone warfare. The music is stripped back and basic, in contrast to the synth-heavy orchestrations of their previous album, to give a more explosive feel to this most explosive of subjects.
At the same time the lyrics are direct, addressing the brutality of aerial bombing by emotionless, pilotless aircraft and the dispassionate reasoning that goes into decisions on their deployment.
It makes Muse’s next gig in Hong Kong at AsiaWorld-Expo on Monday next week all the more tantalising a proposition.
The genesis of Drones, which includes the single Dead Inside, lay in a meeting lead singer and guitarist Matt Bellamy had with former US secretary of state Colin Powell. The two were sat next to each other at a White House gathering Bellamy was invited to courtesy of his girlfriend, Hollywood star Kate Hudson.
Cheekily, Bellamy asked about the US military’s purchase of controversial bullets banned by the Geneva Convention. One-time military general Powell’s answer left a mark on the singer.
“It was an amazing deflection, and also a chilling insight into the military mindset – ‘When you’re out in the field and you want to shoot, you want to kill: quickly and cleanly’,” Bellamy told the NME magazine this year.
Powell’s apparent lack of empathy provided the kernel of a plan for the album, the band’s seventh. A full concept album, it portrays a guidance operator’s emotional journey through a career of killing from a distance.
“There’s a power structure there that is intoxicating to be a part of, and I think when people get offered the chance to become a part of that, they are willing to sacrifice a part of their inner morality. It becomes a culture of peer pressure – of ‘this is how we do things around here … didn’t you know?’ And before you know it you’re making kill decisions before breakfast.
“The moment you accept a computer making a kill decision, you’re into Terminator 2. The whole thing’s quite frightening, and I don’t think the public are really as aware as they should be of where this is all going, what it means.”
There’s always been a twitchy nervousness to Muse that’s more than a little unsettling but incredibly compelling. Coming together in the pressure-cooker setting of a small English seaside town, the three members fed off each other’s fertile imaginations, sparked by a shared love of trashy horror movies and conspiracy theories.
From UFOs and electronic spy networks to alienation and the impending apocalypse, Muse have until now been The X-Files in musical form. But with Drones, the Devon-based band appears to have landed in the real world.
They’re dispensing with sci-fi cityscapes and opting instead for a stark in-the-round stage set that will feature a swarm of real drones. It’s part of the band’s self-professed return to a stripped-down sound. There are fewer synths on Drones and even Bellamy’s guitars have been recorded with few effects.
“We wanted to go back to being more of a rock band,” burly bass player Chris Wolstenholme told Uncut magazine. “I think on the previous two albums we spent more time in the control room than the live room. We said, ‘Let’s just spend more time with the instruments in our hand’. I think we pretty much played every song live. I don’t think we’ve done that for a while.”
The band enlisted the help of famed producer Robert “Mutt” Lange to help shape the sound. The mercurial Lange, who has previously produced the likes of AC/DC and Def Leppard, appears to have ironed out Muse’s progressive rock tendencies.
“As soon as you pick up a guitar you’re up against the legends of rock,” Bellamy told Rolling Stone magazine of the recording sessions in Lange’s Swiss studio. “The same goes with stadium drum kits and electric bass. Essentially, you’re already in a soundscape that’s very familiar and has a lot of established legendary material recorded using those instruments.”
While Muse’s albums have tended to dwell on various grim themes – 2009’s The Resistance was about Big Brother-style control of populations, Absolution was apocalyptic in tone and Black Holes and Revelations took post-war collapse as its core – this is the first time they’ve recorded a full-on concept album. It’s also the first such album by a major band in a long time.
Part of the thinking behind the project was the declining importance of the album as a unit of music in the digital age.
“Apple, iTunes and streaming services have made the single a more easy thing to access,” Bellamy told Rolling Stone. “What that’s done has made the album as a collection of songs almost meaningless. But an album that has a concept or story or reason to be an album, if anything, has more meaning now than it ever has.”
Muse, Sept 28, 8pm, AsiaWorld-Expo, Hong Kong International Airport, Lantau, HK$780, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2853 7643