Has Muse reached the end of the road with its seventh album, “Drones,” which last month earned a Grammy Award nomination in the Best Rock Album category?
After 22 years, is this internationally popular English arena-rock-meets-neo-prog band abandoning albums in favor of, well, something else? That is, something better suited to the many music fans who cherry-pick their favorite songs to stream or download, and place little value on albums as a cohesive body of work with a musical and emotional arc?
“We’re very aware that that’s how people listen to music these days, by cherry-picking individual tracks, and our decision to release ...'Drones’ was not really to go against that. But I think we felt like this might be our last chance to do an album, which is why we did it,” said drummer Dominic Howard, 38, who co-founded Muse in 1994 with singer/guitarist/keyboardist Matt Bellamy and bassist and backing singer Chris Wolstenholme.The band, augmented by keyboardist Morgan Nicholls, performs Thursday, Jan. 7, at Valley View Casino Center (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena.)
Muse, with Phantogram
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Valley View Casino Center, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., Midway District
Tickets: $55 (plus service charges)
Phone: (888) 929-7849
“The way people consume music has changed so drastically over the past 10 years, it’s insane,” Howard continued. “And I’m the same. I certainly don’t listen to albums all the way through now, like I used to. So we just thought, if we’re going to release an album this time, we wanted to make it an album that makes sense from start to finish. It makes much more sense to go from start to finish, than just hear one or two songs.
“Everybody has so many more distractions now that we kind of felt that releasing an album, in a traditional sense, might be the last time. In the future, it will be more and more unlikely we’ll do something like that. The world is a very different place. And the way people consume music is very different than it used to be. So we’ve been talking about just releasing small groups of tracks, or just singles, for quite a number of years now.”
If so, Muse is leaving albums behind with a major bang.
Nearly 53 minutes long, “Drones” is a wildly ambitious concept album filled with metaphors about war and the dehumanization of mankind. It is the kind of sprawling, epic undertaking that was more commonly heard in the 1970s, during the creative heyday of Pink Floyd and Yes.
The 11-song album features a 21-piece chamber orchestra, an excerpt from a 1961 speech by President John F. Kennedy, and one song, “The Globalist,” whose music is based on English composer Sir Edward Elgar’s 1989 “Enigma Variations.” The accompanying CD booklet includes four pages of lyrics and 11 pages of illustrations that underscore the album’s depiction of a Dystopian, man-vs.-machines world.
Alas, the band is not performing the entire album live in concert.
“No, it’s not start to finish, although it would be nice if it was,” Howard said. “We’re picking elements off the album and using it to convey what you call the arc of the story of the album, so that it’s spread through the whole show. We cover a lot of ground.”
Even without guest keyboardist Nicholls on its current tour, Muse has always created a lot of sound for a three-man band. This, Howard stresses, is no accident.
“We consciously decided to stay a three-piece at a very early stage in Muse’s evolution,” he noted. “We thought, prior to that point, that three instrumentalists was too little and we surely need a another guitar player or keyboardist. But we consciously decided to remain a three-piece and use that restriction to our advantage.
“As soon as we made that decision, we started playing in a different way, and all three of us stepped up our game as instrumentalists, and with our creativity, to make it sound big and full. So it just changed the way we played, because everyone in the band felt very exposed. We made an effort to make a big sound with three people, and that really affected the way we played. We’ve always been conscious of trying to be good musicians, all three of us. I don’t think we’ve ever said: ‘Oh, that will do. Let’s take the easy way’.”
At the same time, the drummer allowed, the band did hone its sound in its early phases to eliminate audio clutter and unneeded complexity.
“Now, we do what’s right for the song,” Howard said. “In the first five years, before we got signed, we took attempting to be really good very seriously. Our music was very complicated, and in many ways - very over-complicated and technical. We came from a (musically) uneducated technical background.”
Of course, in the case of Muse, what’s right for the song can be out of the ordinary by conventional rock standards.
Consider, for example, “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable,” the penultimate track from Muse’s sixth album, 2012’s “The 2nd Law.” Is that a Japanese Taiko drum Howard plays on the song?
“Good question! F---, yeah!” he replied. “I did that in London, at Air Studios, where we recorded most of the album. It’s an old church, with a massive room where they normally record orchestras and BBC stuff. They have a lot of gear hanging around and someone left a Taiko drum.”
A number of prog-rock fans, young and older, are happy to claim Muse as their own, even though the band’s music extends beyond prog.
For some listeners, there is something almost subversive about the way Muse works elements of prog into bigger-than-life songs that sound tailor-made for arenas and stadiums. Either way, prog is a tag Howard is slow to embrace.
“I don’t think there’s ever only just been one thing with this band; we haven’t just been prog or alternative-rock,” he said. “We’ve always moved around in lots of different styles, from meta to prog to pop. We cover a lot of ground, so I’m not really concerned with any kind of label as what the band might be.
“I just think of. like. Rush when I think of the term prog-rock, which is not the only band to think of (in that realm). It just reminds me of Rush, or ELO, and we don’t necessarily sound like those bands, but there are small elements...We’ve always been all over the place. And, next time, I don’t know what it will be. It’s a fine line between prog-rock and being overly experimental and self indulgent, or just pushing boundaries of what genres represent. And I prefer the latter approach.”
That said, there was something very prog (if not Spinal Tap) about the towering hydraulic lifts the members of Muse played on during part of their 2010 concert at SDSU’s Viejas Arena. Perched nearly 30 feet above the audience, the band delivered a dizzying performance, in more ways than one.
“They were pretty high, pretty scary, pretty wobbly,” Howard recalled. “Every time they moved, they wobbled, so it was edgy being up there. We probably got stuck up there the odd time or two. We started off the gigs on that tour with what looked liked three big towers. The drapes (on the towers) would fail every now and again, and not fall down (on cue). I really enjoyed that! I think Matt and Chris fond it more wobbly on the lifts, because they were standing up.”
At the end of the tour, we were like: ‘We’re never doing that again!’ ”