Muse’s status as the last of the great arena-rock bands remains undiminished with the Drones World Tour, which brought hugely anthemic choruses, stratospherically emotional vocals, bone-rattling riffage, and a few dozen semis’ worth of props and special effects to L.A.’s Staples Centre for two sold-out shows over the weekend. Rock fans who fret that there’s no one under 50 making music that’d inspire them to set foot inside a 20,000-seat venue again are remiss if they’ve overlooked the English trio, who are nearly as inspiring in that regard as they are inspired.
Talking about Muse’s own muses is a subject that bears addressing early and often, since the easy comparison points to various classic rock acts are what devotees and detractors find most or least attractive about the band. The staging alone at Staples brought up two most-mentioned touchstones. Presumably strictly by coincidence, the production design of the Drones tour bears a basic similarity to U2’s stage setup on their 2015 tour, with a long runway that basically bisects the entire arena in two, or at least for the full length of the floor, with big screen effects frequently descending over the ramps. In this case, though, the show is completely in the round, rather than having a main stage at one end, and the screens are a succession of willowy, transparent sheets, rather than LEDs. It makes for a pleasing, if not fearful, symmetry, with the 20,000 fans (in a very Muse-friendly market like L.A., anyway) all getting a pretty good 360 deal.
An even more relevant staging comparison than U2 is Pink Floyd, or Roger Waters, since singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy avoids any Bono-style rapport with the audience (his remarks were limited to a couple of murmured thank-yous). As emphatic political messages go, Bellamy prefers to let the giant floating gizmos do the talking. The FX centerpiece of the show is a dozen floating orbs meant to represent the impersonal war machines that are a recurring lyrical motif in the band’s recent Drones album, albeit outfitted with handsome mood lighting that actual defense contractors tend to leave out of their unmanned aircraft. These globes were a marvel of stagecraft — and you could see why there could be complications of the sort that caused a recent Muse show in Texas to finally go drone-less after being delayed by a couple hours. (December shows set for Las Vegas and San Diego were at the last minute pushed back into January, with “unforeseen logistical and technical challenges” cited as the culprit.) Things really got Floydian when a black bomber emerged and circled the entire arena, which can’t help but echo the moment when Waters has a WWII warplane crash during his Wall shows.
The other touchstones are musical: Muse has always been dogged by, or benefitted from, comparisons to Queen, though these came to mind less often at Staples, if only because the stacked harmonies on record couldn’t be reproduced live with bassist Chris Wolstenholme as the sole background vocalist. Bellamy, for his part, though, still does a fairly stunning job of being this band’s Freddy Mercury and its Brian May, with short, devastating solos that would make him a guitar hero if that were his sole function in the unit. “Reapers,” from Drones, was the most viscerally exciting six minutes of rock on record this year, and served the same function in concert, opening with “Eruption”-style noodling from Bellamy and going into a series of shifting riffs that James Hetfield and company might feel hard-pressed to keep up with. At other times, the synth-pop was strong, as Bellamy sometimes threw his guitar over his back to let unofficial fourth member Morgan Nicholls take over on keyboards, in moments that showed Muse to be maybe the only band that can competently veer between Metallica mode and Depeche Mode.
The show leaned ever so slightly more toward basic hard rock than earlier tours, reflecting a move away from electronic programming on the Drones album. With Robert “Mutt” Lang coming in to co-produce, it wasn’t clear whether his impact would be to stack the vocals even more — something they were already proficient enough at on their own — or whether they were hiring him to bring a little of his AC/DC fairy dust. Happily, it was more the latter, and you could feel Lang’s heavy touch in the show’s opening number, the profane antiwar tune “Psycho,” which Muse performed as a raunchy-blues power-trio number. After that, Nicholls joined them on keys and second guitar, visible but not prominent in a pit behind drummer Dominic Howard. But the delight in getting back to something slightly thrashier was evident in the way Bellamy occasionally began or ended songs with riffs borrowed from Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses, and, yes, a bit of “Back in Black” at the tail end of “Hysteria” (that one being no relation to the Def Leppard song).
Which is not to say that Muse spent too much less time busting out the pre-recorded dialogue snippets, original film footage, or Big Concepts that might have you asking, “Which one’s Pink?” The band has always traded on anti-authority, anti-government, anti-military themes, and never more so than on Drones, which is concerned with killing machines both mechanical and personal. A lot of the original footage created for the tour portrays a lovely, feminine android with sinister, glowing eyes, like a sister to the anti-heroine of Ex Machina. Those gender-specific concert visuals don’t exactly negate the question some critics raised about whether the album is really about the global powers-that-be, as Bellamy emphasized, or about his breakup with Kate Hudson. Certainly the issue is purposely confused in the album’s single, “Dead Inside,” among other tracks. But what guy hasn’t, in the wake of a breakup, conflated his ex with the military-industrial complex?
Just in case you thought Muse was no more than the sum of their classic-rock parts, Bellamy sat down at a piano for the night’s sole cover — of an Anthony Newley song, “Feeling Good,” from the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd. For all of their political veneer, there’s a subtle show-tune element underlying Muse’s studiously melodic music, too, that helps make them just about the least “drone-y” rock & roll band in earshot. If the intent of sending all those orbs around the venue was to give the audience bad vibes about modern warfare, you’d have to say mission not nearly accomplished, because this tour leaves you with far too much to feel good about.