Just when you think the era of over-the-top arena acts has passed, British rock trio Muse continues to push the boundaries of the arena-rattling spectacle in support of its new album “Drones.” Expansive anthemic choruses, emotional vocals and legendary riffs accompanied a few dozen trucks’ worth of stage equipment and special effects as Muse rolled into the Verizon Center for the final show of their North American tour Monday night.
The 22-song set served to represent the band’s most recent work against the backdrop of its extensive catalogue. The arena was transformed into an all-encompassing musical and visual spectacle while the band flitted effortlessly between popular ballads like “Starlight” and “Dead Inside,” hard rock riffage on “Knights of Cydonia” and electro-symphony on “Isolated System.”
The band emerged clad in all black, as if in support of something larger than themselves. Known for glittery outfits and outrageous stage antics, including holding the world record for smashing guitars, lead singer and guitarist Matthew Bellamy was noticeably restrained, preferring to let the music and elaborate production do all the talking.
The hugely anticipated follow-up to 2012’s “The 2nd Law,” “Drones” was released last summer to mixed reviews, with critics stating the band had overshot itself. All criticism of the album itself aside, in a live context, each song from the album made perfect sense.
The concept of the album was readily apparent in the futuristic soldiers patrolling the perimeter of the stage with glowing blue eyes, death-star-like orbs drifting above a rotating stage, perfectly synchronized lighting and cinematic genius projected on retractable silk banners that hung from the ceiling.
The show kicked off with “Drones,” a soft choral arrangement featuring the provocative lyrics, “My mother, my father/ My sister and my brother/ My son and my daughter/ Killed by drones.” From the outset, it was clear the band meant to send a message. The arena then erupted when “Psycho,” the album’s leading single, began with its thunderous trademark riff.
The set was laden with older selections, including the fan favorite “Citizen Erased” from the band’s 2001 album, “Origin of Symmetry.” Introduced by Bellamy as “one for our die-hard fans out there,” the song featured all that makes Muse great: a huge riff, a thoughtful arpeggiated interlude and a classically arranged piano ending.
The band segued to fan favorite “Hysteria.” Featuring Bellamy’s signature fuzzy guitar tone, it is anchored by bassist Chris Wolstenholme’s in-your-face bass line. Wolstenholme plays bass in a way that distinguishes him from a standard accompanying bassist, as he is the driving force behind many of Muse’s songs. The end of the song saw Bellamy skipping in circles around the stage while laying down the “outro” to AC/DC’s “Back in Black”.
“The Handler” is perhaps the hardest-rocking song in the band’s catalogue, which is certainly saying something. A broody guitar riff paired with Bellamy’s splitting falsetto creates an exceptionally unique track. Bellamy and Wolstenholme positioned themselves in front of projected puppet strings connected to floating hands, while a pair of specter-like eyes brooded over drummer Dominic Howard in the center of the stage. The result was cinematic perfection that only a few bands dream up, let alone dare attempt.
Bellamy’s classical piano training was on full display for songs “Apocalypse Please,” and “The Globalist.” The latter, featuring a Star Wars-inspired spaceship soaring above the lower section of the arena, started with a whistle, and intensified into an ear-splitting metal crescendo before resolving into a tender piano piece with the lyrics, “A trillion memories/ Lost in space and time for ever more/ I just wanted/ I just needed to be loved.”
Howard was center stage the entire night, and his booming drums reminiscent of Def Leppard were likely inspired by AC/DC producer “Mutt” Lange, who co-produced the album. The band’s musical chemistry has made them one of the most popular acts from Great Britain in decades and was visible during numerous spontaneous riffs, including that of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker.”
“Reapers,” one of Muse’s most technically demanding songs, opened with an Eddie Van Halen-esque finger-tapping intro, and featured a solo full of pitch-shifting effects. Lyrically based on the MQ-9 Reaper drone employed by the U.S. military, the song focuses on the dispassionate and wanton nature of drone strikes: “I’m just a pawn, and we’re all expendable/ Incidentally electronically erased.”
The band has found its niche in representing anti-authority, anti-government and anti-military themes on the back of Bellamy’s emphatic politically charged lyrics. This precedent is no more on display than in “Drones,” a concept album focused on impersonal killing, mind control and world domination gone wrong.
The eponymous “Drones” was the most sobering moment of the night. The melancholy vocal round was accompanied by sobering depictions of a post-apocalyptic universe projected across the length of the arena. The set closed with the starkly contrasted “Mercy” — perhaps the albums most upbeat song — featuring confetti and streamers that created a post Super Bowl atmosphere.
“You have to see them live” is a cliche about bands that do not fully realize their potential from the sterile confines of the studio. For Muse, the phrase could not be more applicable. The band laid down one of the greatest sets of the year Monday night at the Verizon Center in an all-out assault on the audience’s audio and visual senses, and the band defined its new artistic identity with songs that complement those responsible for catapulting them to the upper echelons of rock. For longtime fans and new converts alike, the show was a thrill ride throughout.