While English trio Muse was making terrific prog-rock records in the early 2000s, Americans largely ignored them. The Bay Area and other large metropolises notwithstanding, Muse didn’t break out until 2009’s The Resistance, the first of three sub-par efforts (from an originality and songwriting standpoint) that has turned them into arena headliners in this country.
But Muse have always been more than musicians. They are performers and artists. Singer-guitarist Matt Bellamy, bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard are constantly striving to up their complete performance. And on that level, they truly are one of the best bands today. Tuesday, the band brought their Drones World Tour to Oracle Arena in Oakland in support of their eighth full-length album, Drones, and proved once again that they are a force to be reckoned with.
The show began with the album title track played over the PA; organ music reminiscent of Palestrina, and the launching of two lit-up orb drones. The orbs “danced” with each other prior to the band’s bombastic entrance onto the stage and the first chords of “Psycho.”
Back to the show in a minute. It should be noted that it was the only use of the drones during the show, other than an actual aircraft drone-shaped blimp. A malfunction between the dozen-plus drones and the operators prevented further use. So this Drones Tour show missed the “main event,” the drones. It should also be noted that most in attendance didn’t even notice their absence.
Another new track, “Dead Inside,” followed before Muse returned to earlier material with “Hysteria” (with the usual snippet of AC/DC’s “Back In Black”) and “Plug In Baby” (with Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child Of Mine” thrown in for good measure). The older material, which later included “Supermassive Black Hole,” “Starlight,” and show closer “Knights of Cydonia,” received the biggest fan reactions throughout the night.
The second-best show element was most definitely the production. Orb drones be damned, their absence was absolved because of so many other moving pieces. Muse has come a long way since playing at Popscene and The Concourse, when their production consisted mainly of projecting images onto their white suits. On this tour, the band performs in-the-round on a stage resembling a ship from some space adventure far, far away. A large round platform in the center of the arena floor (yes, this “Lazy Müsan” rotates) is flanked by two side stages connected by elevated catwalks. Above the stage, a round screen, reminiscent of U2’s 360 Tour, hangs from a cross-shaped suspension near the ceiling. If this suspension was the spine, the inactive drones were its vertebrae. Sheer sheets descended from the spine to increase capacity for projection. And finally, from the round screen, a light rig descended to increase the amount of strobe and spotlights into the dozens.
The complete set-up has been compared to Metallica tours of years past, and also resembles U2’s current tour. The stage, in essence, bifurcates the arena in half, allowing everyone to be closer to the action. But where’s U2’s tour was better musically with more diversity among song selection, Muse makes better use of the tech available to them. One of the Drones album highlights was “The Handler,” during which projection onto the screens made it appear as if the musicians were tethered to the strings of a nefarious puppet master. And on “Undisclosed Desires,” the band was enlarged to two stories tall in extremely effective hologram fashion. Locking the end of the main set to the encore was the two-song tandem of “The Globalist” and “Drones,” which featured an extreme high-definition video of the decline of a civilization, from the making of munitions to the aftermath of war.
Does Muse’s new material bring anything new to the table? Not really. Does that matter in-concert? Not at all. The Drones songs blend in seamlessly in a live setting.
Electronic New York duo Phantogram opened the show and was worth the early arrival, performing a roughly 30-minute set of songs from 2009’s Eyelid Movies and 2014’s Voices.
Muse (photos: Brittany O’Brien)