Here we are in the first month of the new year and already Brit stadium art-rock act Muse has dropped an overripe cliche on us. The trio's seventh album, Drones ( Warner Bros. Records ), is a concept album about an individual taking on mindless authority and impossible odds while remaining true to themselves. We've been fed this tale since The Bible ( David and Goliath ) so it is hard to fathom why Muse decided we needed to hear it again.
To be fair, Drones is a solid album and that "concept" feels unnecessary and distracts from the music. That is a shame, since the CD kicks off with "Dead Inside," a searing slice of art rock that promises an awful lot. The song is a coiled, slinky slow burner that comes drenched in dread and crackling electricity, giving front man Matt Bellamy the chance to wrap his operatic voice around the guitar figures like a python in heat. It's sad to say that the moment "Dead Inside" ends, Drones starts having problems.
The full-out rocker "Psycho" comes with a tirade from a drill sergeant as an intro, and although the accompanying phalanx of leaden guitars whirls with menace, the song devolves into a shriek fest. As he screams, "Your ass belongs to me" with all the hair-raising fury he can muster, Bellamy quickly dumps subtlety for ear-piercing volume. Although many of the songs on Drones are worthy of the best from Muse ( "JFK," "The Handler," the melodic near-ballad "Mercy" ), the band attacks the material with such blunt muscularity that the notes get steamrolled. Worse, for a recording concerned with inspiring the human spirit, Drones is disarmingly cold, sterile, abrasive and shrill.
In front of an adoring sold-out audience at The United Center on Jan. 13, Muse unleashed Drones with a state-of-the-art show designed to clobber the senses. Employing a multitude of visuals ( computer animation, aged film clips, a non-stop light show, video projections, an inflated drone that swooped over the heads of the audience ) and the finest sound mix that money could buy ( I have to admit, The United Center never sounded so good ), Muse came charging out and would not let up.
That one facet is what almost killed the show, making much of Drones and Muse's classics monotonous. "Psycho" went over better in this space but "Hysteria," "Map of the Problematique" and "2 Law" lumbered out, clumsy and oversized. To be fair, there were dollops of magic with "Time Is Running Out ( with its engaging build up )" and "Starlight" ( with drummer Dominic Howard trading savage beats against Chris Wolstenholme's dirty bass lines ) upending the show with genuine drama. Bellamy still seemed dead set against allowing a touch of nuance to creep onstage. His big chance for connecting emotionally with the audience came with the relatively straight forward "Mercy" late in the show. Unfortunately, Bellamy fudged that moment by singing and playing piano with all the finesse of a line cook at a truck stop tenderizing a steak with a pogo mallet.
On Jan. 8, I made the mistake of thinking that I was going to see out guitarist Honey Hole Johnson play a Gaelic-flavored set at The Galway Arms as part of The Old Lazarus' Harp winter concert series. What I did not expect was a fully loaded night of Irish music straight from the motherland with plenty of extras and zero pretense. To say the least, this night turned out to be quite the adventure.
First up was Katie Grennanwho not only dug into the Gaelic songbook with a fine lilting voice and a sharp way with her fiddlebut also brought along young members of the Irish Trinity Dancers, who were on their way to compete in a world championship in Scotland. Never mind that the performance space was crammed with tables and the overflow crowd; they still managed to dance their asses off without breaking a sweat.
Next up was Dan Gillespie, who mixed hardscrabble folk music into his set, imbuing it with spontaneity and edge. The night got surreal once The Wandering Boys, an acoustic bluegrass quartet with guest violinist Connor Ostrow, launched into a set of intricate and haunting blues. At the finish, Johnson popped up with drummer Matt Gonzalez for what turned into a rowdy set of raw blues jams that did not seem to have a thing to do with Ireland. That and the fact that I could not understand a single word that Johnson said was beside the point, with him bouncing up and down like a happy puppy and the rest of the room turning into a booty-shaking melee.
Heads up: Queer-flavored chilly art-rockers The Iceberg will play The Burlington Bar, 3425 W. Fullerton Ave., on Saturday, Feb. 20, while out rocker Mike Maimone and his band The Mutts hit Schuba's, 3159 N. Southport Ave., on Saturday, Feb. 27.