According to, well, just about everyone, hip-hop and R&B are the streaming generation’s musical genres of choice and rock is in a hard place.
Yet rock, or at least the style formerly known as alternative rock, is finishing out the year with a bang as two of its biggest acts — Imagine Dragons and Muse — are releasing new albums on the same day (today, Nov. 9). While the two acts hail from different sides of the planet (Imagine Dragons from Las Vegas, Muse from Devon, England) and would never be mistaken for each other musically, they do have a fair amount in common. Both bands are sleek arena rockers, and both have big ambitions and panoramic production that drives home their anthemic and often extremely catchy choruses.
The new studio albums — Imagine Dragons’ fourth; Muse’s eighth — find the groups shifting their sounds a bit, lightening up sonically while still lyrically tackling knotty topics, including philosophical conceits, existential dilemmas, romanticism and — in the case of Dragons frontman/Mormon LGBTQ activist Dan Reynolds — social outrage with a beat.
For “Origins,” Dragons’ producers Alex da Kid and Mattman & Robin have tamped down the epic flourishes and thudding bottom end that marked this album’s predecessor, “Evolve,” resulting in a more direct sound and message, particularly on “Natural,” a broad and booming, fist-raising anthem ripe with world weary warnings such as “Nothing ever comes without a consequence or cost.” However, that song is an anomaly here, as the bulk of the album sounds brighter, bolder, and even at times goofier than the band has in the past: The dubstep clomp of “Digital” and the Chainsmokers-esque “Only” break new ground, and the soul snap of “Stuck” is a light cumulus cloud on the Dragons’ weighty horizon.
The lightness, however, does not extend to the Reynolds’ lyrics: The chamber pomp of “Zeroes,” for example, seems deceptively lighthearted, but Reynolds sings of his anxieties and feelings of inadequacy with lines like, “Let me show you what it’s like to never feel / Like I’m good enough for anything that’s real.” Elsewhere, “Bullet in a Gun” looks at the fears of a man struggling with issues from bipolar disorder to aesthetic integrity, and “Bad Liar” talks of a “loveless year” and lists Reynolds’ fears and terrors as if he’s on a campaign trail of personal growth and wellness. Thus, the album finds Imagine Dragons traveling lighter musically while not losing any of their broad perspective.
In the nearly 20 years since the release of the debut album “Showbiz,” Muse have never been subtle, with musical ambitions and a big sound that matches the stadiums they fill in nearly every Western country except the U.S. Totalitarianism, war, mind control and other dystopic topics have been recurring themes in the group’s work, particularly its last few albums such as 2012’s synth-phonic “The Resistance” and this album’s predecessor, 2015’s “Drones,” which found the band’s gigantic sound channeled into an even bigger-screen template by Def Leppard/Shania Twain hitmaker Robert John “Mutt” Lange.
So it’s not shocking that on “Simulation Theory,” the group has scaled down a bit (how much bigger could they get?) writing, rhapsodizing and crooning about lighter topics than usual. Similarly, the group — along with co-producers Rich Costey (Interpol), Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple) and Timbaland (Jay-Z, Missy Elliott) — has also changed up its sound with a mix of electro-punkish riffs and sprightly beats filtered into its densely layered orchestration.
And while it’s still very much a Muse album — with an edge of impending peril and psychic dislocation thematically consistent its cover art, courtesy Kyle Lambert, renowned for his work on Netflix’s “Stranger Things” — here frontman Matthew Bellamy wants merely to escape the clutches of evil rather than acting as a master of war, like he did on “Drones.” “For all my life, I’ve been besieged/ You’d be scared living with my despair,” he moans on “The Dark Side.” “Break me out, break me out/ Let me flee/ Set me free.” Yet there’s also uplift: On “Something Human,” Bellamy sings, “Let’s face all our fears/ Come out of the shade.”
While neither of these albums is a reinvention, they find both bands upgrading and updating their sounds, refocusing their ambitions in a way that won’t alienate fans but also keeps them anticipating whatever might come next.