Seven albums into their career, Queens Of The Stone Age continue to amaze. 'Villains' is meticulously constructed, endlessly exciting and deeply rewarding
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By the time most groups reach their 20 year mark, they have relatively few things left to say. It’s not that a band of such vintage is unlikely to still craft worthwhile music, but rather it’s that a signature sound was established so long ago that few such acts feel the need to deviate from it. The fact that Queens Of The Stone Age, despite their debut album being released 19 years ago, have delivered one of the freshest and most exciting records of their career with ‘Villains’ only goes to illustrate why they’re one of few bands of a similar age to still be completely vital.
Alongside the announcement of their 7th long player came something of a surprise; the grand reveal of Mark Ronson as producer certainly raised a few eyebrows and furious declarations from certain quarters that the band had turned into “Queens Of The Pop Age”. In interviews leading up to the album’s release, frontman Josh Homme made no secret of the fact that he was well aware that a collaboration with Ronson would lead to some people writing off the band’s latest work without having even heard it. The choice of making such a left-field collaboration is certainly a mark of the group’s enduringly adventurous attitude and one that not only makes ‘Villains’ a better album than it probably would have been had Homme roped in more predictable collaborators, but also one that serves towards keeping the long-running act out of their comfort zone, a trait that defines all of the band’s previous six albums.
Indeed, although it is true that ‘Villains’ deviates – at times, significantly – from the tone of past QOTSA records, the same thing can be said of all of their past albums. There’s arguably no other band in modern rock music to have a discography as varied as QOTSA’s; they have taken in everything from strident, groove-heavy drug-rock to tender, heart-on-sleeve balladry with their fair share of buzzing, hallucinatory freak-outs and staggeringly tight explosions of fuzz in-between. The thread that’s always tied their discography together has been Homme’s singular brand of suave assault and one-off musicality; a trait that’s every bit as unmistakable on ‘Villains’ as it is any of their other albums. The band’s palette has evolved and so have their influences; although ‘Villains’ is the work of a band long-in-the-tooth enough that they sound like themselves and only themselves, there are definitely nods towards groups and styles that haven’t been explored on past efforts.
The petulant strut of ‘Un-Reborn Again’ suggests Marc Bolan tripping balls in a locked room full of analogue synthesizers; whilst lead-single ‘The Way You Used To Do’ hints at the direction Elvis Presley may have gone in had he discovered the joys of a good distortion pedal. The new directions that the band explore on the album are enough that ‘Villains’ can keep long-term fans on their toes; it’s experimental enough that even those who’ve invested years into the band’s discography won’t quite know what to expect on first listen. Despite this, though, QOTSA’s unmistakable essence is fully intact and sounding as good as ever here. There’re small nods to previous efforts that never feel like homage but are strong enough that they keep ‘Villains’ feeling perfectly aligned with the rest of the band’s discography.
One of the album’s key cuts comes towards the end of the record in the form of ‘The Evil Has Landed’ – a monolithic slab of rock-hard riffage that makes very overt nods towards Homme’s superb 2009 collaboration with JohnPaulJones and Dave Grohl – Them Crooked Vultures. The song is ‘Villains’ one concession to unreservedly old-school QOTSA, easily slotting in amongst some of the biggest and best titans such as fan-favourite ‘The Fun Machine Took A Shit And Died’ alongside much of 2002’s riff-centric ‘Songs Of The Deaf’.
Variety certainly isn’t lacking on ‘Villains’ and although much of the album looks forward rather than back, one moment that stylistically leans towards the band’s previous effort – 2013’s ‘…Like Clockwork’ – is album closer and nearly title track ‘Villains Of Circumstance’. By the far the most melancholic cut on the album, it goes some way towards approximating the frequently bleak outlook of its predecessor. It’s also perhaps the one cut where Ronson’s production and the bright sonic palette don’t quite gel with the song itself – originally aired by Homme at a solo acoustic show back in 2014, the song is likely the oldest cut on the album by a long way and more obsessive fans have had some three years to get to know the song as a stripped back moment of acoustica. While none were likely expecting the song to make it onto the album in such form, the juxtaposition of lonely contemplation in the verse and bright, soaring pop in the chorus marks the album’s only misjudgement and the one moment where production doesn’t quite serve the song as well as it could.
In many ways, ‘Villains’ is a melting pot of all the different moods and styles the band has toyed with over the years. It contains some of the most beautiful, melodic material Homme has ever written; but likewise contains the sort of gleefully heavy bombast QOTSA haven’t really committed to in the best part of a decade. ‘Fortress’ boasts some of the most emotionally hard-hitting lyrics Homme has ever penned and the landscape of piercing synths and tight grooves lend the song a fittingly vibrant, colourful backing. ‘Hideaway’, too, sees them chart some of their most unapologetically melodic territory ever – but for every moment of light, there’s another of joyously dramatic dark. ‘Head Like A Haunted House’ is a trigger-happy blast of vitriolic surf punk that nods to one of Homme’s key long-term influences, The Cramps. It rocks harder and faster than anything on ‘…Like Clockwork’ and harkens back to the group’s early days, at times even hinting at the mental aggro-punk of their Nick Oliveri fronted songs – although Homme’s typically cool delivery doesn’t quite allow the song to tip-over into the sort of anarchy frequently found on the band’s heaviest early material.
Some of the album’s key cuts offer a perfect middle ground of sorts; the utterly essential ‘Domesticated Animals’ is not only the album’s standout moment but one that manages to sound both strikingly melodic (it’s a guaranteed earworm after a few listens) and forcefully heavy, as the track’s numerous crashing crescendos make clear. Album opener ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’ likewise melds vociferous drums with fuzzy and hugely danceable guitar in a mixture that, fittingly, proves a brew too potent not to get up and move to. It’s on moments like ‘Feet Don’t Mail Me’s surging climax where the addition of prominent lead synthesizer lines are most felt; the shimmering chimes that overlay the songs final moments add a chillingly powerful new dimension to a sound that’s never been lacking in depth. Production, too, works in the favour of these songs, with Ronson providing a crisp, sharp tone that puts his own stamp on the QOTSA sound without trampling over the band’s own long-held identity – it’s brave (and therefore inevitably controversial) but it works.
‘Villains’ is another masterpiece from Queens Of The Stone Age and another move in a new direction in a career consisting of nothing but them. It’s vital, well written, sharply arranged and produced with pinpoint clarity. In places accessible and in others deeply nuanced (and frequently both), it’s an album – as with the group’s other efforts – which not only stands up to but deeply rewards extensive repeat playing. Melodies are layered and complex enough that songs never feel shallow or one dimensional and Homme’s lyrics are ambiguous enough to remain intriguing long after they’ve been learned by heart but immediate enough to never feel oblique. ‘Villains’ is a fantastically well measured album and just another reason why QOTSA are arguably the most important rock band of the 21st century.