Four years after the storming return to form that was ‘…Like Clockwork’, Josh Homme and his motley crew are back again, with an arsenal of debauched, amped up stoner rock tunes to help you forget the political Armageddon that has descended on the US since their last record.
While some artists have dived head first into the fragile state of America under Trump, ‘Villains’ is very much business as usual for Queens Of The Stone Age, with Homme declaring: “Queens has always been like an ice-cream parlour or a video arcade, it’s safe from the bullshit of the day.” But the desert rock icons haven’t made it to rock A-lister status, hanging out with the likes of Dave Grohl, John Paul Jones and Elton John, just from playing it safe. Whether it’s the industrial touches of the Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails)-produced ‘Era Vulgaris’ or the semi-concept radio style production of their 2002 magnum opus ‘Songs For The Deaf’, there has always been a distinct weirdness to their alternative rock sound. This time the curve ball comes in their choice of producer — the snake-hipped, funk-loving DJ Mark Ronson, a man more likely to be seen hanging out in Hollywood with Bruno Mars than in the LA the desert with this band of misfits.
Though perhaps a bizarre coupling at first, as with much of QOTSA’s off-kilter discography to date, it works. There’s an inventiveness that only this band could pull off in seamlessly blending their characteristic sludgy, distorted guitar riffs with such indulgent dance hooks. In one fell swoop creating their own sub-genre of the already fragmented realm of rock music that one can only defined as “strut rock”. Lead single ‘The Way You Used To Do’ acts as a fine example of this, conjuring up images of Homme strutting around his home studio in Joshua Tree gleefully spitting lines like “Is love a mental disease or lucky fever dream? I’m fine with either” over the song’s preposterously catchy hook.
It’s elsewhere on this record, however, that Homme and Ronson really flex their muscles in terms of production. Album opener ‘Feed Don’t Fail Me’ makes use of an ascending industrial synthesiser to create a dark atmosphere, somewhat akin to Brad Fiedel’s soundtracks to the first two Terminator films, before exploding into a stomping dance-rock riff. Such synths crop up again on the agitated ‘Un-Reborn Again’ and seductive ‘Hideaway’ giving both tracks a hint of the ‘80s-era Bowie. In fact, such inspiration can also be felt on ‘Domesticated Animals’ with Homme crooning like a latter-day Bowie on a rather dark acid trip who’d grown up listening to the primal stoner rock of bands like Kyuss.
Further highlights come in the form of the stomping, prickly ‘Head Like a Haunted House’, whose ferocious drum intro will be sure to incite many a moshpit. This track sees the band crossing slick rock ’n’ roll sensibilities with a storming punk tempo to pulsating effect reminiscent of their earliest material. The album ends on the double hit of the hypnotic ‘The Evil Has Landed’ and beautifully melodic ‘Villains Of Circumstance’ (whose name derives from the Tears For Fears track ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’), showcasing the band in their two best forms. Transitioning from fast-paced, dizzy sledgehammer hooks to the newfound knack for the anthemic slow-burn (as seen on ‘The Vampyre Of Time And Memory’ and ‘…Like Clockwork’).
There are still missteps, however. The metaphor on ‘Fortress’: “If ever your fortress caves, you’re always safe in mine”, feels almost lazy in its execution and stands out as one of the record’s weaker moments. As a whole the album appears lacking in Homme’s trademark razor-sharp critiques and turns of phrase that gave previous tracks like ‘I’m Designer’ and ‘Lost Art of Keeping a Secret’ that extra biting zing. This has been traded in for a greater focus on musicality and even more surprisingly some fragile moments of vulnerability on ‘Villains Of Circumstance’ and ‘Fortress’.
‘Villains’ is Queens Of The Stone Age at their darkly seductive best, from the garish cover art to its well-crafted production, this is an album that proves that there is still a place for rock music in the mainstream of 2017. If ‘…Like Clockwork’ saw the band step towards classic rock territory, ‘Villains’ sees them edge back towards the more experimental and creative. Like a wiser, crazier older brother. Ludicrously cool but still managing to maintain a slick wit and intriguing weaving song structures. ‘Villains’ is the kind of album that sits at the back of class openly smoking a cigarette but still manages to ace its exams at the end of the year.
Words: Rory Marcham
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