The newest Queens of the Stone Age album, titled Villains, is a tough pill to swallow. It’s by far the group’s most accessible, radio-friendly, and groovy LP yet, and that’s both a great and awful thing.
This band, fronted by lyricist and lead guitarist Joshua Homme, is known for being tough. If you gargle gravel, they brush their teeth with rusty nails in a baseball bat. Since their debut with their self-titled LP in 1998, they’ve been the gatekeepers of stoner, hard and desert rock. They gained a refined production sound with their follow-up album, Rated R, and perfected their sound in their opus Songs For The Deaf. Since then, their albums have been more experimental in nature, with 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze introducing slower, acoustic-guitar ballads and 2007’s Era Vulgaris forcefully propelling their flavor of desert rock into the 23rd century, including synths, Casio guitars, and a robotic rhythm section.
2013’s …Like Clockwork became a game-changer, and an outlier, in the Queens catalogue. Based around Homme’s near-death experience, this album created a new band and sound, including rich vocal performances and prominent melodic instrumentation, a stark contrast to songs such as Rated R’s “I Think I Lost My Headache”, that were centered around a single riff for up to eight minutes. Now, this history lesson is not for naught, I promise.
Villains enters the scene today, in 2017, a little confused and a little deranged. It combines Era Vulgaris’ affection for synths and …Like Clockwork’s tendency for lush and intricate instrumentation, but all filtered through producer Mark Ronson’s retro 80’s dance-pop amplification. It is worth noting that this is the first QOTSA album that does not primarily feature Homme’s own style of production. Ronson, known primarily for his collaborations with Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga, has a style of production that is like an instrument in itself, and is a prominent fixture of this album.
The opening number, “Feet Don’t Fail Me”, is an instant QOTSA classic. A minute long intro sets the mood for a night in the desert, but the burning guitars and ominous vocals transform into funk-colored extravaganza. The guitars are crisp and immediate, with the bass and drums taking a back seat in the mix, and the vocals being the obvious focus. While this works to great effect in the opener, this mixing style bleeds onto nearly all the following tracks, to mixed results. The lead single, and number 2 track, “The Way You Used To Do”, is a flat and unremarkable piece of dance-rock. By far, this is the lone pure disappointment in the album, but its placement in the album tracklist casts doubt on the rest of the album.
The classic Queens sound is resurrected in two standout tracks: “Head Like A Haunted House” and “The Evil Has Landed”. “Head Like A Haunted House” is a three-minute exhibition of pure firepower, directed by Jon Theodore’s relentless drum part and Mikey Schuman’s power-punk bass line. “The Evil Has Landed”, meanwhile, is a more than six minute song that always ends too soon for my liking. Every single second of this song is utilized to great effect, and the mixing on this song features the bass and drum sound more heavily than any other track on the album. These two tracks reflect on the Queens sound, of dirty stoner rock, while incorporating more filtered and crisp guitar lines and prominent vocals. This melding of old and new is undeniably what makes these two songs great, and is what I hope the band continues to strive for.
Unrelated to the mix, but another weakness of the album, is the amount of filler. The songs “Domesticated Animals”, “Fortress”, “Hideaway”, and “Un-Reborn Again” are all tracks that have very little to say musically, and are misguided, at best, lyrically. “Domesticated Animals” and “Un-Reborn Again” are tracks, similar to “Head Like A Haunted House” and “The Evil Has Landed”, that try to meld new and old, but the guitar hooks are not as catchy or inventive, and in the case of the 6:30 “Un-Reborn Again”, just drags on for far longer than necessary. The only highlight for either of these tracks comes at the end of “Domesticated Animals”, where Homme lets Schuman’s primal scream vocal gain a little bit of prominence for a line or two.
“Fortress” and “Hideaway” are the mid-tempo songs of the album, and as such, they lack any sort of forward momentum or intensity. However, the real downfall is the lyrics. They attempt to be very emotionally-charged tributes to Homme’s children and wife, asking them to find solace in him as a father/husband in “Fortress”, and revealing a bit of insecurity and vulnerability at the thought of being an emotional rock in “Hideaway”. The conceits are very interesting and definitely a new avenue of lyrics for Homme, but they fall flat due to the un-compelling nature of the songs. Additionally, the vocal performance on Fortress is the album’s worst, not something you would want for a love letter to your family.
The title track and closing number, “Villains of Circumstance”, combines everything I have just previously commented on and throws it into one song. The mix is typical (low bass/drums, high guitars and vocals), the song lacks intensity or purpose at times, but in the last minute, reveals a bit of experimenting with a minute long guitar solo and a total deconstruction of the melody. The lyrics are also the strongest on this song on the album, a well-needed feature of this song, which is ultimately about Homme missing his loved ones. The album manages to stagger to a memorable end, but lacks the swagger of previous albums to really say that it’s a confident end. Additionally, “Villains of Circumstance” is a song that completely betrays the disco/funk aspect of the rest of the album, and throws question into Ronson’s presence on the track. “Villains of Circumstance” feels like a track that really belongs on …Like Clockwork.
Other quick comments: an over-reliance on synths/keyboards in melodic construction brings down the album and creates an atmosphere of similarity in many of the tracks, and the lack of risk in song structure reveals little reason to return to many songs.
This would be a perfect QOTSA release had the album been only “Feet Don’t Fail Me”, “Head Like A Haunted House”, “The Evil Had Landed”, and “Villains of Circumstance”, but overall feels half-baked and rushed. Admirably, there’s a sense of urgency to the change of sound, like Homme wants to get out of the desert and into the club, but this urgency comes at the risk of tripping and knocking into the bouncer. Villains’ feet didn’t necessarily fail, but a full-fledged run seems far away.
By: Jackson Wright