Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
Label: Matador Records
Release Date: August 25, 2017
I have a very good friend called Brent (who also contributes to this site) and he and I have attended many, many shows together over the years. Some time ago Brent came into possession of a certain t-shirt which he has worn to literally every damn show we’ve been to since he acquired it. The shirt itself is rather boring as band shirts go—it’s black, contains no graphics of any sort, and simply reads Kyuss across the chest in a stylized yellow font—but he can’t make it through a show without at least one person enthusiastically commenting on it which serves only to further steel his resolve to wear it to the next show. Which he then does. Certainly, the company we keep at these gigs would know Kyuss—no surprise there—but I doubt he’d get a similar reaction if he were wearing a Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin shirt, which speaks to the considerable weight Kyuss’ name carries amongst those who attend small club shows featuring bands who likely owe all 3 of those legendary acts an insurmountable debt.
Joshua Homme of course famously cut his teeth with Kyuss in the early 90’s before venturing out to both shepherd the now-legendary Desert Sessions and found Queens of the Stone Age later in the decade. Given the nebulous and delightfully unfocused nature of both projects in those days, it’s perhaps a little surprising that QOTSA have congealed into the cohesive unit they are today but here we are, some 20 years in and—though the band’s revolving door of members number well into the teens—only one of the band’s five current members (drummer Jon Theodore, formerly of The Mars Volta) has been with the band less than 7 years. It seems the Queens have finally settled in for the long haul, though their 7th album, Villains, sounds like anything but the onset of complacency.
Much has been made of Homme’s declaration that Villains is a “dance album”. That in and of itself did not concern me because I’ve been shaking my ass to QOTSA for some time now, but the release of lead single “The Way You Used to Do” didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the direction of their sound—or, at least, it wasn’t really what I was hoping for. Fortunately, and much like an out-of-context punchline in a movie trailer, “The Way You Used to Do” sits just fine on this album but QOTSA did well to leave the album’s true gems buried within.
Not unlike 2015’s …Like Clockwork, Villains takes a nuanced and somewhat ominous sounding approach to the album’s tone-establishing opening bars, but whereas the former’s brooding “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” puffs out into a restrained procession of chunky, off-kilter riffs, the latter’s “Feet Don’t Fail Me” quickly explodes into a quintessential Queens banger behind a bouncing guitar riff that leads the pounding rhythm section straight into battle against whatever portion of your brain controls the urge to bob your head, signaling a much more upbeat approach this time around. It’s also readily obvious from the onset that the album is very cleanly produced, though I will admit that the decision to have noted pop producer Mark Ronson helm the project did cause me a bit of heartburn at first. Having worked with the likes of Lady Gaga, Lil’ Wayne, Bruno Mars, and Christina Aguilera, Ronson’s resume reads like the soundtrack to a nightmare in which I am abducted by terrorists and waterboarded through a used jockstrap with warm Bud Light. I probably should have known better given that Homme is well known for getting the best out of pretty much every collaborator he’s enlisted, be it Dave Grohl & John Paul Jones in Them Crooked Vultures, Iggy Pop in Post Pop Depression, or the myriad guests he’s employed on past Queens’ records (including freaking Elton John). To me, good production is as much about which nobs aren’t turned as much as the ones that are—much in the same way that a great songwriter recognizes the value of space and simplicity. For instance, when the swirling intro to “Domesticated Animals” acquiesces to Homme’s naked voice atop a syncopated 3-chord backdrop, it’s easy to both pick out the sort of vocal inflections that most modern recordings would sanitize via ProTools, and the little production flourishes which distinguish this recording from those that came before.
Directly attributable to the talents of multi-instrumentalists Troy Van Leeuwen (guitar, keys), Michael Shuman (bass, keys) & Dean Fertita (keys, guitar, percussion), Villains sees the Queens continuing to flesh out of their sound, primarily through the generous usage of keys and synths. “Un-Reborn Again” vibes out to synth tones that sound like they could have come straight off the Stranger Things soundtrack before transitioning into something resembling “Misfit Love” from the Queens’ 2007 Era Vulgaris album—an album which is again brought to mind on “Hideaway” with its similarities to “Suture Up Your Future”. Make no mistake: I’m paying Villains a compliment when I compare it to Era Vulgaris, an album which Villains feels like a natural extension of, even at the expense of making …Like Clockwork sound like a fairly stark deviation in retrospect. I mean nothing by it.
Homme, as always, delivers an excellent and wide-ranging vocal performance full of swagger & snark. For as much as he’s broadened his scope as a songwriter, he’s grown similarly as a singer, with both attributes demonstrated in equal measure across Villains’ 9 tracks—whether it be the earnest & heartfelt delivery of “Fortress” or the reverb-drenched punk vocals that punctuate “Head Like a Haunted House”.
Look, I really hate the term “reinvention”. It gets tossed around way too much when talking about music. How many times did we have to listen to critics gush over how Madonna “reinvented” herself as a means of validating the banal trend-chasing releases that followed her formative years? Too many damn times, that’s how many. Accordingly, I’m not willing to declare Villains to be a reinvention for Queens of the Stone Age—and quite honestly they’ve never really needed one—nor am I willing to call it their best album because that would just lead to a hair-splitting argument over the merits of their undeniably impressive discography. What I am willing to say about Villains, though, is that it is another stellar release from a band whose best quality is the unwillingness to ever sit still.
Buy Villains, then crank that sucker up way too loud and dance like nobody’s watching.