Queens of the Stone Age are back, after a four-year wait, with a seventh full-length album. The prodigal sons of desert rock, led by rambunctious frontman Josh Homme (pronounced Homm-me), have long been experimenting with their trademark formula of stomping riffs, soaring melodies, and Homme’s own complex, humour-laced lyricism, and Villains sees the chemistry re-energised and just as lively as ever.
On 2013’s …Like Clockwork, Queens of the Stone Age almost seemed to outdo themselves, as radio-friendly but unmistakeably infectious singles like “I Sat by the Ocean” and “My God is the Sun” occupied a tight 45 minutes alongside equally bold, swaggering, ear-wormy grooves like “If I Had a Tail”, featuring the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, and “Fairweather Friends”, featuring none other than Sir Elton John on piano and backing vocals. On Villains, the big-name celebrity guests are visibly absent, and the first single to pre-empt the full record’s release was the electro-rock swing rocker “The Way You Used To Do”, introducing fans to something markedly less muscular than anything from much-loved releases like 2002’s Songs for the Deaf. Never prone to stagnation, Queens’ new angle on their beloved sound seems to come largely from celebrity producer Mark Ronson, better known for his work with Amy Winehouse, and most recently with Lady Gaga.
The immediacy of Ronson’s pop influence, mixed with Queens’ hard-hitting sensibilities, comes through after a lengthy build into opening track “Feet Don’t Fail Me”, and an irrefutable beat which, like the song’s title would suggest, leaves dancing as the only reasonable response. A buzzy synth lead mingles seamlessly amongst squelchy guitars and an unstoppable rhythmic stomp; questions of Ronson’s suitability for a “rock” release, and Homme and co.’s ability to follow up their established oeuvre with another all-conquering effort, are set aside in double-time.
The synths and guitars continue to intermingle on “Fortress”, which has all the drama of a next-gen Bond theme, while “Head Like a Haunted House” has a shifting, aggressive hook of a riff. The bassline snakes effortlessly around Josh Homme’s unfaltering vocal, which forever walks a line between sugary-sweet harmonised delicacy and wailing, unmissable potency. Special praise must be reserved for Homme’s lyricism – long-renowned for his way with words, the erudite frontman’s songwriting continues a long-standing winning streak when talking about seduction, endearment, and the importance of keeping life’s own villains at bay; album closer “Villains of Circumstance” rues the outside forces which plague us all, “I better do something, move earth and sky / And patiently, sweetly, with all of my mind / I sing only for you”. We’ve seen into Homme’s more poetic side fairly often prior to this, but the mournful atmosphere of Villains’ final movement all but solidifies his reputation for thoughtful wordplay.
“…the first single to pre-empt the full record’s release was the electro-rock swing rocker “The Way You Used To Do”, introducing fans to something markedly less muscular”
There’s hints of Homme’s other projects abundant – from the devil-may-care danger of supergroup Them Crooked Vultures to the fun-loving semi-punk stylings of the Eagles of Death Metal, but everything’s coated in that reassuring Stone Age sheen, as the combined efforts of the band’s current line-up populate a series of detailed instrumentals with snarling guitars, shifty basslines, and low-slung, gripping drumbeats. The production, no doubt a result of pop-master extraordinaire Ronson, lacks some of the uncontrolled, garagey roughness of early albums, but Villains is far from a pop record. While “The Evil Has Landed” sails surprisingly close to contemporary West Coast indie, it does so with a familiar, toothy sense of rage and swagger, and comes equipped with one of the ballsiest guitar lines of the year.
Taking into account the fact that the first album to bear Queens’ moniker is a mature 19 years old, and with rock’s impact on popular culture dwindling in recent years, for Homme and co to continue their desire for innovation while avoiding an inelegant fall into tawdry radio-rock humdrum is nothing short of remarkable. While most bands with their longevity lost their lust for explorative creativity long ago, Queens appear to have sheared some of their sound’s muscle and weight without damaging its ability to shake, to rock, and to groove. The sum of Queens’ considerable talents is an album which affirms that rock can survive in 2017, given the right amount of curious adaptability, and a hearty dose of the ingredients which set a long-standing band apart from the pack. From smoky atmospherics to straight-up heavy-hitting fun, Queens once again set the bar.
Unmissable tracks: “Feet Don’t Fail Me”, “Fortress”, “Villains of Circumstance”
Josh Will Eden