More energetic than 2013's ...Like Clockwork, Villains finds QOTSA teaming up with super-producer Mark Ronson to emphasize their grooves as much as their riffs.
Queens of the Stone Age are back with more riffs, more swagger, and a little bit of swing. This time around frontman Josh Homme and guitarist Dean Fertita are coming off a very successful collaboration with Iggy Pop, which resulted in an album and tour. That project seems to have been something of a palate cleanser for Homme, because Villains is more energetic than 2013’s relatively subdued …Like Clockwork. Homme also witnessed from afar as Eagles of Death Metal, a band he co-founded but wasn’t touring with, was onstage when terrorists attacked Paris’ Bataclan in 2015, killing 90 and injuring over 200 people.
Homme’s reaction to that attack has been subdued. In interviews promoting Villains he’s repeatedly said he doesn’t want to talk about it, instead pivoting to discuss how the outlook for the album is to live in the “now". That is probably positive for Queens of the Stone Age’s music, because a second, even more introspective album than …Like Clockwork would likely have been a drag.
On board with the band this time to add a bit of spice to the mix is super-producer Mark Ronson. Ronson is famous for “Uptown Funk” and a slew of other 21st century pop hits, but a quick look through that list reveals a huge variety of styles among those hits. Ronson has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music history and is well up to the challenge of working with the Queens’ ‘70s-inspired hard rock. It’s also clear that Homme and Ronson quickly developed trust, as this is the first album in the band’s 20-year career where Homme doesn’t have a production credit of any kind.
“Feet Don’t Fail Me” begins the album with a crunching yo-yo of a riff, going up and down while drummer Jon Theodore lays down a hard-hitting groove on his kick and snare drums. The song gradually morphs as it goes along, from its nearly two minutes of atmospheric guitar noise and keyboard at the start of a syncopation-heavy verse in the middle to a quiet, tension-filled bridge near the end before the main riff and chorus come back in. Homme also delivers a choice line in the middle of the song that perfectly encapsulates the band’s sardonic sense humor “Life is hard, that why no one survives it.”
This slides into the first single “The Way You Used to Do”, which seems to perfectly combine Ronson and the band’s sensibilities. A staccato two-guitar riff is run through a clipped, ultra-dry tone, while Theodore thumps along on his kick drum, filling in the spaces the guitars leave open. Once the bass guitar and snare drum come in 45 seconds later, though, the song finds a swing groove. Sure, it’s at a fast tempo, but man, change the guitar tone and slow that thing down 15 to 20 beats per minute and this could totally be the next funky Bruno Mars hit.
“Fortress” is Villains’ most effective ballad, employing quietly strummed reverbed guitars and a spacey keyboard riff to set the mood. The vocals find Homme in full croon mode and repeatedly returning to the reassuring refrain, “If ever your fortress caves / You’re always safe in mine.” The song manages to find a nice combination of melancholy and warmth. Closer “Villains of Circumstance” begins just as quietly and finds Homme very low-key. But after two minutes the band comes in and pushes the song into a mid-tempo feel for a brief moment before dropping back out and letting Homme take the spotlight again. Once the song hits the four-minute mark, the full band returns and plays out the last couple minutes. It’s a well-intentioned, interesting track, but it doesn’t hit the same level of melodic hooks or catchy riffs as the album’s best material.
“Domesticated Animals”, “Head Like a Haunted House”, and “The Evil Has Landed” all feature strong riffs and build interesting songs around them. “Domesticated Animals” uses a simple three-note guitar figure but repeats it off the beat, which gives the song a head-bobbing groove that builds into an explosive climax. This is pushed further by Ronson’s subtle use of strings behind the cacophony. “Haunted House” is the record’s fastest song, a rockabilly-style barnburner featuring the album’s most propulsive bassline. Usually, Michael Shuman just sits back and lets the three guitar players do their thing, but he’s turned loose here to great effect. “Evil” combines a big beat from Theodore with a bluesy guitar riff and some walking bass plus some high-pitched synths in the chorus. It may be the most typical-sounding Queens of the Stone Age song on the record, but it’s a great throwback to the band circa Songs for the Deaf.
This record is strong from top to bottom, and another great entry into Queens of the Stone Age’s catalog. I would be remiss to finish this out without mentioning “Un-Reborn Again”, a song that hits the sweet spot of riffage and groove. Ronson throws in some interesting low-end synths here, which pair nicely with the fat bass tone Shuman employs and the chunky tone the guitarists use. It also finds Homme directly quoting the Georgia Satellites ‘80s hit ”Keep Your Hands to Yourself”, right down to the vocal inflection, by cribbing the line “No hugging, no kissing ‘til I get a wedding ring.” That may be the most unexpected moment on the album, and it goes by quickly, but it’s a nice indication of Homme’s gradual loosening up over time.