Queens of the Stone Age: Villains

Photo: Andreas Neumann

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


Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2017-08-25
UK Release Date: 2017-08-25

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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