"Buried so close to the fountain of youth you can almost reach"
Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Released: 25 August 2017
Recorded: January - March 2017
Genre: Alternative Rock (Hard Rock, Garage Rock)
Producer: Mark Ronson, Mark Rankin
Issue Date: 2017
Best Track: The Evil Has Landed (Un-Reborn Again is a close second
TRACKS: 1) Feet Don't Fail Me; 2) The Way You Used to Do; 3) Domesticated Animals; 4) Fortress; 5) Head Like a Haunted House; 6) Un-Reborn Again; 7) Hideaway; 8) The Evil Has Landed; 9) Villains of Circumstance
Following the dissolution of seminal stoner rock group Kyuss in 1996, its ex-guitarist Josh Homme would found Queens of the Stone Age that same year, taking up lead vocal duties as well. The band is known for its modernized hard rock style, its musical and sonic experimentation, and its array of collaborators, including Mark Lanegan and ex-Kyuss bassist Nick Oliveri among others. Their most famous efforts are Rated R (2000) and Songs for the Deaf (2002), the latter of which features Foo Fighters/ex-Nirvana member Dave Grohl as a full-time drummer.
Villains may be, for some listeners, their introduction to Queens of the Stone Age, and it's hard to guess from that position what this record follows in the group's chronology. Since their debut studio effort, one of their signature traits has been their energetic and sarcastic attitude, both musically and lyrically. However, Josh Homme would undergo a near-death experience in 2011 (due to complications during knee surgery), which would set a much more serious tone for the group's sixth release ...Like Clockwork (2013). Said album sports prominent dark overtones and moves away from the usual themes of sex and drugs to touch upon death and the passage of time also, with songs likely inspired by this NDE ("I Appear Missing"). Much like the broken "Q" logo on its cover, Clockwork shatters the QotSA image in a sense, and stands out as the band's best effort in part because of it.
With this in mind, Villains is an interesting record, in some ways a direct continuation of its predecessor's style and in others an even further departure from Queens' signature identity. As with Clockwork, Josh Homme has written the lyrics entirely by himself, and they occasionally take up a personal dimension. Of course, it would be impertinent for him to retread the same lyrical territory, especially considering it has been half a decade since his NDE. Thus, while he does continue to touch upon the position in which he finds himself, as well as his past and future, he does it from a very different perspective, and this comes through in the music itself.
Queens of the Stone Age have always drawn influences from "old school" rock & roll, but Villains is an explicit homage to the genre, paying clear tribute to the old legends through an added dose of blues elements and, in some cases, even funk grooves. Half of the songs are easily among their most danceable and vigorous, sonically ditching much of the grime of earlier releases. In addition, Josh Homme's vocal inflections are more pronounced, recalling 1950s rockers. If that isn't enough, the jumpy lead single "The Way You Used to Do", for instance, bears similarities to the straightforward rock cuts in Iggy Pop's 1977 release Lust for Life; this should not be a major surprise, as it ranks among Homme's favorite albums. In that sense, Villains is a statement of nostalgia.
As a flip side to this theme, the lead singer also dedicates two of the tracks to his children. These are "Fortress" and "Villains of Circumstance", and they are very reminiscent of ...Like Clockwork with their somber atmospheres. According to Homme, they serve as a sort of message for the future: "I won't be here forever and when I'm gone, I want to have left things for my little people that will last a long time." As a whole, then, it's easy to see the autobiographical quality in Villains. "Fortress" (a song about hiding one's emotions) is a notable example, as it contains this strong line: "Everyone faces darkness on their own / As I have done, so will you".
Thematically, there are little complaints to be made: when Josh Homme tries to sound like a classic rocker, his vocals do come out forced at times, but this is a minor issue. It is mostly in terms of production that this "old school" approach yields questionable results. A major point of contention among fans is the presence of Mark Ronson (of "Uptown Funk" fame) as producer, and his experience with pop shows in the punchy "clean distortion" of the instrumentation. There remains a bit of the crunch of earlier efforts, but the sound is tighter than ever before, and rather lacking in bass also. The guitars, bass, and drums especially recall Hugh Padgham's famous "gated reverb" effect (a strong punch followed by a quick release -- see the drums in Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight").
An undesirable consequence from this production decision is that the lively tunes feel more mechanical and hollow than they should be, and not in the krautrock-inspired style of cuts such as "Misfit Love". Yes, this new sound does reflect the dance-centric approach to composition, but in trying to focus to such an extent on the "rhythmic pulse" of the material, Villains needlessly sanitizes parts of the raw hard rock style that serves as the very foundation of Queens' identity. To give an idea, ...Like Clockwork is easily the best, most organically produced record in the band's discography, but while it is very even sonically, multiple tracks still shine through with powerful grooves ("If I Had a Tail"). This album, on the other hand, is over-stylized.
It is to the credit of the group, then, that the sheer strength of the material still brings Villains up to the level of releases such as Rated R, and that is a major accomplishment. This effort is diverse, well sequenced, and extremely addictive for that matter. That being said, there are some weaker songs: "The Way You Used to Do" is the record's most obvious rock & roll send-up, but it sounds bare-bones and frail in spite of its energy. It's a bizarre choice for a lead single when it's such an outlier too. The slower "Domesticated Animals" is a cut above in quality, but while it's fascinating to hear it increase in intensity as it runs, it starts off with the same minimalism issue as "The Way You Used to Do". Meanwhile, "Hideaway" is a breather more than anything else, neither hard rock nor a ...Like Clockwork style ballad, and it's rather uneventful either way.
Even those cuts, however, are still good musically, whereas the rest is almost unanimously excellent. "Feet Don't Fail Me" could have worked as a lead single, kicking off the record with a bang thanks to its gigantic funk groove. What's interesting is that the song proper only begins two minutes in, but the ominous, atmospheric introduction builds up tension so well that it hardly feels overlong. When it comes to energetic material, "Head Like a Haunted House" satisfies too with its punk-like speed, great bass line, and concise 3-minute length. For the sake of reference, the tracks on Villains average a 5:20 duration, with three lasting more than 6 minutes; each of these, in fact, are major highlights.
"The Evil Has Landed", for starters, narrowly gets the distinction of best song, as it's also its most driving and powerful one. There is a bit of funk to its guitar hooks, but it's a straightforward and perhaps epic hard rock number otherwise, and it makes for a great climax -- especially once it shifts into its aggressive closing riff. "Villains of Circumstance" wraps up the album on a powerful note thanks to its contrast between solemn verses and a dramatic chorus ("Fortress" goes for a similar style). "Un-Reborn Again", however, is a very interesting mix of Villains' two extremes: there is a strong rhythmic pulse, yet the guitars and keyboards play in conjunction with one another to build up a dark mood. This, combined with memorable vocals and an excellent extended coda (which seamlessly includes a string section), results in one of Queens' best long songs.
Nevertheless, even with material this good, it's hard to deny the weaknesses of the production, and this is an aspect that can easily make or break an album. As a result, Villains is not recommended as an introduction to Queens of the Stone Age, given its issues as well as its major differences from their other albums. However, when it comes to the album in its own right, it remains a very exciting listen; whether you are a fan of the band or a fan of hard rock altogether, I wholeheartedly recommend digging into Villains in spite of its bizarre sound, as it bangs on all cylinders otherwise.
PERSONAL RATING: ****1/2
RECOMMENDATION RATING: ***1/2
LETTERED RATING: Gamma
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