by Rob Cleveland
Thwack. Boom. Tick. Boom. Bones. Blood. Vampires. The experience of a Queens of the Stone Age record since the band’s inception has been a visceral one. With the advent of a new release, it’s hard to blame anyone for the feeling of giddiness in anticipation of the corporeal thrills Josh Homme’s gang of ne’er-do-wells have to supply your hips and headbangs with for subsequent years to come… until another one whistles down the pipeline.
In the last decade, a cult of fame has built around the band that started as humble desert-rock for those who felt at odds with the manicured grizzle of late-nineties “hard” rock. The Queens have always provided a unique alternative to traditional radio rock by bringing their audience stiff riffage, great pop songs, and their once singular brand of stoner cool (cough* Arctic Monkeys* cough) and they’ve been rewarded with premier festival slots, widely anticipated tours, and a cult following unrivaled by their peers who escaped the late nineties and early aughts alive. As the years wore on and Homme developed side project upon side project, it began looking like QOTSA was falling by the wayside and their mid-career output proved to be symptomatic of that: A few moments of transcendence, under-edited track listings abound, and the tickle of knowledge that something greater lies beyond.
Things really came to a head with 2013’s …Like Clockwork which felt heavy on expectation, anticipation, and the Songs for the Deaf-referencing artwork seemed to do nothing to abate the feverish suspense Homme had nurtured by releasing some of his most impassioned projects since Songs; the Arctic Monkeys’ career redefining Humbug, and the hard-rock riffathon that was Them Crooked Vultures. Both showed Homme self-referencing for the first time, recognizing, and then highlighting the unique gifts his audience loved him for. …Like Clockwork did indeed work to bring some of the strongest pop songs since their 2002 release and showed a degree of restraint not seen since Rated R. The clear effort and visibility of the frontman served to give the band its most robust sales figures and chart positioning in years, culminating with a weirdly miscalculated performance with Lindsey Buckingham on that Grammys.
As the years wore on, it became evident that the Queens’ particular brand of swagger had legs, as the album’s position in their canon began to feel increasingly validated. Which all makes Villains an even more challenging record to follow up with, in scope of the band’s ongoing narrative. Since we last heard from the Queens, Homme has continued his run of high-profile side-projects and in 2015 he saw himself caught in the crossfire of international news speaking in support of the Eagles of Death Metal. With unparalleled prominence in the culture and the zeitgeist, what would Homme do next?
When he announced a few short months ago that Mark Ronson – he of Amy Winehouse & “Uptown Funk” fame – would be producing the band’s upcoming release, it left fans more dumbfounded than anything. Luckily, the album’s first single was released in tandem with the announcement to nip any naysayers in the bud. “The Way You Used To Do” definitely provided the burly riffs that became the band’s staple, and the song was certainly catchy, even going so far as to add a taste of swing to their repertoire. However, initially, the songs vacuum-sealed production felt suffocating. It was like Homme had brought all the equipment to the party and was then asked to stuff all that power into a whiskey bottle, and then sealing it up. However, this muted entry in the band’s oeuvre carried enough of the signature reasons to love them for fans to be hopeful.
Right off the bat, as with most Queens releases, there seems to be a nod to the audience’s anticipation as the first song moves its way through nearly two minutes of mood-setting synths before firing up the guitars to bring one of the tightest, swampiest licks of their career. Here the edges have been sanded off in favor of more simplistic rhythm and a hypnotically melodic synth line. The band seems more engaged with creating a groove than a rocker, most likely the result of Ronson’s production. Having contained and redirected the ferociousness of the guitars, the alarms fire in addition to Ronson’s pop-heavy production.
Villains then works through some of its most rhythmically and phonetically pleasing (“Un-Reborn Again” & “Head Like a Haunted House”) numbers, somehow wiggling into a middling and forgettable “Hideaway.” Before very long, the Queens find themselves segueing into a Them Crooked Vultures retread, “The Evil Has Landed,” before landing on the lovely “Villains of Circumstance.” All said and done, it seems to be working with a lot of the same touchstones as their last record, turning down some of the wiliness and substituting a level of thick grooving that hasn’t been entirely absent in their career (“Make it Wit Chu’” & “Into the Hollow” come to mind). Not to mention the lyrics, which when at their most image-laden hue closely to what almost feels like a predetermined checklist of desert-cool ephemera, matched with the occasionally amusing wordplay (“Xanadu’s and Xana-don’ts”). The closest the album ever comes to trying something new is with “Domesticated Animals” and its images of futility and hysteria.
None of this is to say that the record is “bad,” by any measure, but rather it affirms something that Queens records have been for years: Homme has his modus operandi for the band and isn’t looking to push much outside of the boundaries. Any claims that this record is “different” from past releases quickly dissipates and we are left with the something pleasing enough, but ultimately unwilling to be saddled with expectations and even more unwilling to fulfill the promise set up by the album’s first two tracks. And when all is said and done, is just another Queens record much to complain about? I think not.