Queens of the Stone Age have been around for quite a while, haven’t they? The Palm Desert stoner rock outfit, birthed from the remains of ‘90s hard rock icons Kyuss by guitarist/vocalist Josh Homme, has been around and kicking it for about 20 years at this point, building a reputation as one of the most celebrated bands in modern rock. I first jumped on around 2007 or so during my big Guitar Hero phase, getting obsessively into Songs for the Deaf (it’s in the top 10 of my favorite albums of all time), and having Era Vulgaris as the first album of theirs I got when it first came out. The group is one of my favorite bands of all time, consistently writing album after album of exciting and uniquely idiosyncratic rock music, with not a single bad album in the bunch. Now, it’s been about 4 years since their last album …Like Clockwork, but Josh has not been slacking off in the meantime, getting involved with other projects including contributing to Lady Gaga’s most recent album Joanne. That album saw him teaming up with Mark Ronson on a few tracks, and now it appears they’re at it again, with Mark acting as the producer on the band’s latest release, Villains.
I was admittedly a little unsure going into this album giving the weirdly poppy feel of the lead single “The Way You Used To Do”, but it actually works in context given how the album sets you up for it. The opening track “Feet Don’t Fail Me” has this swelling ominous intro complete with these Tame Impala-ish synthesizers at around 50 seconds in. The song eventually builds to a big, stomping, swaggering groove with one of the funkiest riffs the band’s ever written, almost calling to mind the song “Gunman” from one of Homme’s other projects, Them Crooked Vultures. It’s a ridiculously cool rhythm, and possibly the best album opener they’ve written since “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar…”, and it does a good job getting you in the right mindset for the fast-swinging rockabilly vibe of “The Way You Used To Do.” The song ended up growing on me after a few listens, and despite the more carefree nature of the songwriting, the actual instrumentation is some of the tightest the group has ever recorded, especially the great guitar interplay.
The loosey-goosey swagger of the songwriting pops up throughout the rest of the record. “Head Like A House” is a very driving tune with drum and guitar work akin to Songs For The Deaf with a lot of spooky theremin sounds thrown in for some haunted house-type fun. Homme’s vocal performance has some of the quirkiest and over-the-top flows since Era Vulgaris, and it really helps enhance the offbeat and over-the-top nature of the song. “The Evil Has Landed” feels like a more quintessential Queens jam, with guitars saturated in fuzz that jam and flow through various chord/rhythm structures and desert-esque melodies, and it’s another really killer track. It even has a pretty solid ending where it goes out on a steady driving version of the main guitar riff, and it sounds akin to some of the faster tracks on Lullabies To Paralyze.
Other songs on the record deviate from the more up-tempo vibe of everything, like on “Domesticated Animals.” The guitar riffs and leads have an atonal melody to them with some off-kilter rhythms to boot. On top of the inclusion of multiple synths to these guitars, the actual drumbeat has a robotic stiffness that once again recalls Era Vulgaris’ style. “Fortress” is one of the most synth-driven tracks on the record, with some gorgeously melancholic vocals, especially when uttering the lines “If your fortress is under siege, you can run with me” and “Every fortress falls. It is not the end”. There’s something kind of inspiring about those lyrics, and there’s also something weirdly uplifting about the album closer “Villains of Circumstance,” as the chorus is driven by the line “Save me from the villains of circumstance before I lose my place”. The instrumentation has a similarly moody but ultimately uplifting vibe, with its haunting synths and light guitar melodies, on top of the dreamy 6/8 groove of the chorus.
Villains manages to bounce back and forth really well between these moody melancholic efforts and the more charismatic dance vibes of the other tracks, and the production is the biggest factor that ties this all together. The guitar tones are as varied as ever, and their various textures all manage to blend together smoothly to make the tracks flow as a complete musical package. The drums have quite a lo-fi sound them that simultaneously manage to pack a punch on some of the more up-tempo songs on the record. The keys, synths, and that one theremin thrown in there are some wonderfully off-kilter accentuations to the already quirky nature of the songwriting, and it all just works, all topped off by some of Josh Homme’s best vocal work to date. Queens of the Stone Age have once again delivered another wonderful collection of songs, proving that they know how to keep fans satisfied while also being willing to experiment with new songwriting tricks that still manage to feel quintessentially like what their long-time fans would expect. Villains was worth the 4-year wait and is one of the best albums they’ve recorded. Give it a spin… or several.
Verdict: Buy it. The fact that Queens of the Stone Age is still this consistently good after 2 decades is a mystery not even science can solve, but I’m not complaining.
Villains is available from Matador Records on CD, vinyl, digital download (iTunes, Google Play, etc.), and streaming services. Check out Queens of the Stone Age on Facebook, Twitter, and the official website.