Queens of the Stone Age return for their seventh outing in what many see as an unlikely pairing with producer Mark Ronson. The first glimpse of the forthcoming record was a bizarre comedy skit on YouTube, where Josh Homme appears with the band, clad in leather and wired up to a lie-detector. He attempts to evade or misdirect all questions about the album, including denying even knowing Ronson, who is revealed to be DJing in the corner! But it’s here we get the argument against Ronson as producer outlined, in a context that shows the band are highly aware of why he will be considered a controversial choice for many of their fans. In listing some of the people he’s worked with, “Adele, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Duran Duran, Christina Aguilera…” we realise, if we didn’t already know, that this guy is best known for his work with modern pop stars, albeit with a tendency towards retro sounds, taking a lot of influence from 80s and 60s pop.
While there are a lot of hardcore QOTSA fans out there who seem pretty disgruntled by the idea of their favourite rockers having their knobs twiddled by a man whose best known work is ‘Uptown Funk’, a work that is a complete anathema to the type of rock music they exclusively listen to. These are the same characters who moan with every release that the band just aren’t the same without singer/bassist Nick Oliveri, who left well over a decade ago , or complain about the absence of Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan, who made large impacts on Rated R (2000) and Songs for the Deaf (2002). It is worth noting that although QOTSA have been known for having a floating line-up, that’s something that has now stabilised, most of the musicians performing on this record having been with the group since 2007’s Era Vulgaris. The main new addition to the group for this release is the extremely talented Jon Theodor on drums, who made his name bringing Haitian voodoo rhythms to the first two Mars Volta albums. He appeared on one track on the last album, …Like Clockwork, but has since become a fully fledged member of the group.
What we get with Villains, are a set of nine lavishly produced, often relatively long songs. There are epic build-ups throughout, atmospheric intros and climb-downs that allow the songs to flow from one to the next. It’s clearly an album designed for people who prefer to listen to records from start to finish. We also find, as we might have expected with Ronson on board, more of a focus on synthesisers and sample-based production than I’ve heard on previous QOTSA albums. As the eerie synth and distant vocal intro on opening track, ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me Now’ give way to the drums, bass and squelchy guitar groove you can immediately hear that Ronson hasn’t decided to skimp on the core sound elements that most would associate with the band.
What I immediately find myself thinking, even before things break down for a long building bridge with winding melodies, is how much Homme sounds like Bowie here – and it’s not just the vocals, that insistent rock and funk groove would not have seemed out of place on a number of Bowie records. It often sounds, throughout the record, that both Homme as songwriter and Ronson as producer have been blown away by the sound and style of Bowie’s last album, Blackstar. Whether it’s deliberate, or not, it’s a great match that really suits the band.
The lead single, ‘The Way You Used To Do’ is a nostalgic look back at how Homme met his wife Brody, and one that immediately has that sense of retro pop that you might expect from Ronson. Everything is turned up to 11, close and immediate using modern compression. Everything snaps and pops in a way that makes sure its musical message will hit home whether it’s heard via a tinny radio signal, or a low-quality stream played through a pair of laptop speakers or bass-less ear buds. The germ of this track is big band swing, it’s QOTSA do Cab Calloway, but it sounds very modern rock. It almost sounds like electronic music, despite the rock palette, because everything is so full and intense. However, if you listen closely and repeatedly, you just might pick out some of the tiny mistakes which show there are human beings at work here. Homme insists these are kept in, in a recent interview with the New York Times he said, “That’s how I sleep at night”.
‘Domesticated Animals’ starts with just vocal and guitar, the ghost of Bowie is back hanging heavily over this one. But souped-up like this, I also find myself thinking of Marilyn Manson’s 90s trilogy of albums which started with Antichrist Superstar, and the single ‘The Beautiful People’ in particular. There was something about the sound aesthetic of that album, mixing the best pop production had to offer at the time with the darkest, heaviest rock themes and sounds. Villains seems as impactful today, sonically, as those records were when they first came out. While ‘Fortress’ begins with a slow fade in, atmospherics, violins and synths, Homme’s voice sounding like a new character. This is lighter than what’s gone before, with a sweetness to the melody that briefly banishes the menace that usually lurks in Homme’s songwriting, although it does reveal itself again, as the song slowly evolves into a more guitar-driven piece.
‘Un-Reborn Again’ is a dark, long and heavy slog, there’s a ringy synth part in the background that seems to want to reference ‘Bandages’ by Hot Hot Heat, but even that can’t lift this track out of the mire. It contemplates drug overdoses and the strange way that such a destructive lifestyle is associated with living forever, or at least staying eternally young, tragically trapped in the amber of memory. The album ends with the oldest song of the collection, ‘Villains Of Circumstance’, which was performed live as early as 2014. It sets up as a dark, sombre slow-burn. There’s again a seed of Bowie, the bass-line subtly reminds me of ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, from the Bowie produced Lou Reed album, Transformer. Then the sudden shift from verse to chorus at two minutes is one of the big surprises of the record: we’re unexpectedly in power pop heaven for a few precious moments, before sinking again into the darkness for the second verse. It’s as if, mid-way through contemplating his own mortality, Homme has suddenly been enchanted by the beauty of his own imagined eulogy, the ever-lasting memory of love: “I’ll be forever yours/ Always, ever more, and on and on”. It’s a beautiful sentiment to finish on, a triumph against the prevailing winds of the darker themes of this record. It’s ironic that the lasting impression of an album called Villains is one that celebrates love as a thing that is heroic and immortal. In spite of the grit and leather, I’m left thinking that deep down Homme is a big softy. They’re still kicking ass and innovating seven albums in, but it’s romance that wins the day, and it works.