We last found Queens of The Stone Age in a place of fragility, of existential uncertainty in life’s Gravitron gone wild. But Queens made that record over four years ago, a mortally-honest timestamp rife with wounds and reassessment in a transitional, turbulent time.
That was then. Arriving Aug. 25 on Matador Records, Villains is the sound of now, the sound of renewal, of fortification by fire, a knives-and-leather dance party in the heart of the haunted house.
Recorded between United Studios and Homme’s own Pink Duck compound, Villains was further honed by a heavyweight triple-shot of Mark Ronson, Mark Rankin and Alan Moulder. This kind of production outreach is a first for the Queens crew, most particularly with Ronson – after all, the coiffed Midas has crafted stratospheric hits with Bruno Mars, Amy Winehouse and Adele, to dip a finger. This man poses a serious threat of thrusting QOTSA’s endless side-piece affair with swivel-hipped fun to center spotlight, forcing a re-think on alpha cool as pit-huddled meatboys are made to dance for their rank.
So begins the triumphant return of Queens of The Stone Age. The Valhalla doom chant. The ominous rise of inevitability. Then, on a growing tide of synths, kicks and pulsing guitars, the arrival of Villains in full blazing color: frontman Joshua Homme takes personal history for an immortality-twisted spin over angular riffs on opener Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, the alternating chopping guitars and quick riffing a breath away from the jittering menace delight of Them Crooked Vultures.
The dual crunch between Homme and string gem Troy Van Leeuwen builds that classic Queens front-end strut, before a wash of feedback feeds us wild psychedelic transmissions between pleasure & agony. We’re dealing in razor blades, lit fireworks and holy shit is that David Bowie? It’s not, but Homme channels the late constellation through a darkly Seussian simplicity: “To be so civilized, one must tell civil lies…”
Recurring fires of Bowie and Iggy Pop are dancing between the grooves in surprising turns on Villains, like finding hidden places for a little bump n’ grind inside a haunted house full of ghouls that may be real after all. Good luck avoiding the hypnosis dealt by Mikey Shuman’s thick, throbbing basswork on the jutting 1-2-3 cadence of Domesticated Animals, a clear descendant of their Post-Pop Depression sessions with Iggy. Though, as is the case with Queens, the vampiric threat is always at the neck: “You’ve got heart, I’ll have it for lunch…”.
Villains is the first to feature the full flight of drummer Jon Theodore, with …Like Clockwork kit duties split in a transitional cut between Jon, outgoing drummer Joey Castillo and stalwart rocker in crime Dave Grohl. There’s no big Bonzo feature solo here, but Theodore’s versatility and razor-sharp delivery is the transmission through which the static works. Animals is a percussive menagerie, the staggering beat driving the track’s magnetically irregular pulse.
With QOTSA, the most disarming curveballs tend to be the sudden stripping of fanged grandeur to a vulnerable and viscerally relatable core. “Your heart is like a fortress, you keep your feelings locked away. Is it easier? Does it make you feel safe?” It’s a gently confrontational query at the rising-through-the-fog onset of Fortress, though the encouraging sensibility shines through: “You wander through the darkness of wilderness behind your eyes. I know you’re afraid, but you gotta move on…” Who among us hasn’t been hit with that sledgehammer of realization in life?
Then the coin flips. We’re suddenly sprinting through Head Like a Haunted House as we “fake apologize, fucks in short supply,” dancing our pants off with a Cramps-nodding surf-funk Halloween spirit. It’s a breathless riot, each line ending like an electric bull crashing through a proverbial china shop. Meanwhile, Un-Reborn Again is a sharp & lean synth-buzzing sneer, pointing and laughing as “everybody’s drowning in the fountain of youth”. This sounds like a gang, not a band – a crew sharp enough to turn on a flea’s ass.
Meanwhile, Hideaway’s a night cruise in a ’67 Camaro, a time-machine falsetto breeze breaking into a fatal-descent poignancy through the closest Clockwork spirit on the record, Dean Fertita’s keywork almost taunting in its lightness. The ominous psychedelia and haunting finality of the track could be a liaison between Fun Machine and I Appear Missing, Shuman’s pulsing bass fretwork countering the melody to create a space between the two that envelops the rest of the sound.
If you’re gonna put a name like The Evil Has Landed on a piece of music, falling short of such a quality mandate could be catastrophic. Led by Theodore’s metronomic strut and fill flurries, solos squeal off over the swirling riffs as the song threatens to intentionally unravel. Then, with the “Here… we… come” false ending liftoff after the five-minute mark, titular qualification is confirmed in spades, warnings in the open blades: “Here we come, get out of the way. Matters not what the people say.”
When juxtaposed with such grooving potency, troubled truth can be disarming, achingly beautiful. Closing track Villains of Circumstance finds a heart longing for home under meandering bass pendulum. You feel as if you’re in the room, a thousand miles from anything that matters as Josh sings “It’s so hard to explain, so easy to feel… I need you now, nothing is real…”
And just as we’re resolving ourselves to face a somber exit, a rhythmic wildfire rises to a peak of excitement, of cinematically urgent finality, and we’re off running into the night.
The strut of Villains is sharp enough to pop a kneecap, the somber dives sweetly poisoned enough to make you almost forget that you’re dealing with a crew dangerous enough to have real intent behind the bared teeth. This is Queens of The Stone Age at their dangerously-sexy best – and good luck in the pit if you’re not into dancing, ‘cause the hips shake far more magnetically than the fists.
Let ‘em hold their futile funerals for rock n’ roll. We’ll be dancing on the grave, collars up, Villains on high.
Photos: Andreas Neumann