Josh Homme is nothing if not busy; between producing Iggy Pop’s 2016 comeback Post Pop Depression, CRX’s debut New Skin, and composing the score for international film In The Fade, the musician somehow found the time to record a new Queens of the Stone Age album to boot. While hints of Homme’s musical exhaustion slip onto the LP, Villains still far and away manages to pull off a solid mix of new soundscapes with the classic QOTSA flair.
Following in the footsteps of 2013’s depression-driven …Like Clockwork, Villains draws from a different source of darkness. While …Like Clockwork anthems like “I Appear Missing” built themselves upon Homme’s internal struggles with depression and addiction, this LP takes inspiration from more on-the-nose clashes (“The Evil Has Landed” presents a punny title, but little in the way of subtlety). The result is a swaggering, take-no-prisoners romp with just enough emotional inflection to remain fresh throughout. Cuts such as the frenetic “Head Like a Haunted House” contrast surprisingly well against the more reflective “Fortress,” striking a pleasing balance between sonic insanity and grounded musicianship.
Homme’s songwriting remains sharp and clever as ever, evidenced by lines such as “Life is hard/That’s why nobody survives,” on “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” which helps to sell what could have easily been a disparate collection of tracks. Singles “The Way You Used to Do” (an upbeat swinger) and “The Evil Has Landed” (which sounds like it came straight from Homme’s 2009 side project Them Crooked Vultures) worried fans that the band had lost focus of itself, becoming merely another satellite in Josh’s orbit given the two track’s antithetical styles. The worries were for naught; Villains presents a self-awareness and strut that is unmistakably QOTSA, pulling ideas from throughout the band’s discography to make a watertight LP. The sing-song nature and dazed-out chorus of “Un-Reborn Again” hearken back to 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze, while “Head” could have stepped off 2007’s Era Vulgaris with its eerie call-and-response section and ricocheting guitar riffs.
Cohesive production further glues the album together, though in the classic QOTSA spirit this album distances itself sonically from any other LP the band has put together. Producer Mark Ronson has his hands all over the record – the opening seconds of “Feet Don’t Fail Me” instantly surprise with a front and center synth line while the guitar tracks skitter in the background. Though the band has dabbled in electronic textures before, the front and center presence in “Feet” and throughout the record marks a stark but welcome change for the outfit, mixing well with distorted guitars.
Less fitting is the spotless production, however; this record is nearly too clean for a Queens outing, with nary an overly gritty guitar line or chaotic drum hit to be found. Homme stated he wanted an album “with the air sucked out of it,” and that’s exactly what Villains is. However, the sound feels odd on a band known for its devil-may-care ferocity, after all, their self-titled release is perhaps the dirtiest, most distorted album ever recorded. The diminished low end and powerless drums suck a bit of the energy from the good times had by Homme and Co. on the record. For the most part, though, Ronson’s work is another welcome touching-off point for a band which never makes the same album twice.
Other minor annoyances do make themselves known on the record – “Hideaway” drags on without much to say, marking a low point on the album as it drags its sultry, disenchanted groove to a whole three minutes; a few musical homages on “Un-Reborn” tend to mar the all-encompassing ambience the band creates on the album. Yet, these low points do little to impede the chaotic yet controlled flow of Villains. From the sheer fun and exuberance of “Feet Don’t Fail Me” to the haunting gut-punch of a closer that is “Villains of Circumstance,” Josh Homme and his band of musical misfits has again managed to put together an album at once both comfortingly familiar and completely unlike anything preceding it.