When Queens of The Stone Age first burst into the mainstream with the misleadingly named Feel Good Hit of the Summer (the entirety of the lyrics are a berserk chant of “Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol! Cocaine!!!”) in 2002, there was nothing to suggest that they were anything another gang of hard rocking weirdos with little to distinguish them from the other derivative piranha cannibalising the various old swollen leviathans (Led Zeppelin, AC/DC take your pick) floating belly up in rock’s sadly deflated paddling pool. However main man and anointed ‘ginger Elvis’ Josh Homme had a far more intimidating selections of weapons to hand then his ostensible peers, from a grasp on melody that seem to take as much from carnival calliopes and polka (?!) as from Kiss and a sly deconstruction of the chest-beating masculinity and rigid ideological lockstep usually demanded by the hard rock and metal crowd (they aren’t called Queens of The Stone Age for nothing.)
With their third album Songs For The Deaf, the ever mutating band (Homme is the only consistent member of the line-up) made the leap to rock royalty with the driving hit singles Go With The Flow and the even bigger drunken swing of No One Knows. However even back then they frequently plunged headlong down stylistic cul de sacs that most commercial rock bands might think twice about: The Morricone tinged doom of Mosquito Song or the skull crunching Black Flag assault of Song For The Dead were not the kind of material that appeared on world beating hard rock albums at a time when the encroaching threat of auto-tune and dubstep had most rock aesthetes nervously circling the wagons and doubling down on a reductive back to basics approach. This refusal to be pinned down into any kind of box paid massive dividends for the band and by the time they scored their first number 1 album with 2013’s …Like Clockwork they had risen to rock’s highest echelons.
However even with Homme’s penchant for playing fast and loose with his band’s sound, when the news came out that he had hired Mark Ronson (of Uptown Funk fame) even his most devoted fans felt a shiver of unease; QOTSA had always managed to marry their diseased riffs to a stealth pop sensibility but would the addition of the architect of Amy Winehouse’s Valerie send the scales tip over with a crash?
As it turns out this angle of Ronson-inspired pop sensibility is something of a bait and switch; the record wears Ronson’s disco/soul influences like Buffalo Bill planned to wear his victims skin in Silence of The Lambs. The band explodes off the bat with album highlight Feet Don’t Fail Me Now a cross between an hip wiggling dance beast and the end of the world, all drilling riffs and stuttering arpeggios that establishes the psycho swagger that dominate the next 48 minutes. Homme seems to have gotten a little bored with the standard verse chorus verse, preferring to build tracks up and break them down according to his own twisted muse: “Instead of a song that is like a merry-go-round, where you go around in circles and you know what’s going to happen, I want it to be more like a bus stop–you get on and you get off at a different location, and you’re kind of along for the ride,” he told The New York Times. This is particularly true in the case of singles such as The Way You Used To Do or The Evil Has Landed (this month’s winner for worst song title award) which expand and contract like writhing tentacles but the whole album is made of individual sections linking together like a filigreed chain.
There are weak points, Homme’s falsetto is beginning to show signs of strain and the lyrics (never QOTSA’s strong point) seem lack some of their usual bite, but Villains is a typically strong effort from a band who refuse to play by anybody’s rules, even their own.