It may have been four years since Queens of the Stone Age scored their first US chart-topper with …Like Clockwork, but frontman Josh Homme certainly couldn’t be accused of slacking.
There’s been a collaborative album with Iggy Pop, behind the scenes roles on Lady Gaga’s Joanne and CRX’s New Skin, a film soundtrack, a Beats 1 radio show and an unlikely detour into British comedy, not to mention a string of interviews in the wake of the Bataclan tragedy which suddenly thrust side-project Eagles of Death Metal onto the front pages worldwide.
Little wonder then that Homme has returned to the day job with the intention of cutting loose. Indeed, aided by the production talents of Mark Ronson, QOTSA’s seventh studio effort, Villains, is by far their most danceable and commercial to date.
However, stoner rock purists needn’t worry that Palm Desert’s finest have suddenly discovered a taste for tropical house. Villains still possesses plenty of the band’s trademark pulverizing guitar riffs and sludgy basslines. It’s just that this time around they’re accompanied by spacey synths, stomping beats and their strongest melodic hooks since their MTV-bothering beginnings.
Opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” makes the band’s motives explicitly clear (“me and my gang come to bust you loose/we move with an urgency/between pleasure and agony”) over a swaggering pogo-friendly backdrop which sits somewhere between Berlin-era David Bowie and the mid-00s angular indie of Franz Ferdinand.
It isn’t the only track which immediately draws comparisons with the former’s late 70s output, a period in which Bowie forged a fruitful working relationship with Homme’s recent collaborator, Iggy Pop.
The noirish “Hideaway” could quite easily be mistaken for an outtake from Low, while the politically-conscious blues-rock of “Domesticated Animals” is just one of several tracks where Homme appears to be showcasing his best impression of The Thin White Duke.
Elsewhere, “Head Like a Haunted House” is a suitably eerie blend of garage rock, post-punk and gothic camp which deserves to join the likes of The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon” in the canon of great no-nonsense Halloween rock anthems; “Fortress” sees Homme get more personal (“I don’t want to fail you, so I tell you the awful truth/Everyone faces darkness on their own”) on a melodic blue-collar rock affair which picks up where the more reflective …Like Clockwork left off; while “The Way You Used to Do” is a rollicking burst of scuzz-rock perfectly summed up by Homme as ‘Cab Calloway on speed.’
But alongside some of QOTSA’s most streamlined moments, Villains also contains some of their most expansive. Three tracks surpass the six-minute mark, including “Un-Reborn Again,” a relentless glam-tinged epic in which Homme sings of unsavoury characters named Acid-Faced Jake and Scaredy Nose Jack, and “Villains of Circumstance,” a slow-burning blend of baroque, prog and post-rock which closes the album in widescreen style.
Although you can’t fault the band’s ambition, these more grandiose moments do veer into self-indulgence, sometimes resembling a jam session that’s got out of hand. But a lack of self-editing is the only real flaw on an album which proves that two decades into their career QOTSA are sounding fresher than ever.
Download/Stream Villains on Amazon.