On their seventh album, the ever-strong survivors of alternative rock try new things with the same old successes
Sex and rock ’n’ roll have been in bed with one another from the beginning.
The genre is innately blessed with the attributes of sexiness, taboo and bad behaviour like a pair of Elvis’ suede underpants. The best bands know that rock can still be music to make love to. On album three, the Arctic Monkeys discovered this to great success, taking them from yappy upstarts to smooth crooners and making them a better band for it.
The man they learned this from was their then-producer Josh Homme, the lead singer, guitarist, songwriter, heart, soul, mind and body of Queens of the Stone Age. In a 20 year career spent directing one of the most acclaimed and heaviest bands in rock, Homme has always maintained this sexy element in his music.
Exhilarating song structures, tightly clenched rhythms and lyrics with cheek have always been the basis of Josh Homme’s sound. For this, his band have spent two decades sat back as they ascend through the ranks of hard rock to be one of the best acts still around.
In 2017, this sexiness is still at the heart of Homme’s sound. Much else surrounding it has changed, however. Lead single from their seventh album, “The Way You Used to Do”, their grooviest song to date – and perhaps their least characteristic – shows this off impeccably.
Ripped from the purest of rock’s roots, it sounds more like a Chuck Berry twist number than anything, handclaps and slinky guitar squeals inviting listeners for a boogie over a brawl in a mosh pit. Homme’s words are directed to “a girl he first met [when] she was seventeen”, Brody Dalle, who he has been married to since 2007, having “jumped like an arsonist to a perfect match / Burned alive” and brilliantly capture his witty, salacious style. A track then, with the same old Josh Homme sex appeal, just wearing a jazz suit instead of leather jacket.
It’s been over two months since this tune first aroused Queens fans, and now finally with the full release of Villains, it’s clear the rest of the band’s new songs stay a similar course, both in sound and quality. “Feet Don’t Fail Me” kicks off proceedings in typically intense QOTSA fashion, unsettling guitars creeping up on you like an Ennio Morricone score played by Jefferson Airplane, before boiling over into one of the most irresistible riffs the band have come up with. It’s simple. It’s seductive. It’s a pleasant surprise.
The rest of the album follows this tone, moving straight into “The Way We Used to Do” and “Domesticated Animals”, which works around a three chord progression as beginner-friendly as ‘Smoke on the Water’.
As the song rises to a sore-throat finale, a cinematic string section transitions into the moody synth opening of “Fortress”, another unexpected turn for the rock purists. The synth comes back for “Un-Reborn Again”, which features a full bridge made of strings and a saxophone in the outro. Neither song suffers for it in the slightest, proving QOTSA have reached a point where their experimenting can be welcomed without risk of tainting their hard rock style.
The dabbling in unexplored sounds doesn’t stop there. There is a waft of something British going on in this album. On “Head Like a Haunted House”, their thrashing is almost reminiscent of protégés the Arctic Monkeys. The full-band staccato of “The Evil Has Landed” resembles one-time collaborators Biffy Clyro. Both songs possess a very Led Zeppelin feel, picked up possibly from Homme’s sessions with John Paul Jones in 2009. The latter is also the album’s undoubted stand out, spaffing out an array of riffs and time signatures to drown the listener in incredibly crafted noise.
This all amounts to a half-step in a poppier direction. The half-step is accommodated by Mark Ronson on production, called in to help make something, in Homme’s words, “very tight… with the air sucked out of it”.
It’s not obvious whether Ronson’s funky tendencies have influenced anything asides from the odd string or brass instrument, but the clean shaven sound Homme was after can be heard everywhere. He sadly fails to make the most of drummer Jon Theodore, who is capable of so much more than simply ‘keeping it all together’ at the back of the mix, leaving it to the rest of the band to add rhythmic diversity. There are also far fewer guitar solos and shouty moments on this record, and one can’t help but miss the teeth-baring band of old at times.
The musicianship everywhere else is as ambitious and accurate as you’d hope, however. Homme’s crooning is as far from the strained wailing of his early years it’s ever been. On ‘Villains of Circumstance’, a track destined to end the season finale of a show about a time-travelling biker gang at war with vampires, his falsetto chorus of “Always, evermore, and on and on” is hauntingly catchy.
Lyrically, he’s the same silver tongued bastard, telling his “love slave” on ‘Domesticated Animals’ to “give us a smile / You got a number, is it the same? / Who you belong to? / You feral or tame?” Overall, he sounds like a man revelling in the challenges he’s set himself and in the end makes it all look far too easy.
Like so many other bands, QOTSA burden an early record that remains an undisputed classic; Songs for the Dead, which turned fifteen last week, will constantly be the album to beat, not just for Homme himself, but for all aspiring rock bands. Villains isn’t quite Songs for the Dead. It’s more on a par with their last album …Like Clockwork, which came out in 2013 after a six year hiatus to become their best effort since their behemoth masterpiece.
What’s odd – and endearing – about Villains though is it doesn’t seem to care for comparisons. Homme and the boys have proved they can do fast and furious and now they’re looking for something more subtle. They sound like a band holding their breath and trying a few new things between the sheets. Their open-mindedness reaps rewards, ensuring they remain the meanest, cleanest, sleaziest act in rock music. Conservative QOTSA fans who only like it rough might struggle with this effort, but that is their loss – this is an accomplished and exciting instalment from one of the only bands left in rock with something interesting to say and will surely go on to be the genre’s album of the year.