They don’t make anti-heroes like Josh Homme anymore. The Queens of the Stone Age mastermind is not so much a musician as he is the all-American badass incarnate. His is a persona shaped by the blasphemous gospel of your typical truck stop bathroom stall: white lies by day, regular Johns by night, and of course, drugs by the songful. Just like the Gadsen—the spirit animal for the live-free-or-die crowd—Homme would rather eat dirt than bow to anyone else’s standards, musical or otherwise. His stark commitment to independence (and by extension, his open embrace of the subversive) fueled the Queens’ rise to infamy at the tail end of the 1990s. With its abundance of soft, lilting vocals and coolly-phrased fury, 1998’s debut Queens of the Stone Age bravely, subtly defied hard rock’s arch-masculine roots, putting a refreshingly witty spin on a genre regarded by many as brutish and boneheaded. The name says it all.
Nearly two decades later, Queens of the Stone Age are one of the biggest names in contemporary hard rock. Aside from Foo Fighters and Nine Inch Nails—whose figureheads, Dave Grohl and Trent Reznor, have both appeared on past Queens albums—you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of comparable critical or commercial standing. Further buttressing the group’s ubiquity is Homme’s many collaborations, seen in the frontman’s resume of side projects (Desert Sessions, Eagles of Death Metal, Them Crooked Vultures) and production/performance stints (Arctic Monkeys, Iggy Pop, the Strokes offshoot CRX).
Their foundation intact and their reputation secured, Queens now move to hit the reset button in 2017 with Villains, their seventh LP. The daring nine-track album sees Homme in company old and new: guitarist and creepy synth expert Troy Van Leeuwen, who joined the band for 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze; axesmith/keyboardist Dean Fertita and bassist Michael Shuman, who first appeared on 2013’s ...Like Clockwork; and newly minted drummer Jon Theodore, previously of the Mars Volta. Together, they’ve streamlined Queens’ hulking arena gloom into carnivalesque, chrome-plated boogie rock with the help of British producer and “Uptown Funk” architect Mark Ronson. Villains is disco inferno and devil-may-care experimentation all wrapped up into one—not to mention their most immediately accessible record since their magnum opus, 2002’s Songs for the Deaf.
Scandalous as their creative partnership might seem to purists, Homme and Ronson make a rather uncontroversial pair on Villains. Consider first single “The Way You Used to Do” a primer on the album’s claustrophobic trappings; the drums hiss and thump like a Camaro in overdrive, further compressed by the guitars’ animalistic thrust. In the afterglow of ...Like Clockwork’s post-apocalyptic melodrama, this palette feels a bit paltry but refreshingly upbeat. Fans who’ve stuck with the group since the days of 2000’s Rated R and Songs for the Deaf will undoubtedly find the lack of a thunderous, dynamic rhythm section a bit off-putting. Moreover, the static mix renders Shuman and Theodore—a pair of bona fide dynamos onstage—more or less anonymous, although the former gets his chance to shine on “The Evil Has Landed,” a Zep-flavored barnstormer powered almost single-handedly by Shuman’s thunderstruck arpeggios.
The album’s predetermined angle of Ronson-assisted simplicity is ultimately a red herring. Villains’ songwriting is just as, if not more, devious than anything in the band’s discography. Homme builds each track elliptically, rather than linearly: “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.
So Queens spend most of the record playing the long game. With the exception of “The Way You Used to Do” and the psychobilly freakout “Head Like a Haunted House,”almost every track on the 48-minute Villains runs into overtime: songs clock in between five and six minutes, and a third of them extend even further. “Future tense meets middle finger/We take the long way home,” Homme sneers on epic, ass-shaking opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” and thank God for that. Villains is at its most thrilling when the band explores their own back-roads on their own terms, making time for new discoveries along the way.
“Domesticated Animals” rides a severed groove off into mucky oblivion, jeering at the beleaguered masses as they go. “All for one, all for naught/Perish, baby/Perish the thought,” Homme muses, his falsetto syllables soft and sardonic. Over on the flip side of the sonic spectrum, there’s “Hideaway,” a lye-soaked lounge-rock ballad. The closing “Villains of Circumstance” becomes a slow-burning reflection on a long-distance relationship that culminates in an unsettling orchestral swell, the sound of a cabaret ablaze.
Villains isn’t always so smooth and several sections fall fl