by Ryan Fine
Ever since they were born from the reanimated bones of Kyuss in the late ‘90s, Queens of the Stone Age have proven themselves to be one of the world’s strongest arguments for keeping rock-n’-roll alive in the new century. In 2013, they returned from a brief hiatus with …Like Clockwork, their most somber, introspective collection of tracks to date. Now, in an attempt to return to their raucous roots, the band has recruited Mark Ronson (yes, the “Uptown Funk” guy) as a producer and collaborator.
Sadly, Ronson’s crystal-clear production style doesn’t go over quite as well with QOTSA as it did with Bruno Mars. The product of their work together is Villains, an album that ends up shaving away a hefty chunk of the rawness that made this band so quintessential in the first place.
Rolling a one-sided die
Take any one song on Villains out of context and you’ve got a perfectly enjoyable rock song. Nothing on this album is too deep, but like a lot of QOTSA’s past stuff, it’s a great soundtrack to a mindless good time. The problem is that between “The Way You Used to Do”, “Head Like a Haunted House” and countless others, the overwhelming barrage of dance-rock beats makes it hard to catch a break.
Even though Josh Homme may be the single most masculine figure in modern music, he has been known to get emotional from time to time. In fact, part of what made this band’s previous record so compelling was its perfect blend of balls-to-the-wall guitar riffs and slow burning ballads. On this new record, the quieter moments are much fewer and farther between than they were on …Like Clockwork.
That’s what makes “Fortress” such a breath of fresh air. After three relatively long and unyielding rock jams comes this synth-laden mood shift. Supposedly dedicated to Homme’s children, “Fortress” is an inspirational message to thick-skinned young folks who are realizing that their constant tough-guy façade is failing them.
Though they may not quite go far enough to change up the sound, this song and “Villains of Circumstance” at least bring a slightly new perspective to an album that can often feel monotonous.
The devil is in the details
One of the most redeeming and simultaneously frustrating things about Villains is the obvious fact that Josh Homme and the gang have not lost a lick of the talent that they’ve always had. The song craft is still there; these songs are catchy and slick, and even though most of them pass the five-minute mark, it’s rare that any of them feel like they overstay their welcome.
What most of these tracks lack is the right context. The art of making an album is much different from the art of making a song, and the producer has a lot to do with how the record sounds as a whole. Sadly, Mark Ronson has never been great at making albums, and he doesn’t get better here. Songs like “Domesticated Animals” and “Hideaway” contribute very little to the record that isn’t done better elsewhere in the track list, and they probably would have been much better served as bonus tracks or B-sides.
Not like the way they used to do
Though it wasn’t their most universally loved work (that distinction certainly goes to Songs for the Deaf), …Like Clockwork was an achievement for Queens of the Stone Age. It seemed like Josh Homme had taken all the right things from his time in Them Crooked Vultures collaborating with members of Foo Fighters and Led Zeppelin. When he returned to his main band, his songs felt more mature without feeling like they were written by someone’s dad.
Ironically, now that he’s working with a hip up-and-coming pop producer, his age is finally starting to show. Maybe it’s just been a long four years for him, but it seems more likely that he’s just out of his element. Trying to make a dance-rock record as a 44-year-old man is a difficult task, and Homme should be commended for trying. But the classic QOTSA sound is classic for a reason, and it no longer feels nearly as new or exciting as it did fifteen years ago.
“Villains of Circumstance”
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All images from Queens of the Stone Age Store
Queens of the Stone Age have returned to making fun, mindless rock songs with their new album ‘Villains’. Though this sound is what made the band popular in the first place, in 2017 it only ends up sounding dated and forced. Josh Homme is still a talented songwriter, but Mark Ronson’s production work takes away the edge and makes the entire thing feel watered-down and tiresome.