When I’m preparing to write a review for an album by an established artist, I usually go back and listen to their discography so I can put the new album in context. Villains was no exception—after I got my hands on it, I spent a few days going back through Queens of the Stone Age’s earlier albums, and came to a realization: this is a really, really good band. Rarely do I encounter an artist with such consistent yet varied output, all presented with a healthy dose of self-awareness. “Healthy” being the operative word here. Too little self-awareness makes an artist careless; too much makes them pretentious. It’s a difficult line to straddle, but with cuts like Rated R’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” (which consists entirely of the names of various drugs repeated ad infinitum over a pounding hard rock instrumental), QOTSA pulls off the balancing act with both ease and gleeful bombast. Even Era Vulgaris, easily their weakest record, had a distinct sense of personality to it that most albums (most bands, for that matter) rarely achieve.
Given that context, I can understand why Villains is already getting heavy backlash from QOTSA fans, and has been since the very first single. It’s neither a reinvention of their formula (like Songs for the Deaf) nor a refinement of it (like Like Clockwork), and apart from a few fleeting moments, it’s set squarely in territory the band has covered before, from the atmosphere to the song structures. Take “Hideaway”, for instance. Structurally, it’s a carbon copy of “I Appear Missing” off Like Clockwork, except without any of the breathing room of the latter. The dynamic range is compressed significantly, and the shorter length makes the push-pull between the verses and chorus feel rushed. “Villains of Circumstance” does it much better, trading off sparseness and bombast before building to a strong finish, both for the song and the album as a whole. It’s a great track—close to being the best on here.
But “Villains of Circumstance” is the exception, not the rule, and the rule in question is my biggest issue with this release: for an album called Villains, it isn’t as sinister as it should be. Both the album’s name and its excellent cover (for the digital release at least; I saw the vinyl version in a record store today and found it a little too heavy-handed) suggest something dark, something uncomfortable, even evil. Josh Homme’s proven himself more than capable of that in the past. Kyuss’ Welcome to Sky Valley remains just as off-putting today as it was 20 years ago. There are glimpses of true menace on here, for sure—the first 90 seconds or so of “Feet Don’t Fail Me”, with their droning background noises and layers of reverb, take on a vaguely funereal air, and “Domesticated Animals” has a great driving rhythm, which lets the unsettling backing instruments shine to their full extent. It’s not quite enough to keep me satisfied, however. I want my Villains album to sound villainous, dammit!
Make no mistake, though: Queens of the Stone Age haven’t lost their touch yet. The production is absolutely top-notch—in fact, it might be their best-sounding album to date. I mentioned the opening of “Feet Don’t Fail Me” earlier, but the transition to the song’s main riff is masterful from both a production standpoint and a songwriting one. It’s a major reviewing faux pas to say “just listen to it”, but seriously, just listen to it. The effect is hard to describe, but I can’t imagine someone listening to this track and not moving to the beat somehow after the first two minutes. Best song on the album, easily. And despite how self-derivative most of these tracks are, you can’t say they aren’t pulling from solid source material. As I’ve mentioned, there’s a reason why QOTSA are such a staple in the alt-rock genre, and when it comes down to it, even taking its shortcomings into account, this album is tight, hard-hitting—dare I say it?—pretty damn groovy.
So in the end, I did like Villains. Even though it doesn’t do nearly enough to distinguish itself from the band’s earlier albums, it’s an enjoyable enough listen that it’s not too hard to excuse its flaws. I don’t think it’s the QOTSA album most people were hoping for, but perhaps it’s the album Josh Homme felt the world needed right now. I certainly can’t fault him for that. B