With piano ballads and Elton John, Queens Of The Stone Age’s last album, 2013’s …Like Clockwork, was a left-turn towards the mainstream. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but it gave Josh Homme and co their highest chart positions in the US (No 1) and the UK (No 2).
The group’s seventh album has been produced by Mark Ronson, but surprisingly, Villains finds the band turning away from the classic rock feel of …Like Clockwork. There is some of that album’s use of synth, but there’s also a definite robot-rock vibe, enhanced by Ronson’s crisp production and some of Homme’s spikiest riffs in years.
Celebrity guests – even Mark Lanegan – are absent, and instead there are subtle instrumental additions that enhance the otherworldly eeriness of the nine songs here: Fortress begins with atonal cellos and octave-skipping synths, while opener Feet Don’t Fail Me begins softly with two minutes of slowly building synth and gutteral chants, before it launches into speaker-destroying robotic funk, like ZZ Top on peyote.
The high-kicking first single, The Way You Used To Do, is somewhat misleading, seeing as most of Villains features longer, more labyrinthine songs. In fact, some of the more syncopated riffs suggest a modern, more lysergic version of Led Zeppelin’s Presence, especially the stop-start grandeur of the caustically heavy The Evil Has Landed.
Lyrically, Homme is on top, acerbic form as he dissects relationships and fame – “all dressed-up, no-one left to blow” – but there’s also a new tenderness to his lyrics: “If ever your fortress caves, you’re always safe in mine.” The rest of Queens are also at the top of their game, with octopus-limbed drummer John Theodore especially impressive.
We’re a long way from the stoner rock of Songs For The Deaf, but Villains is another masterful departure for the group, towards a stranger, bone-dry, synthetic sound. Whatever impact Mark Ronson has had, Josh Homme himself is no stranger to left turns, and this is one of his finest in years.