After a four-year break dominated by heavy touring, alternative rock band Queens of the Stone Age have returned with their sixth studio album, “Villains.” It’s pretty mediocre.
Queens of the Stone Age has never been a particularly innovative band — their sound has stayed pretty consistent since they released their first album 18 years ago — but that seems almost certainly by design. Their music has always felt more like a loving homage to their forebearers, a tribute to that old ideal of a rapacious, pushing, punishing brand of alt rock and heavy metal fused with their own modern sensibilities. They found a loose, visceral, fun sound that just simply worked; their 2002 album “Songs for the Deaf” was a smashing critical hit.
But “Villains” simply isn’t the same even though they’re playing to the exact same tools and strengths that made “Songs for the Deaf” great. First off, these guys can play. If there’s one thing founder and lead vocalist/guitarist Josh Homme is good at, it’s finding high-grade talent to bring into his projects. Guitarists Troy Van Leeuwen and Dean Fertita trade off shredding hypnotic, perfectly executed riffs, while bassist Michael Shuman and drummer Jon Theodore lock into each other to form a rock-solid layer of low-frequency fracas as the band’s rhythm section. Mark Ronson, best known for “Uptown Funk,” also holds production credits on the album. Ronson’s involvement is an interesting choice on the band’s part, considering he’s never produced a rock album before, but he’s indisputably an industry-grade talent.
Second: It’s pretty clear that these guys don’t take themselves too seriously. While clad in black leather in scores of promotional photos, other material has shown them to be pretty light-hearted guys. That becomes important when you’re listening to the lyrics — it’s the difference between feeling like you’re laughing with them or at them. The lines vary in their melodrama, from your standard ‘80s glam-metal rock one-liners (“Life is hard, that’s why no one survives”) to there being a song actually called “Head Like A Haunted House.” But these factors alone aren’t saving graces, not for “Villains,” and not really for any album.
To its credit, the record has a strong start. “Feet Don’t Fail Me” slowly builds from airy, ominous synths over a drum kick, gradually speeding up before crashing into a fast, pulsating groove accentuated by an almost psychedelic droning guitar riff. Muscular guitars and the synths from the song’s beginning lead the song into its choruses and its eventual end. It feels aggressive and sharp-edged without ever feeling out of control, trapping its belligerence within each swell of the groove.
But that track is the exception to the rule. The rest of the record struggles and fails to keep up. It’s not as if there’s an intentional change in tone here; the writing just feels significantly weaker and less viscerally engaged. The riffs dive deeper and deeper into a chasm of boring, edgy tropes, especially on “Domesticated Animals.” It’s not the most offensive thing you could listen to, but if you’re at all familiar with the common trappings of alternative rock, why would you?
In retrospect, Queens of the Stone Age have had almost 18 years and six studio albums to eek out as many iterations and expressions of a single vision, a single sound, as they could. It’s really not surprising that their well’s at least temporarily run dry — that’s a lot better than many other artists do. But that fact doesn’t save this album from being the middle of the line, uber-generic product it’s turned out to be.