“I was born in the desert, May 17 in ’73/when the needle hit the groove/I commence to moving” are the first lines to “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” the opening track on Queens of the Stone Age‘s 7th album, Villains. Whether or not you were already familiar with Josh Homme and company, Villains is the perfect introduction to their previous work that brought them into the forefront of rock, while simultaneously taking that sound in a new direction. The song opens with an ambient build up of guitar noises, distant drums and synth line out of a Mad Max movie before kicking in with a head bobbing riff that instantly grabs you and doesn’t let go until the last song is done. There’s mystery, swagger, danger and groove just dripping from every note of every track on this album. But this time there is additional texture from producer Mark Ronson, bringing in glam or even new wave elements through his increased use of synths. For a band that has always created massive desert soundscapes, this album somehow feels even larger and mountainous. Maybe this desert is on Mars.
While Homme can arguably be called the inventor of sludge metal, going back to his time with Kyuss, QOTSA have consistently expanded on that sound by focusing on melody and a certain tenderness that comes through the crunch. On Villains, these softer elements reach their most ultimate form to date on songs like “Hideaway” and “Fortress”. Written for Homme’s children, “Fortress” features the most beautifully honest fatherly advice I’ve ever heard in a song: “I don’t want to fail you so/I tell you the awful truth/everyone faces darkness on their own/as I have done, so will you.” It wasn’t until maybe my 5th time through the album that this song really hit me as a father, but when it did – I didn’t expect a Queens of the Stone Age song to get me weepy, but here we are. “If ever your fortress fails/you’re always safe in mine.”
Nonetheless, this album hits hard, with bottom end punch coming from Jon Theodore’s drums and Michael Shuman’s bass, and at times from Dean Fertita’s fatter synth lines. You wouldn’t instantly think of this being a geeky technical band, but the production here reveals serious attention to detail. At times, like on “The Way You Used To Do,” the synths, guitars and bass blend in and out in ways that make it hard to tell for sure which is which, yet it never gets muddy. Credit for that goes to Ronson, but it all remains consistent with the signature Homme sound across all his projects as well.
The masterful closer “Villains of Circumstance” is high drama, sounding something like a coffee-and-Redbull-addled version of U2’s “Love is Blindness”. Homme croons about distant love over bass and synth, sounding like a forlorn, sympathetic villain in a distant, empty lair before he activates the self-destruct. The song builds and the chorus gets more powerful with each pass until it all erupts into a glorious crescendo and a parting scorching guitar solo. Have Queens of the Stone Age reinvented the power ballad with this song? I think so. Once the goosebumps diminish, or maybe before they do, you’ll be playing the whole album again from the beginning. Repeatedly.