Queens of the Stone Age – “Villains”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Head Like A Haunted House,” “The Evil Has Landed”

Whenever Josh Homme is involved with a new project, it’s always telling to look at who he has chosen to surround himself with. Although the band’s current line-up has stayed mostly intact since the “Era Vulgaris” days of a decade ago, Homme’s albums have always reflected those around him. He’s worked with everyone from Dave Grohl to Iggy Pop to John Paul Jones to Lady Gaga to Elton John, and often reflects back on them. This album, though, has no features – not even Mark Lanegan. It only takes one person out for a spin, but that person is Mark Ronson. Ronson met Homme while producing Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion,” which Homme guests on. Ronson is known for his diverse collaborations, often wringing the best possible work out of acts like Bruno Mars, Mystikal and Amy Winehouse – but a hard rock band like Queens of the Stone Age was still a bold choice to produce.

QOTSA really thrust themselves in a new direction on “Villains,” their seventh album. Their first six albums, though all different, set a template for the band that gets largely demolished here. Gone are the hard-rock crunches of “Sick Sick Sick” and the blunting tempo changes of “Song for the Dead.” Instead, we get (mostly) some danceable rock. Quite frankly, “Villains” sounds like the meeting point between Ronson and QOTSA that we were expecting. Opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” really sets the tone, with an almost silent intro that leads to a midtempo, synth heavy beat that’s a far distance from “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” The party hits its peak halfway through the album, on “Head Like a Haunted House,” a disco-y track with an almost circus bassline that gets so party that it becomes a little draining.

Regular ol’ grinding QOTSA still works their way into the album, too. “Domesticated Animals” is an exploration into what it’s like to play the same three chords on repeat for over five minutes and, as far as QOTSA album tracks are considered, it’s as successful as you might expect. The album’s best track (and second single) “The Evil Has Landed,” is the only song that actually features the all-out one-chord guitar attack we love from QOTSA. And, as the album’s penultimate track, it comes as a prodigal return. Closer “Villains of Circumstance,” a song that’s existed in the QOTSA canon for at least a few years now, lets some of Homme’s deeply underrated vocals shine (although the song does die out on a disappointing finale).

Unfortunately, there is some dead weight. QOTSA have never really been a band to attempt slow songs, and on “Villains” we find out why. “Fortress” starts with promise but hits a real sour tone when the pace never picks up. Also, “Un-Reborn Again” is a track that starts out as a ton of fun, but well overstays its welcome. 6:41 isn’t exactly a foreign length for a QOTSA song, but at the four-minute mark I was already finding myself waiting for the end. Even if the new, upbeat turn is refreshing, there is a lack of the guitar bashing we expect. “Villains” feels like a balanced effort that doesn’t quite make the correct scale at times.

All of that said and done, Mark Ronson producing a Queens of the Stone Age release is an equally wild and understandable effort, and it’s pretty full of jams. This album might not have any of the best QOTSA songs – and they exist on every album – but it is mostly consistent throughout and certainly stands out as their most unique effort so far. The band might not ever put out another “Songs For the Deaf,” but this content is more than acceptable. Just don’t take so long next time.

-By Andrew McNally

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Queens of the Stone Age – “…Like Clockwork”

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “I Sat By the Ocean,” “Fairweather Friends”

“…Like Clockwork,” the long-teased and longer awaited new album from hard rock heroes Queens of the Stone Age, should be listened to with “Songs For the Dead” in mind, their behemoth, Grammy-winning album from 2002. “…Like Clockwork” is similar to “Songs” in three ways. The first is the re-introduction of former contributors Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan, as well as ousted bassist and founding member Nick Oliveri (who only shows up in background vocals on two songs, but it is still a re-introduction). The other two similarities are thematic. “Songs” was a concept album, imagining a radio playing on a drive in southwestern America, and featured many Christian references. “Clockwork,” too, seems to feature a number of Christian references, if nothing more than metaphors. (Compare 2002′s “God Is in the Radio” to 2013′s “My God is the Sun”) Casual listeners might equate Josh Homme’s lyrics to those of the religiously-tortured soul of Dave Gahan, but Homme frankly chooses to sing about whatever he wants to.

The third similarity is the idea of conventional radio rock. “Songs” had a running theme of QOTSA’s songs playing on every station, in an attempt to solidify themselves as the kings of conventional rock radio. It worked, oddly enough, and they reflect that on “Clockwork.” Every one of the ten tracks feels significantly more conventional and regular than anything they’ve done before, with musical build-ups in slow songs and catchy guitar rhythms in the faster ones. Homme’s vocal melodies are incredibly catchy, even radio-friendly (particularly on the track “If I Had a Tail”). The album is still heavy, of course, but this is a side of QOTSA that has always stayed subtle. It is the band’s shortest album, and has only three songs over five minutes, a departure from the five on “Songs.” Homme likes to throw the audience loops and keep things fresh, which is tough to do for a rock band. “Clockwork” is almost a bit of a joke, in a way, that the original thing about it is its unoriginality. One almost has to wonder if the almost-optimistic sound is a response to Homme’s brush with death, or whether it is more of QOTSA’s relentlessly great tongue-in-cheek humor.

This does lead to some problems, however. “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” the opener, never hits the intensity it thinks it does, and although the hauntingly-rhythmic “I Sat By the Ocean” follows it up, the tepid and unnecessary “The Vampyre of Time and Money” sits right after. And having this feeling of ‘Is this a joke or not?’ is a little iffy given that people have been waiting six years for a new album. The album grows stronger as it proceeds though, bolstered by barely audible but still appealing guest spots from Trent Reznor, Alex Turner and Sir Elton John (which was a surprise to come across). Homme is still heroically egotistical at times, which is when QOTSA is at their best. The album lacks at some points, falling too far into the unoriginality, but it is yet another great entry from the band overall.

-By Andrew McNally