Queens of the Stone Age: Villains review – Josh Homme's desert vikings beef up their myth

Their self-image may be cartoonishly macho, but there are sweet and supple melodies galore on this Mark Ronson-produced seventh album

Queens of the Stone Age’s new album opens with a spot of self-mythologising. “I was born in the desert, May 17, in 73,” croons Josh Homme on Feet Don’t Fail Me. “When the needle hit the groove, I commence to moving / I was chasing what’s calling me.” Since the departure of frequently nude bassist Nick Oliveri 13 years ago, Queens have had a largely stable lineup, familiar to most listeners as Homme and some other blokes who could have “I’m in Queens of the Stone Age” tattooed on their foreheads and still provoke the question: “I’m sorry, what band are you in?” The myth-making is likely all Homme’s.

Over the course of Queens of the Stone Age’s 20-year career, he has been adept at making it clear what the band represent, and manipulating perceptions. Their breakout song, 2000’s Feelgood Hit of the Summer – whose entire lyrics were repetitions of “Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol, c-c-c-c-c-cocaine” – helped create the image of chemsex desert vikings, riding out of the mountains on choppers to set up generator parties at which all attendees swallowed kilos of pills and had it off with anything that moved: man, woman or motorcycle.

Yet, for all the machismo of their image, Queens of the Stone Age have rarely actually sounded like that. “Rock should be heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls,” Homme once said, and there has always been something strikingly feminine about Homme himself. He might be tall, and undeniably less lithe than the average rock star, but his voice never snaps into the traditional rock snarl. He frequently ascends to a falsetto to supplement the croon; he sounds more like a glass of Baileys than a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, the only hard rock singer who audibly owes more to Mel Tormé than Rob Halford.

There’s also the fact that Homme would be be unable to maintain his insane work rate if he actually were spending all his time having it off. This is the seventh Queens album, and there have been four Eagles of Death Metal records, one with Them Crooked Vultures, 10 Desert Sessions EPs, a collaboration with Iggy Pop, assorted production jobs and more: 31 other collaborations of varying degrees of seriousness. Perhaps, then, “what’s calling me” is actually a strict Protestant work ethic rather than the open road, a woman and a bag of drugs.

Though QOTSA never employ the single-minded focus of Status Quo or the Ramones or AC/DC, you can be fairly sure that certain elements will recur, as they do on Villains. There will be robotic boogie (The Way You Used To), there will be a riff reduced to the point of barely existing (Domesticated Animals), there will be something doomily psychedelic (Hideaway). There will be nods to old heroes too, though this time it seems they weren’t summoned to the studio – they content themselves with briefly nabbing the guitar hook from Neil Young’s Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black), on Fortress.

The presence of Mark Ronson as producer hasn’t made a whole lot of difference (regular engineer Mark Rankin is in place anyway, and one suspects his contribution is substantial). There are bursts of synthesiser, but Queens of the Stone Age were always funky, so Ronson didn’t have to draft in horn sections and samples and attempt some grisly cut-and-shut of Uptown Funk and Regular John. Feet Don’t Fail Me, in particular, sounds like it could work on a dancefloor, a less brutish iteration of the kind of choppy minimalism that gave No One Knows such force.

The nearest Homme and co come to sounding unlike Queens of the Stone Age is on the closer, Villains of Circumstance, which erupts from a brooding, subdued verse into a sunlit shuffle of a chorus that recalls a beefed-up version of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. That reference alone provides the reason a Queens of the Stone Age album is of interest outside the worlds of denim and leather: they rarely see a song to completion for reasons of heaviness alone. There has to be melody, and Homme has the voice to support melodies substantially sweeter and more supple than hard rock normally deals with.

Queens of the Stone Age will never regain the shock value they had when Rated R came out, 17 years ago. But they don’t need to. Despite Homme’s self-mythologising, they long since ceased to be a desert rock band; they’re simply a great rock’n’roll group.


Contributor

Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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