C’est La Vie!
*Just so ya know what ya getting into, this is a big-boy review, or an “in-depth” if you’re lame, but it is the biggest review of the year, for me anyway, so just allow me, K?
Alrighty, this is the biggest album of the year, no doubt. And that ain’t no meager feat either, in a year with new releases from Foo Fighters, Gorillaz, Prophets Of Rage, Primus, The Killers, Public Enemy, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Tyler The Creator, Royal Blood, Mastodon, At The Drive-In, DJ Format and Jamiroquai. Damn, it’s been a good year. Nonetheless, QOTSA’s next effort has been on my mind for 4 years, since the band’s last record, 2013’s masterpiece, …Like Clockwork.
Queens Of The Stone Age, formed in 1996, found its origins after desert rock pioneers and stoner gods Kyuss dissolved in the same year, and lead guitarist Josh Homme found himself without anything to do. After their eponymous debut in 1998, featuring only Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernández as Queens Of The Stone Age, it was obvious that they were very much following in the same vein as Homme’s former band.
However, as the band grew, with prominent bassist Nick Oliveri joining, their sophomore record, 2000’s Rated R, was a more diverse sounding and overall better album, drawing the band both critical and commerical attention.
Since then, they have released five albums and have gone through countless band members, leaving Homme as the only founding member. It’s also become apparent that QOTSA are an ever-evolving group, with 2002’s Songs For The Deaf being a stoner rock riot, 2007’s Era Vulgaris a filthy, industrial romp and 2013’s …Like Clockwork being a multi-faceted, beautiful, alt-rock masterpiece. However, with Mark Ronson (Adele, Bruno Mars, Amy Winehouse) behind the decks, and ex-Volta drummer Jon Theodrore making his full album debut, Homme has stated that he wants to dance, but is it worthy of a wiggle?
Well, with album opener Feet Don’t Fail Me, it definitely looks like it. Opening on a 1:50 build-up, with the same creepy backing vocals present on every QOTSA record, the song soon kicks in with this really punchy beat and lead riff, with drummer Jon Theodore adding this offbeat hi-hat to maximise danceability. No, I don’t know what I’m talking about either, but it’s groovy. Josh’s vocals, in the first verse especially, carry a really cool swagger that brings a great focus to the track, even if there is a few bum lyrics in there (Civil EYESSSSSSSSSSS).
Then we get to lead single The Way You Used To Do. While master melon Anthony Fantano (Youtube’s best music critic, y’all should sub) described this track as a “moody ZZ-Top run-off”, I think this is arguably more dancey than its still extremely groovy predecessor. The hand-claps and tom/snare-heavy provide a very animalistic rhythm for the very skeletal and EODM-inspired guitars to do their thang on. This also boasts one of the best vocal performances of the album, in my opinion, with Homme crooning lyrics about his wife with a lot of soul, making this song another album favourite of mine.
These guitars are also one of the more prevalent examples of how producer Mark Ronson has definitely affected QOTSA’s sound, with, as I said, a much more skeletal and, for lack of a better word, empty feel to them, particularly compared to the impeccably-produced …Like Clockwork. This is easily the main point of criticism in a lot of the reviews I’ve seen of this album, with many people saying it has ‘sucked the life’ out of the band. While I do take these points on, I’m personally on the complete contrary, I think it’s much more back-to-basics Queens, helping them achieve almost a raw feel I haven’t heard since Rated R, while merging it with the glitzy qualities of something like their 2013 masterpiece.
Anywho, after those two quality tracks, the album dips into the region of “good” with third track Domesticated Animals. While in no means a bad song, I just don’t think this song retains the catchiness and danceability of the previous two tracks to be considered a real highlight, probably due to the odd time signature and omnious bass-heavy riff. That being said, these two components serve their purpose to give this song a more menacing edge, as do the facetious lyrics which wouldn’t be out of place on Era Vulgaris. Furthermore, the sound on this song definitely has a fuller feel than the previous two, giving it more technical leverage.
However, I don’t think the lyricism, from a technical standpoint, comes any stronger on this album than on Fortress. The poignant lyrics here comparing your emotions to the titular fortress, with the chorus reading “If ever your fortress caves/You’re always safe in mine“, serves as one of the strongest metaphors in any QOTSA song, showing Josh’s gift for songwriting. This are performed spectacularly by Homme, making prime use of his falsetto, and it couldn’t be more appropriate. There is also a strong groove to the song thanks to the smooth bassline which is contrasted with the robotic synths and sandy guitars. Probably the most emotional song on the album, it’s another true great on the album, and we’re still not even halfway through.
BUT THEN, IT WAS TIME, FOR HEAD LIKE A HAUNTED HOUSE. Easily my favourite song on the album, and of the year so far, the acid-soaked, rockabilly party anthem is the most fast-paced, attitude-ridden and brillianterest I’ve heard all year. Opening on these these harsh guitar shards then kicking into a frantic beat and hyperactive bassline, the multiple layers of guitars on this thing are so sharp and grinding it should be horrible, but it’s completely awesome. However, once again, it’s both Josh Homme’s lyrics and performance that make this song. On the lyrics side, this song is filled with absolutely genius lines, here are a few:
“Misdiagnosis with the mostest”
“Fucks in short supply”
“Too late, too slick, too young/Gag the bag reflex, spoken tongues”
“I demand satisfaction or the knife”
“Drink the kool-aid and swallow the pill/You say that you don’t and you won’t but you will” – My favourite on the album
Not only that, but his performance oozes with swagger, with enough “Hey!”s and “Ugh!”s to fill a friggin’ novel, and THAT would be the greatest novel of all time. Yeah, move over War & Piece, Josh Homme’s How To Be Literally The Coolest Person Alive Using Single Syllable Words is coming for ya.
Ever since I first heard a portion of this song on one of the teasers for the album in July, it’s been my most anticipated song to listen to ever, because it isn’t often that you anticipated a single song, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. I swear, it’ll take a damn lot for this not to be best track of the year and I can honestly say it’s in my top ten QOTSA tracks ever, AND I JUST PUBLISHED THAT FRIGGIN’ THING (shit). Now, if that, or the fact that I’ve written almost 300 words on this song alone, hasn’t given you a clue, yes, this is my favourite song on the album, and yes, watch the friggin’ video.
It’s a tricky feat to follow such a master song, but Un-Reborn Again gives it a good go regardless. While at first I wasn’t too keen, mainly due to the core riff being a little bit all-over-the-place, I gained new appreciation of this track after I read a little deeper into the lyrics. It seems as if (though this is all on Genius, so credibility notwithstanding) each verse of the song refers to a different person in Josh’s life, including Acid Face Jake (Jake Shears, of Scissor Sisters, a friend of Josh), Twizzy (Troy Van Leeuwen, lead guitarist), K-Dubs (Kristen Welsh, the band’s manager) and many others. Moreover, while I wasn’t particularly keen on the central riff, I do applaud the instrumental variety on this track, with a lot of dynamic production and some saxes at the end, and who don’t like a sax?
Following that, the album goes into furthest dip in quality with nocturnal groover Hideaway. There’s something off-putting here and, while it definitely isn’t a bad song, I just can’t get down with it. Maybe it’s the falsetto vocals, which Josh seems to rely on here, and doesn’t seem as appropriate, or the keyboard lead, which strikes me as kind of annoying. There’s also a certain factor to this that gives the impression of Arctic Monkeys, sounding more like a run-off from AM. Overall not a bad song, as I said, but just doesn’t gel with me.
But it’s all saved with the appearance of second single The Evil Has Landed. Badass title aside, this song was definitely my favourite of the two singles released before the album and my second favourite song on the album. This is probably due to the awesome guitar leads that are both wicked musically and a produced brilliantly, making it the first on the album to do both, which is kinda sad in one respect, but also kinda perfect in another.
These guitars remain the best thing about the album throughout each facet of the song. You heard me right, this song goes through three different stages in it’s 6 minute runtime, each having a particularly Led Zeppelin vibe about them, and that’s the highest compliment I can bestow, really. Moreover, this song inspired me creatively to write a set of lyrics to my own song, with the rhythm borrowing so heavily from this that it basically ripped it off. Still, awesome song.
Finally, we have the album’s closer and title track Villains Of Circumstance. A sombre cut, opening on an atmosphere not too dissimilar to that of …Like Clockwork‘s eponymous closing track, this song, while it’s instrumentally sound and has solid lyrics, suffers from a weak structure, leading it to be a little bit drifty. I also think the song would’ve worked better as an acoustic or more lo-fi piece, rather than bursting into an indie rock-esque chorus. It also presents a extreme slowing of the pace that, instead of letting Villains go out in the burst of flames it deserves, leaves it to burn out slowly. That being said, the strings and anthemically strained vocals does give this song a dramatic grandeur.
All in all, I have been anticipating Villains for four friggin’ years and I wasn’t disappointed. There are a bounty of quality cuts on this thing, at least one of which I now rank as one of my QOTSA faves (3 guesses as to which), and the songwriting, while not as strong as it’s predecessor, is still extremely solid. If you were turned off by the ghost tales of the production, don’t be, it ain’t as bad as you think it is. However, this album does still suffer from a couple of lacklustre tracks, one of which being the closer, which does kinda leave me wanting a little bit more. That being said, I still have no doubts that this album will be my best of the year.
BEST TRACKS: Head Like A Haunted House, The Evil Has Landed, Feet Don’t Fail Me, The Way You Used To Do, Fortress
WORST TRACKS: Hideaway
RANKING AMONG OTHER QOTSA RECORDS:
1. …Like Clockwork (2013)
2. Songs For The Deaf (2002)
3. Lullabies For Paralyze (2005)
4. Rated R (2000)
5. Queens Of The Stone Age (1998)
6. Villains (2017)
7. Era Vulgaris (2007)
Lots of hugs, kisses and lacerations