Queens Of The Stone Age hit the dancefloor. Arcade Fire and The War On Drugs return. Plus Steven Wilson and more.
There’s a case to be made for bands being forced to quit after five years. Josh Homme wouldn’t necessarily disagree. “The first three records – that’s where the drive is,” he said in 2011. Having already redefined millennial heavy rock with their second, 2000’s Rated R, Queens Of The Stone Age’s third album was the monumental Songs For The Deaf: hedonistic, rueful, steeped in melody, grind and pop nous – a real oh-shit-how-do-we-follow-that? statement. The band’s next three records felt like exercises in trying to justify continued existence, with variable results. Line-up turmoil – a QOTSA constant; drummers a speciality – meant only Homme remained for 2005’s Lullabies To Paralyze, and he didn’t diverge far enough from the beaten track, whereas 2007’s Era Vulgaris careered maniacally without settling anywhere too rewarding. There followed a six-year gap until 2013’s …Like Clockwork; in the interim Homme produced Arctic Monkeys and formed Them Crooked Vultures with sometime QOTSA drummer Dave Grohl and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. Although more plausible than its predecessors, …Like Clockwork was dense, clogged with name cameos – Trent Reznor, Jake Shears, Elton John – and found Homme conflicted between cleaning up his act or clinging to the Sturm und Drang that anyone with Grohl on permanent drum standby would be loath to forego. But with Villains, Homme has finally discovered a new design: arid and mechanical yet swinging, and impelled by forward momentum. Opener, Feet Don’t Fail Me has Homme declaring like a shaman: “Me and my gang come to bust you loose.” There is quintessential QOTSA swagger, but refracted through fresh eyes. …Like Clockwork was a downer, clearly dragged from a troubled place, its emotional wounds patched with bombast. Villains, in complete contrast, feels unburdened. Feet Don’t Fail Me urges us ever onwards: “Future tense meets middle finger/We take the long way home.” The obvious catalyst is Mark Ronson, the first instance of Homme ceding the producer’s role on a Queens album to anyone beyond himself or his Joshua Tree inner circle, let alone an elite New York-English pop auteur. Ronson’s cool, beat-forward style proves a perfect fit for a band built upon the primacy of repetitive rhythm, as well as Homme’s dropped-note polka riffing, all of which reaches critical mass on The Way You Used To Do, an ode to infernal amour
“IT SCREAMS FOR TWINKLETOED JOSH AND HIS DEATH’S HEAD HONEY TO JIVE THEIR WAY TO OBLIVION.”
which simply screams for twinkle-toed Josh and his death’s head honey to jive their way to oblivion. Choosing Ronson logically dictated a shift away from reverb-heavy melodrama and towards the shaking of butt. The record has an equally important touchstone closer to home, however. Feet Don’t Fail Me struts forth on a locked groove worthy of Captain Beefheart – a desert alchemist from a previous era – spliced to the same Zep-funk interface that powered Them Crooked Vultures’ Gunman. Yet it arrives only after a 100 second fadein, emerging like an alien abduction from a torture chamber, with scrapes, tribal chants and an eerie synth melody echoing a Homme vocal on Iggy Pop’s Sunday from 2016’s Post Pop Depression – produced and co-written by Josh Homme and also featuring QOTSA’s Dean Fertita. On tour, the PPD band prepared to take the stage by listening to Native American ‘pow-wow’ music; now the primitive begets the new model Queens. Iggy’s Bowie-produced classic texts are visible as palimpsests across Villains. One of the album’s plangent detours, Hideaway soars on pealing keyboard and guitars flushed with the same ingenuous hurt as Tonight. There’s the pure Funtime robotic groinage and gauche saxophony of Un-Reborn Again. More generally, Homme’s guitar treble is baked to Thin White Duke levels of extremity. Homme has described Villains as an oasis “from the bullshit of the day”. Certainly, its escapist moments are grabbers, but the giddy atmosphere doesn’t equate to a mindless party. From its opening self-assertion – “I was born in the desert, May 17, in ’73” – onwards, Feet Don’t Fail Me is an anthem in defiance of basic harsh truths: “Life is hard that’s why no one survives/I’m much older than I thought I’d be.” Domesticated Animals, a menacing refraction of archetypal Homme eastern overtones, ponders revolutionary rhetoric: “You wonder, where’s the freedom?/In the lost and found”. Homme’s root guitar sources are the two Jims, Hendrix and Page, and it’s their insuperable union that makes penultimate track The Evil Has Landed perhaps the most preposterously exciting Queens Of The Stone Age song ever. Sprung from a frisky falsetto’d premise – “Going on a living spree/Any wanna come with me?” – it zings on an ever-mutating Black Dog riff reboot until segueing into a whole new song as Homme’s blunt injunction – “Here.We.Come.” – heralds a classic QOTSA endless boogie. Kudos here and throughout to monster drummer Jon Theodore, who on his first full album surely pummels his name onto the stool for the duration. For a finale, Homme falls into the sacred embrace of the heart. Villains Of Circumstance is a lip-quivering letter home from a wandering soul, the sort of song that usually winds up kitchen-sinked to oblivion. So credit for its spare treatment here, with vintage synths splashing in and out at the denouement, serving to underscore Villains’ cleverest trick: it’s both organic and future-facing. A true metamorphosis, this album sees Queens Of The Stone Age shedding an old identity to discover new ways of playing the same song. Homme had already done more than anyone of his generation to pump new heart into rock. Now with an unlikely ally, he’s revived the soul too.
KEY TRACKS Feet Don’t Fail Me The Way You Used To Do The Evil Has Landed Un-Reborn Again