The life force of Palm Desert, California’s Queens of the Stone Age arises from their unrelenting badassery. Even in spite of the diverse stylistic pursuits to have comprised much of their two-decade-long career, ranging from their boogie-based classic rock jams to the dirty tones and stoner riffs of their sludge metal stylings, the core ethos of the heavy rockers’ artistry has remained grounded in the gritty, battered-and-bruised hardships of the blues. Each album of theirs doubles as a soundtrack to a desert drive in a rusty muscle car, wherein the driver has only some tattered plaid and a leather jacket on their back and a packet of cigarettes and a half-empty hip flask of whiskey to their name. Such vivid imagery comes with the territory for Queens of the Stone Age, with the band epitomising the essence of Palm Desert’s stoner rock scene and bringing it to a wider audience, largely courtesy of the group’s somewhat supergroup-esque structure, having burned through members such as Dave Grohl, Danzig and Eagles Of Death Metal collaborator Joey Castillo, frequent musical partner of Jack White, Dean Fertita, and, of course, the iconic Josh Homme, originally of the band Kyuss, who, along with Sleep, bore the torch for the development of desert rock. With the devil-may-care theatrics of Queens of the Stone Age’s attitude towards alternative rock and metal music being such an integral aspect of their appeal, to have consistently retained their veneer of a band of hardened renegades on the run across all of their stylistic endeavours — including the cryptic but rewarding experimentation of their previous record, …Like Clockwork — is truly impressive. Even with a such an impenetrable track record of badassery, however, the decision to bring in popular funk DJ Mark Ronson to handle the production on their latest album, Villains, was more than enough to raise some eyebrows in the rock world.
Although an odd pairing on the surface, given the slightly disco-orientated direction pursued by Queens of the Stone Age across much of Villains, which is even reflected in some of the album’s dance-based lyrical themes, bringing in someone such as Ronson to help smooth out some of the stickier melodic tones and danceable grooves of the record makes a lot of sense in the context of the conscious stylistic choice made by the band on many of these new songs. On the other hand, with Queens of the Stone Age being prized for the grittier, sludgier tones of their sharp stoner rock stylings, employing someone with little experience in the world of rock music production is a risky move, with Ronson’s experience as a rock producer being limited to the poppier and more electronic-leanings of the genre, through his work with the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, Paul McCartney and Duran Duran. In fact, in terms of Ronson’s production discography, the closest point of comparison to his work on Villains would probably be his contributions to Black Lips’ 2010 release, Arabia Mountain, wherein the DJ struggled to capture the garage punk vigour of the group’s raw and eccentric performances. Likewise, in the case of Villains, the cleaner and more polished production style that Ronson brings to the table, whilst understandable from a stylistic perspective, given the extent to which it plays into some of the broader musical and lyrical themes of the album, can only go so far as to complement Queens of the Stone Age’s newfound, disco-infused sound. After all, even in spite of the more dance-tinged tones that are presented throughout much of the tracklisting, Queens of the Stone Age remain a stoner rock outfit at their core on Villains, and Ronson’s refined production style struggles to bring out the best in the band’s dirtier stylings. When it comes to Homme et al. themselves, the group puts together an admirably well-rounded project from a thematic perspective on Villains, with a handful of cuts in the tracklisting ranking amongst some of the most conceptually potent of their career. There are, however, lulls in Queens of the Stone Age’s ability to incorporate their more accessible influences in an especially interesting fashion, with the band seemingly shying away from being as manifest with their pop and disco influences as they could be, leading to certain moments across the album that almost seem to exist in a state of purgatory between their desert rock side and their dance-rock side, rather than effectively bridging the gaps between the two genres. Even still, Queens of the Stone Age are seldom a band to falter when it comes to flexing their compositional muscles, and that they do on Villains, but there are nevertheless some points across the tracklisting wherein a less clearly defined vision, matched with Ronson’s spotty production, result in a slightly limited foray into the world of disco-rock.
Even without the benefit of context, Villains is rife with tell-tale signs that the production was handled by a funk producer, for better or for worse. Undoubtedly, there are certain benefits that come with employing someone such as Mark Ronson, with a keen ear for the richly-textured harmonies and rhythmic trappings of funk and its electronic-orientated derivatives, but it seems more as if these advantages come in the form of happy accidents than premeditated decisions, hence why many of these merits can prove to be quite the double-edged swords. The prominence of the bass in the mix, for example, reads much like what one would expect with the likes of Ronson behind the desk, but the extent to which the production brings out the best in some of the thicker, meatier and more intricate bass lines enhances Queens of the Stone Age’s already strong sense of groove greatly. This is particularly true on a song such as Fortress, wherein Michael Shuman’s bass groove interacts with Jon Theodore’s drumming and the general rhythmic structure of the groove really tightly, grasping some touches of potent melodies that are reinforced rather well thanks to their place in the mix, especially as the bass picks up some beefier, punchier tones. The lead single from the record, The Way You Used to Do, however, perhaps stands as the best example of the bass’ power across much of Villains, with its firm stabs of fuzz initially injecting a great deal of muscle into the song’s solid groove, before breaking out into a smoother melodic pattern as the track picks up some momentum, making for an effective release of the rigid tension that had been built up until this point. The trouble is, however, that whilst the prominence of the bass in the mix really reinforces some of Queens of the Stone Age’s signature grooves, it isn’t blended particularly well with the rest of the instrumentation, instead often feeling isolated from the other components that comprise the production, to the point that its overall impact is slightly limited as a result. This is wherein Ronson’s production really can be a double-edged sword because, taking The Way You Used to Do as an example, although the bass’ potency bolsters the beat very effectively for the most part, when Shuman’s playing begins to pick up some more melodic tones and play along with the guitars, instead of these two elements coming together seamlessly, they simply seem to sit alongside one another with little semblance of nuance or chemistry displayed between their adjacent performances. It would seem that another, arguably more prominent issue that arises from employing a funk DJ to handle the production is the extent to which the vocals are blended further back into the mix. What’s perhaps most frustrating about this choice specifically, however, is the fact that this would not have likely been as notable of a problem on previous projects from Queens of the Stone Age, but when it comes to Villains specifically, Josh Homme utilises a more muted vocal delivery at times, in keeping with the lyrical themes and disco-influenced stylistic leanings of the record. As such, there are certain instances in which the singer’s vocals fall a bit too far back into the rest of the instrumentation, which is a shame given how strong Homme’s vocal melodies tend to be. The album’s second single, The Evil Has Landed, despite its strong songwriting, is a prime example of this, as, although Homme delivers some of his most striking vocal melodies across the entirety of Villains during the verse sections, Ronson’s production style doesn’t entirely accommodate for the frontman’s use of falsetto, with the singing seemingly taking a backseat to the crunchy tones of duelling guitars. Ultimately, being a producer for primarily funk and electronic music, the cohesiveness of Ronson’s production techniques with Queens of the Stone Age’s stylistic choices across the course of Villains seems rather hit or miss. The producer unquestionably has his moments, especially in terms of how effectively the diverse synth tones across the course of the record are blended into the mix, but there are nevertheless numerous, readily apparent problems that arise from the extent to which his production style clashes with Queens of the Stone Age’s sound.
In terms of the songwriting specifically, Queens of the Stone Age’s pivot towards a glossier, disco-infused sound, whilst not without its hitches, is impressively well-worked within their usual stoner rock stylings for the most part. To come down from the experimental highs of …Like Clockwork with what is, on paper, their most accessible album yet is a bold move, but in some regards, even if it couldn’t be said to completely pay off, it certainly makes for some interesting ideas being added to the band’s roster. In fact, despite both albums being underpinned by the group’s usual stylistic substructure, comparing …Like Clockwork to Villains in any way other than a contextual manner is really not all that helpful for understanding Queens of the Stone Age’s dance-based detour or its place within their back-catalogue, as this record comes across as somewhat removed from the band’s undertakings up until this point. Most definitely, this feeling likely emerges from just how self-contained many of the album’s most prominent musical and lyrical themes are, to the point of creating some particularly strong songs on a conceptual basis alone, with the opening track, Feet Don’t Fail Me, epitomising this key achievement on Villains. With Homme’s lyrics placing desert imagery opposite a clear dance-based double entendre in the song’s title, this seems to be an appropriate reflection of the composition’s appropriation of principles from disco music into Queens of the Stone Age’s usual desert rock underpinnings. With brooding textures of brittle guitar tones and bright, coruscating synthesizers building up towards the eventual outbreak of the song’s main groove, which is punctuated with interlocking, octave-based guitar work and squelchy accents, the band brings together a rigid, danceable beat with whiffs of stoner riffs impressively smoothly. As the piece progresses, they begin to test how far they can take this unusual pairing, which makes for some almost comical additions to the song, such as the outbreak of a trilling guitar lick during the second verse that soon falls out of key, as to evoke the more obtuse side to Queens of the Stone Age’s desert rock stylings to have appeared throughout their career, even if it doesn’t quite reach I’m Designer levels of discordance. Likewise, the squalid groove and dissonant guitar solo that comprises the bridge section, which comes across like a danceable funeral dirge, flaunts the group’s more playfully experimental side in a rather amusing manner. Domesticated Animals incorporates some similarly dark and mangled melodies into its rigid groove, which somehow manages to remain danceable, despite the track’s odd time signature, largely as a result of how well punctuated the piece’s rhythmic structure is, giving the listener more than enough accents and embellishments to firmly cling onto as the beat begins to tug at them from both sides. With Un-Reborn Again making full use of the band’s dynamic range, employing both sludgy and bright guitar tones, as well as both buzzing sawtooth synth bass lines and some smoother lead tones, whilst Homme’s vocal delivery ranges from his sassy, glam rock-inspired intonation during the verses to the lighter legato of his pre-chorus performance, many of Queens of the Stone Age’s compositional capabilities compensate for the occasional lacking support provided by Ronson’s production. Whilst there are songs such as Hideaway, which falls into some of the more rudimentary tropes of the group’s more accessible rock sound, and the closing track, Villains of Circumstance, whose disjointed and unjustified four-minute build-up could be said to slightly spoil the eventual outbreak of the cut’s catchy 12/8 groove, Queens of the Stone Age’s attempt at reconciling their typical desert rock stylings with a disco-orientated sound is executed relatively seamlessly for the most part and, at the best of times, provides for some airtight thematic undertakings that shine a new light on the band’s songwriting abilities.
If Villains is a testament to anything, that would have to be the fact that Queens of the Stone Age truly are capable of continuing to sound uncompromisingly tough, regardless of whichever stylistic path they should so happen to find themselves treading, even if it’s dance, disco and glam rock that are acting as the salient artistic inspiration for their work. Across its most successful moments, Villains manages to balance the conflicting themes of stoner rock and disco-rock in an impressively tight fashion, but this makes it all the more disappointing that Mark Ronson’s production unfortunately doesn’t capture the full dynamic breadth of what Queens of the Stone Age were attempting on this album. Thankfully, the group’s compositional chops and powerful performances are still conveyed over the course of much of the record, just as Ronson’s production does occasionally make for some striking, if isolated, tones across many of these songs, but Villains nevertheless lacks the nuance and resonance that could really sell a full-blown fusion of dance and desert rock. Overall, Villains may very well earn a pronounced position in Queens of the Stone Age’s discography for its bold risks and occasional sparks of thematic depth, but its aplomb is occasionally better translated in principle rather than in execution.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10