The term “stoner rock” is one of those swing terms that could serve as either blissful praise or acidic mockery, depending on who is speaking and the tone of voice applied. On one hand, it could describe an arsenal of heavy, hypnotic grooves that excel at outdoor festivals at which joints tend to roam from mouth to mouth. Or, the genre label could peg music that requires an audience of brains helplessly crippled by generous amounts of THC in order to find it palatable (and when the pot runs out, the music starts to suck). Thankfully, Queens of the Stone Age has tended to draw descriptions falling in the former range.
While the band’s eponymous debut offering in 1998 retained echoes of the sludgy rock of Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age’s predecessor with the same lineup, the band has shed pieces of the sound—having been honed in outdoor concerts in the deserts of Southern California where the band was born—before each new album. With their latest release, Villains, Queens of the Stone Age seems to have finally left the stoner rock orbit. Either that, or the band has distilled and adapted stoner rock to suit a new sonic landscape: one populated with more dynamic, bite-sized songs that retain some of the repetitious distorted riffs of their long-winded ancestors, but succeed in taking the listener from one place to another.
Either way, listeners may be too busy dancing to bother grabbing the bong when it comes around. For Villains, Frontman Josh Homme engaged in a potentially risky maneuver in enlisting producer and pop specialist Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Adele, Paul McCartney) to barehandedly grab the buzzing mains of the guitar-driven rock Queens of the Stone Age is known for and bring out the inherent danceability of the band’s succulent grooves without neutering them in the process. Then again, the job of any good producer is to enhance, not to alter.
Some diehard elements of Queens of the Stone Age’s fan base may question the more prominent keyboards and the guitars’ lower levels in the mixes. But the keyboards on Villains, while employed more frequently than on the band’s previous albums, keep the cheese out and the rock in. Just as a glossy 80s production did not blunt the poetry of Patti Smith on Dream of Life, Ronson’s rhythm-forward treatment of Villains preserved the band’s sound while amplifying the material’s accessibility, catapulting Villains to number one on Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart, repeating the success of their 2013 release, …Like Clockwork.
The encroaching tide of the keyboard intro of “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” the album’s lead track, serves to launch the listener head-first into the song’s deliciously nasty funk that sets the album’s boogie-friendly tone. “The Way You Used To Do,” the album’s first single, follows next, the electric-razor buzz of the guitars locking into a tight swing rhythm that is probably already breathing life into many a tiresome swing dancing set (no offense, Benny Goodman).
Exploring a contemplative space that picks up where the soft-loud-soft “Kalopsia” from …Like Clockwork left off, “Fortress” is more of a steady rocker, with its introduction of beckoning ambience leading to the album’s most intimate lyrics (“It ain’t if you fall / But how you rise that says / Who you really are / So get up and go through” and “If ever your fortress caves / You’re always safe in mine”). The uplifting song’s mere five and a half minutes may singlehandedly scare off some of the band’s old-guard fans, but I suspect the band will simultaneously gain many more. At their recent concert at Madison Square Garden, Homme spotted a couple arguing in the pit and used the opportunity to stress what the band is all about: “We’re not the soundtrack for your fighting,” Homme said, “We’re the soundtrack for your fucking.” Perhaps “Fortress” will become part of the related soundtrack for pillow talk.
Elsewhere, under Ronson’s clear, breathable production, familiar Queens of the Stone Age stylistic elements flex and strut. There are the requisite false endings; highway-friendly songs (known in some quarters as speeding music), most notably “Head like a haunted house,” whose furious pulse evokes late 70s punk with a touch of glam, an unsurprising outcome considering that Homme had just finished touring with Iggy Pop before recording Villains; and a scattering of Bowie-esque flashes–the chugging “Diamond Dogs” saxophone on “Un-Reborn Again,” the cruising beat redolent of “Suffragette City” at the finale of “The Evil Has Landed.”
Stoner rock has traditionally nourished itself from the proto-metal wells of the 70s and grunge of the 90s, handily skipping the 80s. Queens of the Stone Age rolls out what is perhaps the most damning departure from such a standard in the closing track, “Villains of Circumstance,” in which the singalong chorus reveals hints of Roxy Music’s falsetto hook in “More Than This” from 1982.
Villains is an album for those unafraid of the evolution and cross-pollination of rock music. Dancing is optional. And so is the pot.