I remember when Muse released their album ‘2nd Law’ which kicked off with a song called Unsustainable. Not everyone’s bag of riffs, whizzes and whirrs, but it was nevertheless an interesting piece: in which a brazenly politicised but parodically modulated voice announced the ‘drop’ of a dubstepping guitar.
Muse, albeit massive moneymakers, are musicians first and foremost, so they didn’t fret whether the wider public, and perhaps their fanbase, would like the song. It was experimental, it was certainly different, and both in a relevant manner. Muse synthesised their own heavy sounds with the heavily synthetic sounds and beat of the then-popular dubstep genre to make a siren-song against disaster capitalism. I remember reading the criticism on social media: they have sold out!
True artists take their inspirations and sound from the past, they combine it with their inspirations and innovations in the present and, if successful, create a different and durable sound for the future. Perhaps Unsustainable was heavier on the ‘different’ than the ‘durable,’ but that’s a cynical take. My point is that, to whatever conscious extent, artists are receptacles for and expressions of their time, of the zeitgeist: this does not necessarily equal ‘selling out.’
Queens of the Stone Age’s new album ‘Villains’ is a sterling case in point. They have, for daring to contract uptown funky man Mark Ronson for the album’s production, ‘compromised’ their sound, they’ve ‘sold out.’
Frontman Josh Homme—producer of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Humbug’, of supergroup Them Crooked Vultures’ self-titled belter, of Iggy Pop’s recent and well-received ‘Post-Pop Depression’ and of QOTSA’s last, ‘Like Clockwork’—has simply capitulated the band and its sound to Ronson’s funk, in all of its chirpy cheapness.
Or has he?
‘Villains’ is a nine-track neck-ache: head-banging and heart-wrenching, naughty and nice, sassy and serious. It’s QOTSA all over, still, just with added beat and bounce, with added Ronson. In the context of the above discussion, it’s surprisingly (and refreshingly)… familiar!
Its opener, Feet Don’t Fail Me, is a case in point: a long intro in their patently ghoulish sound, then an about-face into bouncy and excitable riffage. Ronson’s there insofar as you notice yourself nodding, tapping and shaking along to it, as a considerable portion of humanity did to Uptown Funk.
The next track and single, The Way You Used To Do, is the only explicit manifestation of Ronson’s input, and, unless I’m mistaken, it works well. It’s happy-clappy dance music. The beat and riff and rhythm are robotic, or “tight and vacuous” as Homme terms it, and tied together by some of the best bold-but-smooth vocals on any QOTSA album. The vacuity is uncharacteristically reflected lyrically, but ultimately not to the detriment of a beat-centric dance tune.
Such can’t be said for the following gem, Domesticated Animals, opening with the wail of guitars and a woof by the frontman, easing into a simple, sexy riff. We retain some catchiness in the chorus, ‘You get back up and sit back down/The revolution is one spin round,’ which is sung almost like an incantation. But we return to Homme’s punchily cynical poetry, ‘All for one, all for naught,’ sung sardonically in verse and with weight over the bridge; the swelling spasms of vocals, ‘I’ll tell you where the gold is,’ and guitar stir the (domesticated) animal inside us before cruising to a conclusion punctuated by a savage scream by bassist, Shuman. (N.B. The live version is, in this author’s opinion, (even) better.)
Fortress is of the QOTSA staple, ‘sweet song wrapped in melancholic rock,’ hitherto heard in Suture Up Your Future and I Never Came, with added whizz and whirr by way of keys and slide-guitar; it’s steady, easy listening, and arguably the only dud on the record.
Head Like a Haunted House announces the arrival of both drummer and bassist, the latter of whom heads the frantic rollercoaster, well matched with breathless bravado, ‘A misdiagnosis with the most-est,’ disjointed drugginess, ‘Drink the kool-aid and swallow the pills/Say that you don’t and you won’t but you will’ and more macho mumbo-jumbo on vocals. It’s a loopy, satisfying ride, vying with the opening track for head-banger of the album.
Un-Reborn Again is thick and fuzzy, a rhythmic rocker speaking to an age of cheesy synth and singing to youthful days long bygone. Another effective about-face pulls the beat from under the listener, now nodding along to a luscious orchestral breakdown, complete with soulful lead and backing vocals laid over violins; beautiful stuff.
The coherence of a freewheeling bass-line, ethereal keywork and incremental progressions on guitar in Hideaway is affecting at worst and truly poignant at best; QOTSA more than suit this style, as exemplified in I Appear Missing and …Like Clockwork, and further perfected in this peach.
The Evil Has Landed speaks to how far they’ve come from, yet just how close they’ve stuck to, their bread and butter: sassy, slightly feminine, irresistible sing-along rock ‘n’ roll. It’s been a whole decade since ‘Era Vulgaris,’ yet one can hear the rapid riffing of 3’s and 7’s, the macabre intonations of Sick, Sick, Sick. It’s all a bit disjointed, until it is (counter-intuitively) brought together in a crescendo leading to the best—or, rather, my favourite—about-face on the album at the five minute mark: ‘Here… we… come!/Get out of the way-ay! Care not… what the people say-ay!’ Beautiful, inspired, prompt: they take risks boldly on the album and this track; for its finesse and spiritedness in execution, it works out.
The album ends with a titular nod in Villains of Circumstance, a melancholy musing on the difficulties of long-term relationships, ‘I miss you now, what’s come over me?/We’re hostages of geography.’ Opening with a rousingly void intro, swinging into a bass-line pendulum, developing from a moseying to ballsier ballad, then concluding the song and culminating the album with a weird and wonderful urgency. Again, it works.
It all works, despite the directions being at once sad and salacious, pathetic and powerful, they somehow make it work again and again. The proof is in the pudding: Ronson’s production wasn’t necessary but it was a novelty the band fed off of fantastically. Criticism of the conspicuous absence of drums might be expected, but I cannot imagine the beat and shake to the more dancey tracks would remain if there were fills and spurts ‘interrupting’ them. My criticism? The album is too short and the time until the next, if there is one, too long.
As I’m not on social media, my writing is only read as much as it is circulated by readers like you; so if you liked this piece, please share and share alike, it would be greatly appreciated. Peace and chirps, Liam.