Let’s not go around slapping the Last of the Rock Stars tag on just anybody. There are still quite a few alluring dirtbags out there enamored of surly guitars, greasy hair, and form-fitting leather jackets in 2017. But louche Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme remains a sublimely singular figure, an endangered species and a magnificently erudite danger to himself. “People have said, ‘Are you saving rock ’n’ roll?’” he mused to The New York Times in mid-August. “And I was like, ‘Is it drowning? What are you talking about?’ It’s always one song away. And the rest of that discussion, I don’t have time for that discussion.”
“Head Like a Haunted House,” off QOTSA’s seventh record, the new Villains, will not save rock ’n’ roll. But there are few things more thrilling than watching its putative saviors set themselves on fire trying to save it.
Clocking in at a brisk, breathless 3:21, “Head Like a Haunted House” is the shortest and fastest and most unhinged track on Villains. It’s also, unsurprisingly, the best. The vibe here is a rockier, more horrific Rocky Horror Picture Show: the bass-driven pace is manic, the guitar riffs are deft and kicky, Homme’s yelped vocals are goofy and porno-theatrical. Lyrical concepts include “the ABCs of leprosy,” “Xanadus and Xanadonts,” and the climactic statement, “Circumstances in my pants is calling for action.” The whole thing sounds like rockabilly for charming sociopaths, and rockabilly was pretty sociopathic to begin with.
One thing true rock ’n’ roll fans love to do is rank the catalogs of long-running rock ’n’ roll bands, and these guys have a wild, rich, impressively varied history that’s a lot of fun to painstakingly sort into tiers. The volcanic guitarist for deified Southern Californian stoner-rock giants Kyuss, Homme broke off with bassist Nick Oliveri in 1995 and they put out QOTSA’s self-titled debut record in 1998. The guitars were just as ferocious, but the drums restrained and metronomic: Krautrock for cavemen, let’s say. “The way I thought about it was trance robot music for girls,” is how Homme later described it. Get a load of this riff.
Oliveri, a seething Tasmanian devil with none of Homme’s suaveness and quadruple his ferocity, made an excellent good-cop-bad-cop foil in the early years, anchoring 2000’s thoughtfully bonkers Rated R and especially 2002’s Songs for the Deaf, which features the band’s biggest hits and most ludicrously righteous jams. (That’s Dave Grohl on drums, or maybe eight Dave Grohl clones bashing away simultaneously.)
Songs for the Dead remains no. 1 in nearly all fans’ hearts, spleens, livers. Oliveri got the boot thereafter, and Homme’s next few efforts—2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze and 2007’s Era Vulgaris—featured a few spicy and Rock Band–worthy hits, but far less critical consensus. My favorite document from this period is when QOTSA did the cowbell-heavy Lullabies to Paralyze jam “Little Sister” on Saturday Night Live, and that night’s host, Will Ferrell, jumped onstage to reprise one of his most famous characters. Homme and Ferrell lock arms when the song’s over and affect a hilarious sort of Stupefied Badass posture; rock is not dead so long as one of those two people is alive.
More than a decade later, that’s still my prevailing image of Homme: the chiseled cornball, the philosopher knucklehead, Conan O’Brien mixed with Conan the Barbarian. His media statements tend to be profound, but not too profound. (To The New York Times: “I think oftentimes I bring the gift of disruption and corruption.”) QOTSA’s second-best record, for my money, is 2013’s … Like Clockwork, its best moments both brutally hard-hitting and deftly insidious, flaunting the whole of Homme’s fearsome range, the robot and the mastodon, the smooth talker and the fire breather.
From the moment “The Way You Used to Do” emerged as the first single, the one-word slogan for Villains has been “danceable.” In a shrewd bit of stunt casting, pop-phenom producer and internet boyfriend Mark Ronson was recruited to inject some “Uptown Funk” swagger into the proceedings, even if it meant filtering out much of the bombast. (As Homme put it, “For this record, it was like, man, we should risk our own reputations. We should take our old sound and screw it over.”) The guitars are clipped and restrained, firing off fearsomely economical riffs but rarely breaking free of the electric fence, whereas the drums are dry and pointillistic, robotic in a way that harks all the way back to the band’s 1998 debut.
That part’s a drag, actually. QOTSA has always been a revolving lineup; the drummer on Villains is Jon Theodore, who spent many years punching gigantic holes into the earth’s core as the octopus-armed backbone of prog-rock maniacs the Mars Volta. He is not the guy you call for restraint, subtlety, metronomic resolve. It is dismaying, at first blush, to listen as a mannered, slow-burn ballad like “Fortress” ties all eight arms behind his back.
But “Fortress” is quite beautiful once you digest it. The tone is uncharacteristically somber, the grouchy guitars gradually coming unspooled and echoing Neil Young’s iconically grouchy fist-pumper “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black.)” Villains certainly commits to its theme, its disruption and corruption of the Thinking Man’s Hard Rock ethos that made Homme famous, infamous. Like all of QOTSA’s records, it’ll be fun to rank even if you don’t rate it terribly high, and like everything this band has ever done, it will continually find ways to unnerve and delight you.
The temptation is to nod off halfway through “The Evil Has Landed,” a methodical jam with a few wild solos but nothing particularly blistering. But then, with 90 seconds left, Homme moans, “Here … we … come,” and the evil finally lands, the pace doubling, the guitars chewing up the scenery, Theodore managing to throw a few punchy drum fills in there. “Here we come!” Homme barks, as dapper and demonic as ever. “Get out of the way!” Even that moment won’t save rock ’n’ roll, or push Villains to the top tier of QOTSA’s catalog, but it ably proves that when it comes to these guys, there will always be time for discussion.