Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect, as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. Today we’re doing things a little differently – we’ll be comparing two different pressings of the new Queens Of The Stone Age album ‘Villains’ and weighing up which one stands tall as the definitive way to hear the album.
Throughout their two decades, the one thread that has tied Queens Of The Stone Age’s discography together is the band’s determination to never write the same song twice. All six of their previous albums are thoroughly different from one another, ranging from groove-heavy stoner trances to taut scuzz-pop anthems; it’s a trait that’s lent the band’s discography a longevity few groups can lay claim to. Seventh LP ‘Villains’ is a continuation of this attitude; although unmistakably an album helmed by frontman Josh Homme, the sonic palette and production (handled by Mark Ronson) is more than enough to ensure ‘Villains’ stands as a thoroughly unique entry into the band’s discography. Electronics are the order of the day here, moody synths overlaying the band’s more traditional 6-string assault and adding a fresh new dimension to their sound; rhythmically, too, there’s a shift in direction. The swinging stomp of ‘The Way You Used To Do’ is Elvis on steroids, whilst the haywire 7/8 groove of ‘Domesticated Animals’ confounds as much as it pleases. It’s a triumphant album and one that never struggles to give back as much as you put in.
We’re doing something a little different today – rather than looking at one specific pressing, we’re comparing two. ‘Villains’ is available in three different configurations – standard, indie-exclusive and deluxe. The standard and indie versions come on normal weight LPs in standard gatefold sleeves, whereas the deluxe comes extravagantly packaged and pressed on heavier vinyl. In addition to these three versions, regional issues for the EU/UK and US were made, and we’re going to compare the EU and US deluxe editions to see which is better – because one most certainly is superior to the other.
The US edition is pressed by the reputable Pallas USA, whilst the European version is pressed by Optimal Media. Although Optimal Media do have a solid track record, historically their pressings haven’t been in the league of those reliably put out via Pallas. The fact that there are regionalised pressings of ‘Villains’ is something of a surprise given that the deluxe edition of 2013’s ‘…Like Clockwork’ – also pressed by Pallas – had one version for all regions.
The EU Optimal Media version is – by general standards – a really solid pressing, but quality control is certainly an issue and we went through two faulty copies before we got one which was up-to-the-job. Our first copy had a missing disc (an anomaly certainly, but mistakes happen) however our second copy had significant surface noise, too much to be acceptable on a release set at a fairly high retail price (around £26) and marketed as a deluxe edition. Our third copy sounded much better but still had patches of surface noise and it wasn’t until we cleaned up the album with an antistatic cleaning fluid that the playback improved. As it is now, playback is generally excellent with high sound quality and little in the way of surface noise. There are a few patches of light noise, particularly in the album’s quieter moments (the subdued verses of ‘Villains Of Circumstance’ could sound better) but generally speaking playback is really nice and it’s still an appealing way to hear the album.
The US Pallas pressing, however, is far better. Not only is quality control considerably superior (we got a perfect copy on our first try) but pressing quality is also noticeably better. Sonically speaking, there’s little difference between the two releases and both sound glorious – however surface noise is as good as nonexistent on the Pallas release and, apart from a small handful of crackles at in the run-in of side one, playback is close to flawless with a near inaudible noise floor and no unwanted surface noise. Both the Optimal Media and Pallas versions are good but the Pallas version is undoubtedly the definitive pressing of the album, and those willing to shell-out more to secure a US version would do well to do so.
Although the records differ between the two issues, the packaging is actually the same with both and it’s of very high quality. Perhaps surprisingly, the deluxe packaging here deviates from that found on the deluxe edition of ‘…Like Clockwork’. Instead of the relatively traditional (if very high quality) gatefold sleeve and art book of their last album, ‘Villains’ is instead packaged in an unorthodox wide-spine gatefold sleeve that incorporates a pocket to fit 14 high quality double-sided art prints. The sleeve itself is printed on roughly mid-weight card as opposed to the thick stock found on their last deluxe edition – but given how bulky the package is overall, it still feels very solid and actually has a significant weight to it in-hand.
The art prints are gorgeous, featuring lyrics to the album’s 9 cuts, in addition to vivid and idiosyncratic images courtesy of artist Boneface, who handled both the cover art for ‘Villains’ and ‘…Like Clockwork’. The records come in good quality, well made card art inner sleeves; as always with such storage, swapping them out for Mofi inners is advisable but there’s no denying the aesthetic quality of the presentation. Also included is a download code redeemable both in FLAC and MP3 – if we’re being particularly critical, the code could have been presented in a quirkier fashion (the code included with the deluxe edition of ‘…Like Clockwork’ was presented as a lottery-style scratch card) but it’s certainly functional and does feature some thematically appropriate art work.
The only difference between the two issues is the etching found on side 4. Only the first 3 sides of the record have music on them, with the final side instead being given over to etched artwork. It’s a curious choice from a sonic perspective and it’s rather perplexing as to why they didn’t simply spread the album over all four sides and cut it at 45rpm (as they did with the deluxe of their last album). Regardless, the album does sound excellent so it’s no real concern. As is to be expected, the etching found on the two pressings differ slightly and although we would recommend the Pallas pressing in every other respect, the etching is actually more defined on the EU Optimal Media version – so from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the EU version actually edges ahead slightly.
Both the EU and US versions of the ‘Villains’ deluxe edition sound and look great, however one is clearly superior to the other. Whilst fans in the EU may struggle to find a US copy without paying for an expensive import, diehard fans may want to spend the extra and secure themselves the superior US pressing. Those content with a far cheaper second-best option will still get an excellent pressing in the Optimal Media version that, though not without flaws, does give great playback and offers a far more affordable option to the EU fans. US fans, of course, have the fantastic Pallas pressing as the default option and it is by far the best version of the album available.