Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork (2013 Matador Records)



2013 Matador Records

For the past 25 years, Josh Homme has been one of the most uncompromising, individualistic artists in all of music.  As a supremely badass fourteen year old in Palm Desert, California, he helped found Kyuss, the cult classic desert stoner metal band famous for their debauched "generator parties" out in the desert wastelands.  Out of that band's ashes rose Queens of the Stone Age in 1997, and Homme has been pushing that group into the upper stratosphere in the pantheon of legendary rock bands ever since.  Just for kicks, he started up the boogie rock group Eagles of Death Metal with childhood friend Jessie "the Devil" Hughes, trading in his heavy guitar licks for the drumkit and ass-shaking happy retard beats.  He is the organizer of the Desert Sessions, spontaneous recording sessions at Rancho De La Luna, a quiet studio out near Joshua Tree National Park, with some of the best guest musicians in the world.  And as if that weren't enough of a resume, he started up Them Crooked Vultures, a power trio with, of all people, Dave fucking Grohl and Led Zeppelin legend John Paul fucking Jones.  Basically, Josh Homme is the undisputed Alpha Male of the modern rock scene.

That is why it was so weird to hear that all of it almost came crashing down in an instant as the Hammer of the Gods flirted with the idea of taking Homme out in his prime.  During a routine leg surgery in 2011, there were unforeseen complications and Homme, the indestructible rock god, died on the table.  Doctors managed to shock him back to life, but he was bedridden for four long months, lost in what he has been calling in recent interviews "The Fog," an unshakable depression that almost destroyed everything he had built up.  Homme contemplated retirement in order to be closer to his wife Brody Dalle and their two young children;  a career in music seemed superficial when confronted with his near death experience.  But Homme's wife prodded him back into his home studio, urging him to forge ahead.  He reconvened with longtime co-conspirators, guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and drummer Joey Castillo, as well as bassist Michael Shuman, and guitarist/keyboardist Dean Fertita.  It had already been an unusually long time since the last Queens album, the highly underrated Era Vulgaris in 2007, and there was some determination to get in the studio and crank something... anything... out. With little preparation and limited material available to forge into an album, the sessions proved to be incredibly difficult and resulted in a sad divorce from Castillo, QotSA's drummer for over a decade.  Dave Grohl climbed behind the drums once again, claiming the spot he vacated after 2002's Songs for the Deaf, and helped the band across the finish line.  Ex-Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore took over when Grohl bowed out, playing on one track and acting as, for now at least, QotSA's touring drummer.  The band was joined by a wide variety of guest musicians who acted as a buffer between the frustrated band members, with Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri brought back into the fold,  as well as appearances by Trent Reznor, the Arctic Monkey's Alex Turner, and Elton John, among others.  All of these ingredients combine to form ...Like Clockwork, a dark and wandering record that never settles into a predictable pattern, and drags the hallmarked Queens of the Stone Age sound kicking and screaming into the future.  ...Like Clockwork harkens back to the 1970's when big guitar rock was what the cool kids got stoned to and what got the girls' panties all wet, and Queens seem hellbent on awakening that sorely missed tradition.  After ...Like Clockwork debuted at the top of the Billboard chart the week of its release, their mission seems to be well underway.

The first few spins through a new QotSA album always find me disappointed.  Every. Single. Fucking. Time.  (well, except for Songs for the Deaf, that one melted my face the first time through).  Initially, Queens of the Stone Age's music is consistently out of my realm of expectations.  i might want one thing, but they always deliver another.  That can be a problem if you want the same material cranked out time and time again, but i enjoy the creative twists and turns Josh and Co. consistently take, so i am willing to give each album a bit more time to crack its code before it starts to sink in.  Longtime Homme fans from his old Kyuss days will probably continue to be frustrated, mourning their fallen guitar god as his instantly identifiable sludgy fuzz guitar tone has all but disappeared completely.  In fact, Homme seems most comfortable when Kyuss continues to fade into the shadows of his rearview mirror and he rebuilds himself into something fresh and new with each album.   Some old fans drop off, some new fans climb on board, and others have been clinging on white knuckled to keep up the entire time.  If you want to drink the Homme-spiked Kool-Aid, it's here and it tastes good.  So take a drink, and, slowly but surely, over repeated spins, ...Like Clockwork's personality finally begins to emerge.

"Keep Your Eyes Peeled" is quintessential Queens of the Stone Age.  the curtains open with a melted, hallucinatory groove and a snarling riff dripped over castillo's off kilter drum beat.  this is definitely an unusual choice as an album opener... rather than bursting in and making a grand entrance, "Keep Your Eyes Peeled" crawls in through a darkened rear window like a prowler with bad intentions.  these are some of Homme's darkest lyrics yet, and he makes a line like "The view from Hell is blue sky/so ominously blue/i daydream until all the blue is gone" even creepier by singing it in a sweet, floating falsetto.  this is one of numerous moments throughout ...Like Clockwork (and even reaching back to Era Vulgaris), whether by coincidence or by design, where i swear i can taste the influence of 90's avant pop deconstructionists Shudder to Think. this is a great compliment, and i don't believe i have ever handed it out to anyone ever before.

 If the Radio Gods have any sense whatsoever, "Sat By the Ocean" will be the feel good hit of the summer.  Straight up mid 70's arena rock with a dash of "Don't Bring Me Down" and a huge glammed out Xanadu'ed chorus.  Josh's best sing along classic rock pop song yet.

"The Vampyre of Time and Memory" was the first song Josh wrote after months of inactivity.  "I hated it," he said in a recent interview.  Well, I wasn't totally sold either.    I hated it the first several times through, less so the next several times. now, i dig it.  Funny enough, the live performance from the  recent NPR concert from the Wiltern Theater in LA  was definitely improved with the glossy studio veneer wiped away.

"If I Had a Tail" is a deceptively simple song, with Grohl's restrained 4/4 beat forming the song's spine and josh's voice carrying the melody.  It's a fun, probably effortless Queens tune that ebbs and flows through the verses and choruses and leads to a big glammy finale before breaking off into a strange whispered voice outro.

"My God is the Sun" is another slab of vintage QotSA.  Grohl drives the song with a drum performance that harkens back to the old Songs for the Deaf days, barreling through a mountain of thick guitars and bass.  A classic.

the next track, "Kalopsia," is an odd, pill'd out, hallucinatory tune.  opening with a fading heartbeat and a hospital respirator wheezing in the background, Josh pulls off some great straight faced lounge crooning over gently floating guitar lines and piano.  when he sings "bye bye black balloons/see ya real soon," it sounds like he is falling deep into blissful oblivion, until a huge Ziggy Stardust chorus kicks its platform shoe through the window and he crawls his way through a thick coma fog towards daylight. an album highlight and, i am certain, will be devastatingly awesome live.

"Fairweather Friends," although loaded to the gills with guest stars, comes off to these ears as heavily overproduced, overworked,  methodically radio friendly, and bland.  cowritten by Mark Lanegan, the song could have used his deep baritone to give it some weight, but instead we are given a weak vocal performance by Josh. this is Queens reaching complacent middle age, with a nice house, a new suv in the driveway, and a couple of kids playing in the yard.   personally, i've deleted the song from my itunes. sorry.

Any complacency is shaken off with the skanky "Smooth Sailing." Josh's Alpha Male swagger is on full display here and the whole band is in on the action, too, laying down a steamy swirl of sex on the dance floor lust.  White fucking hot.

While there are other lyrical moments on the album that metaphorically talk about Josh's near death experience and the months of crushing depression that followed, "I Appear Missing" confronts the issue straight on.  It's a beautiful and haunting piece, and is probably the most powerful tune on the album.  "shock me awake/tear me apart/pinned like a note on a hospital gown/deeper i sleep/further down the rabbit hole/never to be found."  there is a stunning, hair raising finale, with Josh's pained falsetto "with my toes on the edge/such a lovely view/i never loved anything till i loved you/i'm over the edge/what can i do/i'm falling through."  absolutely gorgeous stuff.

on the title track, "...Like Clockwork," the Homme rock star bravado is completely gone. he has laid himself completely bare, wide open and vulnerable. on the album's other ballad, "The Vampyre of Time and Memory," i sense a bit of a typical Homme wink-wink-nudge-nudge, don't-take-this-too-seriously attitude (at least i HOPE so, especially with a line like "i'm alive/hooray/you're wrong again cuz i feel no love"), but "...Like Clockwork" is shockingly private and somber.  the first half of the song is just Josh and a melancholic piano line, and slowly a quiet acoustic guitar and a mournful cello fade in.  soon, the rest of the band comes in, notable for being the first recorded Queens performance by drummer Jon Theodore, and huge swells of strings, commandeered by UNKLE's James Lavelle, bring the record to a close on an elegant but sobering note.

So, once again, Josh Homme and his compatriots knock another one out of the park and continue to widen their legacy as one of, and arguably THEE, best and most interesting rock bands of our generation. 


EXTRAS!  here are some recent live performances:


  1. Sir Elton played and sang on Fairweather Friends. Your description and review is insulting.

  2. Fairweather Friends is incredibly well-written brilliant song and the raw emotion in Josh's voice especially when he sings the line "I'm gonna pray for rain again & again" near the end of the song, I thought it was his strongest vocal performance ever. I do hope you've warmed up to that song in the time since you've written an otherwise, very excellently descripted and thorough review.