Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Queens of the Stone Age play by their own rules on ...Like Clockwork

Of the many bands returning from hiatus in 2013, Queens of the Stone Age seem to be one of the biggest beneficiaries from taking some time off. Before the break, the band found themselves in a creative spiral that saw them losing members and losing stature, and it sounded like they were losing their minds. Their previous album, 2007's Era Vulgaris, boasted some notable experiments, but it fell flat because they seemed to be more interested in tinkering with an exotic sound than they were with delivering solid craftsmanship. Six years later, singer/guitarist Josh Homme has retooled his approach and now delivers the most ambitious Queens record since their glory days.

It contains all of the necessary elements to make a successful record. The instrumentation is great -- there's fertile drumwork with lots of off time fills and complex passages. The guitar work is impressive. Some leads really jump out and demand your attention, while others are more subtle and affect you in ways you may not realize until you've spun the disc several times. For his part, Homme once again shows his value as a consummate everyman vocalist. His performances are always great, but the arrangements are simple enough that the average Joe can easily pick it up and sing along. That generally remains the case here, but Homme gets more of a workout than usual, which allows the band to explore some different directions.

To pigeonhole Queens of the Stone Age as a mere rock band would be a mistake. Unlike some of their earlier material, this album is not all rock all the time; Homme cleverly structures each song to include a vast array of sounds and styles. There are dark, moody ballads, up tempo tunes with soul and swagger, and plenty of high energy rockers as well.

"Keep Your Eyes Peeled" opens the album on an ominous and dissonant note; with its acidic guitar riff and sense of unease it bears similarity to "Turnin' on the Screw" from Era Vulgaris, but the complex drumming, appropriately fuzzy bass and Homme's haunting vocal quickly makes it clear this is a different beast.

The eerie downtempo ballad "Vampyre of Time and Memory" operates in a similar musical neighborhood, though this one starts out slow and minimalist while slowly but surely building up to a clear catharsis. It's a theme the album seems fond of exploring; in this case it manifests itself by concluding with some spacey and wigged out guitar work.

In terms of straight ahead rockers, "I Sat by the Ocean" is easily the catchiest, and is the track most likely to put a smile on your face. Homme shows off a wide range here as he weaves a tale of trying to forget about an old flame. His upper register vocals inject a swaggering sense of groove into the music, while the crunching guitars recall the glory of 70s rock and roll. It is guaranteed to get your foot tapping and your body moving.

And make no mistake -- when it comes to swagger, this record delivers in heavy doses. "Smooth Sailing" is very funk, groove and soul oriented, and it plays out like Homme asserting his claim to sex god status. It never lacks for braggadocio, as he asserts that he'll "make a mountain out of a molehill if the molehill is mine." If that's not enough, he also declares that he'll "blow his load over the status quo." Sexy or just eww? You be the judge.

Elsewhere, "Kalopsia" provides a stoned, drug induced haze of gentle serene relaxation which is broken up by a buzzy bedroom guitar riff during the main refrain. "Like a Tail," meanwhile, features some half scat/made up words from Homme during the lead in, and slowly grooves its way to a hard rocking conclusion.

As far as the much ballyhooed guest spots on the album go -- Trent Reznor, Mark Lanegan, Nick Oliveri, and Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys all make appearances -- the fact is you likely wouldn't notice any of them if you didn't know they were playing on the track beforehand. The band keeps their signature sound intact by donwplaying the role of guests on the album.

Of all of them, Elton's John's guest spot on "Fairweather Friends" is the most notable. Many songs on this album seem to start off slowly and then try to blow you away with a heavy riff, and this one is no exception. But this is perhaps one of the most fully formed songs on the album. Homme delivers his best performance on the album with his uplifting vocal. There are great rock riffs paired with plenty of winding and weaving guitar leads and solos pepper the song's landscape. Dave Grohl provides energetic drumming with lots of rolls and fills that open up possibilities for the rest of the band, and Elton John's piano work fits in so naturally with the rest of the mix that one would be hard pressed to imagine the track without it.

Yet in spite of the breakthroughs made on this album, some factors do hold it back. There is an over reliance on the method of opening a song with a quiet, downbeat intro only to build to a louder or more dramatic conclusion. There's nothing wrong with that approach, but the extent to which the band utilizes it here leads to a case of diminishing results as the album progresses. The penultimate track, "I Appear Missing," drifts back and forth between the whole quiet/loud dynamic as each verse gives way into the chorus. A handful of other songs, including "Kalopsia," "If I Had a Tail," and "Vampyre of Memory of Time" leans on this technique in some form or fashion.

This insistence on tempering the heavy rocking sections with those that are more subtle or quiet causes it to often feel like the band is trying to hold themselves back from rocking too hard. They tip toe around the rock on many of these songs, and it's hard to not wish for them to cut loose a little more often. It's fine to dabble in creative experiments but rock is one of the things Queens of the Stone do best, and sometimes it feels like they forget that. 

However, it's all for a good purpose. There are albums released this year which would hold more appeal for a fan of heavy rock, or someone looking for something intense. But Like Clockwork exercises more creativity than most of those records, along with a greater sense of variety. With this savory cornucopia they've delivered up, Queens of the Stone Age show their aim is to transcend the notion of being a mere rock band. It's a concept that bears a great deal of merit in its own right.

Score: 85/100

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