By pursuing and refining the tuneful, speed-less speedcore of Kyuss, Josh Homme made the Queens of the Stone Age an archetype for post-modern stoner rock. Since he himself does not partake, the guitarist would have none of it, instead using “robot rock” to describe his band’s blend of down-tuned metal riffage, grunge fuzz and smooth, oddly detached vocals. Regardless of banner, QOTSA are a revelation, adhering to hard rock’s musical blueprint without resorting to flash, pomp or testosterone-fueled wankathons. The music remains muscular and aggressive, but it slips in the backdoor, pummeling the listener from behind with repetition, precision and the constant opposition of Homme’s strangely sweet voice. Without some mitigating curveballs, an entire album’s worth of this mecha-sludge can grow a little tiresome, but the overall competency and sheer force of QOTSA endures.
Produced by Joe Barresi (Melvins, Powerman 5000), Queens of the Stone Age is a straightforward introduction to the trio’s mighty vibe. Bassist Nick Oliveri and drummer Alfredo Hernández provide a consistently crunchy bottom for Homme’s chug-chug-chugging rhythms and sinewy leads. On the better tracks (“Regular John,” “You Would Know” and “Give the Mule What He Wants,” to name three), they become a three-headed iron beast, devouring hard rock clichés like snack bites of downtown Tokyo. Homme’s creepy tenor comes from the Jack Bruce pre-screamer school of rock, surely influenced by protégé Chris Goss, who has been doing his own impression of the Cream singer for decades. It’s a great mix that leaves only a few songs needing more.
Variance is in no short supply on Rated R, which takes the Queens’ rumble and squeal to entirely new locales. Continuing the rotating-door policy for sidemen that began in Kyuss, Hernández is gone; the lineup includes singer Mark Lanegan and drummer Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees, Goss (who co-produced with Homme) and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, who lends backing vocals to “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” That song, a hard-to-deny obnoxious novelty, starts the album off with a litany of “Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol.” (And Homme is surprised at the stoner rock label?) But that infectious little trifle leads to greater wonders, like the Primus spasticity of “Leg of Lamb,” the glorious hills and valleys in “Better Living Through Chemistry” and the disc’s closer, “I Think I Lost My Headache,” a symphonic tugboat that builds and reshapes itself until horns and steel drums take over the whole vessel. Good things also happen when Homme gives the mic over to Lanegan — his boozy/bluesy vocal turn on “In the Fade” adds comforting darkness to a downright pretty melody — and a screaming Oliveri, who heads the unhinged hardcore of “Quick and to the Pointless” and “Tension Head.” With many audible parallels to Screaming Trees and Masters of Reality, Rated R is a product of its guest stars, but the album’s grab-bag approach leaves the gates wide open for QOTSA’s tyranny.
The QOTSA conglomo on Songs for the Deaf contains Lanegan and Dave Grohl as official members; Dean Ween, Alain Johannes and Goss complete the crowded outside circle. With sharp production by Homme and Eric Valentine (Good Charlotte, Smash Mouth), the album brings the band ever closer to a unified sound, even when exploring divergent territories like ‘60s psych-pop (“Gonna Leave You,” “Another Love Song”) and Oliveri’s screaming paroxysms (“You Think You Ain’t Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Millionaire,” “Six Shooter”). Simply put, the first four songs — peaking with the single “No One Knows” and culminating with the rocky prog of “Song for the Dead” — are some of the strongest whiplash scenarios this or any troupe of headbangers has ever strung together. Oliveri’s fingers pump as fast as the veins on his neck, Lanegan scrapes it all together with gruff appeal, Homme resides over the events like a deceptively serene captain waiting for mutiny, while Grohl snaps, ruptures and beats the general shit out of his skins. It’s the best drumming he has ever done (yes, even better than in Nirvana). But that quartet of tunes blows the band’s wad, leaving the rest of the album scattered with only moderately cool mid- tempo metal, all of it delivered with gusto but not enough serious hooks to make anything stand out. When they’re not dropping their Nuggets or focusing on truly rocking the house, the Queens fall back on a grinding, stuttering Sabbath blast that sounds about as interesting as the last time they played it, two songs back. How does a group make its most potent album also its most disappointing? Discuss.
With Grohl back to fighting Foos and Oliveri finding other means of income after being booted as bassist, Lullabies to Paralyze is definitely not More Songs for the Deaf. The usual hoodlums help out (Lanegan delivers his most in-character Queens performance to date with the album opener “This Lullaby”) and old pal Barresi returns to co-produce with Homme, but things are askew. The new Queens — bassist Troy Van Leeuwen (A Perfect Circle) and drummer Joey Castillo (Danzig) — bring a darker element, making these lullabies more than a little grim. Tedium sets in without Oliveri’s seizures, and only the hilarious cowbell banging on “Little Sister” (move over, Blue Öyster Cult) breaks the sinister mold. But sometimes grim is good, as heard in the stomping swamp-rock of “Burn the Witch,” which features a brief but distinctive ZZ Top-ish guitar solo from Billy Gibbons, and the long, dreamy rockslide full of curious time-changes and wraithlike vocals that is “Someone’s in the Wolf.” The rest is just okay, with guests like the Distillers’ Brody Dalle (Homme’s main squeeze) and Garbage’s Shirley Manson squandered in a noodly throwaway, and great titles like “Everybody Knows You Are Insane” and “Tangled Up in Plaid” falling short in the actual song department. Even through patches of mediocrity, QOTSA still offer something healthy and respectable to the hard rock world, but too much of anything can be bad for you.
Eagles of Death Metal is Homme’s just-for-fun side project that has nothing to do with the Eagles or death metal (or QOTSA, for that matter). Jesse Hughes, Homme’s accomplice in the slapdash affair, is the true hero here, managing all songwriting, guitar and freakish falsetto under the name J Devil Huge; Homme (aka Carlo Von Sexron) drums and handles backing vocals. Five years after debuting on Homme’s durable Dessert Session series, the duo found time to release Peace Love Death Metal, an exuberant collection of Southern gothic garage with a Rolling Stones twist. Homme dubbed the music “sexy”; if an informal tribute to all that is streetwise, beguiling, stupid and trashy about rock ‘n’ roll is sexy, than so be it. Besides the Stones, a variety of ghosts from rock’s past haunt the disc: the yelps of Lux Interior and Alan Vega (“Speaking in Tongues”), the party slop of Kiss (“So Easy”), the knee- slapping folk-rock of Norman Greenbaum and Mungo freakin’ Jerry. The band does strike its own unique chord with “Who’ll Kiss the Devil,” a double-time call-and- response for a Satanic tent revival, and “Whorehoppin’ (Shit God Damn!),” which is as juvenile as it is catchy. Like all great garage rock, it all sounds the same, but that doesn’t matter. Sure, the non-toxic cover of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” is a disappointment, but christening it “Stuck in the Metal” appears to be the whole point. Many followers of QOTSA will find neither peace nor love on Peace Love Death Metal, but fans of the minimalist boom-crash of the White Stripes or the Black Keys will most certainly get it, devil horns be damned.