Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Queens of the Stone Age.
Josh Homme didn’t subvert hard rock exactly. What he subverted was AOR radio. There isn’t an album in the Queens of the Stone Age oeuvre that wouldn’t please your average Motörhead fan; they’re all squealing powder kegs of flat-drive riffage, even as the gestures towards songwriting have wound down over time. But Homme found a sweet spot: he combined the humor of Foo Fighters videos with the unwavering meat-and-potatoes Hungry Man dinners of Foo Fighters albums, threw a bit of Jack White’s detuned swing in there, and Tenacious D’s acid-casualty absurdity, too.
Unlike Dave Grohl, Homme’s desire to never be serious isn’t self-conscious. He has no ultra-earnest tracks to cover; this is a guy whose breakthrough song was a list of doable drugs. His pretensions are almost always riding side by side with Beavis and Butthead bait; lest a knucklehead get bored at the end of Era Vulgaris, there’s a B-side called “The Fun Machine Took a Shit and Died” just up ahead. And despite the will-he-or-won’t-he side drama with former bandmate Nick Oliveri, the bassist isn’t officially getting back into QOTSA anytime soon. Homme just likes being cool and popular too much to take chances with his highly uncompromised outfit, and from that perspective, he’s right, no matter how much this author misses “Tension Head”.
This isn’t a band with a score of great albums by any means, but the weaker ones groove more than you remember. Every QOTSA album is listenable, if plenty dissonant and often tuneless, which makes Homme one of the most discordant staples you’re likely to encounter on a hard-rock station unless they’ve still got “Kool Thing” or some of those third-album Alice in Chains dirges in rotation.
Then there are the myths. Yes, Homme claims feminist, which is a big deal when his Eagles of Death Metal bandmate Jesse Hughes went full-on paranoid Ted Nugent after the traumatic terrorist massacre of 90 fans that he lived through at the Bataclan. And Queens of the Stone Age were named as such to piss off homophobic hard-rock fans, who no doubt were just as baited by the black woman on their 1998 eponymous debut’s cover. They’re not saving the world with all this testosterone — the lone female vocals on a Queens release are the “yeah yeah yeahs” backing up Oliveri on Rated R’s “Quick and to the Pointless”, despite a ton of lineup changes and revolving singers — and they haven’t sent an opaque political message in long enough that homophobic hard-rock fans have mostly advanced into the “you’re so gay you love Coldplay” sort.
Still, one only need to sample the complete works of 3 Doors Down, Three Days Grace, and Nickelback to understand the numbskulls they’ve had to share airspace with for their nearly 20-year career. At their best, Queens of the Stone Age are inventive, sarcastic rock nirvana who’ve done a lot more to keep the actual Nirvana’s spirit alive (the ones that wore dresses) than Grohl’s proper outfit. Who needs songs when you’ve got riffs like these? And sometimes they even have songs.
07. Lullabies to Paralyze (2005)
Go with the Flow (The Gist): Contrary to its title, QOTSA’s most nondescript album is their least likely to stop you in your tracks. As with Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Josh Homme’s cool-guy minimalism keeps him from ever putting himself out there too much to truly fall on his face, so he commits the most low-key sin of all: unmemorable songs (second half is lost in the swamp) and weaker retreads of sounds he already did better (“In My Head” sure sounds a lot like the previous album’s hit “Go with the Flow”). The first Queens of the Stone Age album truly lacking in variety, Paralyze never really recovers from the obvious loss of Nick Oliveri and Dave Grohl after the previous success of Songs for the Deaf.
Song for the Deaf (Zone-Out Moment): Take your pick from the interminable second half, which is where you realize, “Wait, wouldn’t lullabies to paralyze just be regular lullabies?” But you know, a seven-minute ender called “Long Slow Goodbye” delivers the robo-ballad it promises. Which can mean “robot” or “Robotussin”, your pick.
Covered in Hair (Trippiest Tune): The demented wooze of “Tangled Up in Plaid” sounds like a Satanic rendition of the pink elephants song from Dumbo. On Queens’ most creatively barren album, this is a major plus.
Turnin’ on the Screw (Sexiest Moment): Only Josh Homme could breathily intone “I hate rock’n’roll” on the codeine-paced “You Got a Killer Scene There, Man” and make it sound like the most rock’n’roll thing. It’s followed one of hard rock’s most convincing falsettos.
Feel Good Hit of the Summer (Reluctant Pop Song): With its barrel-house piano and handclaps giving it a New York Dolls-cum-Phantom Planet air, “Broken Box” was kind of lost in the shuffle as a late-breaking shot of glam espresso on a sleepy record.
Lightning Song : Starting with a trippy, Layne Staley-esque jam before bruising everyone in sight with its chorus, “Everybody Knows That You’re Insane” was a furious swipe at the departed Nick Oliveri and one of Paralyze’s only truly essential tracks.
06. …Like Clockwork (2013)
Go with the Flow: By any measure, …Like Clockwork is a huge success for Queens of the Stone Age, who didn’t exactly blow up the moon with Era Vulgaris in 2007, yet six years later reached the summit on the Billboard 200 with this Matador-released(!) comeback because people really missed them. And the album was their most polished since 2002, just 10 songs in 45 minutes. And yet rather than being a return to roots or a new pop frontier, it’s just plain. It feels downbeat, nondescript, as long as any other Queens album because it just has so little to truly care about.
Song for the Deaf: “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” wins a raspberry for, at track three, being the earliest dull moment on any Queens of the Stone Age album to date. It’s not that Josh Homme seems incapable of an arresting piano lament, it’s that this one feels so by the numbers.
Covered in Hair: Ballads are never Josh Homme’s strength, and yet they dominate …Like Clockwork, so something’s bound to stand out, and that would be the closing title tune, which plays out like Harry Nilsson’s “One” on peyote. The guitar break’s one of this band’s most beautiful for sure.
Turnin’ on the Screw: Usually Josh Homme can be sexy when he’s stuck in a dirge he can’t get out of, but for all the slowed-down pacing of his sixth album, it rarely comes near his usual reluctant lubriciousness. So even more lubricious is the strange allure of the tango-influenced single “My God Is the Sun”, one of the more attractive tunes here.
Feel Good Hit of the Summer: “I Sat by the Ocean” sounds like the Cars’ “Good Times Roll”, which must’ve been an inevitability with two of the most robotic bands to ever go platinum.
Lightning Song: “Fairweather Friends” toys with Middle Eastern scales within classic-rock bounds, and it jams like nothing else on …Like Clockwork, despite being the shortest thing on the record. Probably a sign, no?
05. Era Vulgaris (2007)
Go with the Flow: After Lullabies to Paralyze was one of the most jogging-in-place follow-ups to a breakthrough album in recent rock vintage, Josh Homme’s next move was to stick a bunch of needles in the formula. Era Vulgaris is the most dissonant Queens record, full of seasick, twisted melodies and strange harmonies, with the one-note stuff coming as more brutish and battering than robotic. Just compare Paralyze’s propulsive “Medication” with Vulgaris’ downright punishing “Sick, Sick, Sick”, both tracks occupying the same spot and function in their respective track listings. The intentionally soured tone of many of the tunes is matched in turn by some of the prettiest, most layered vocals Homme has ever put in one place. Their most underrated album, and its B-sides — including Elliott Smith’s “Christian Brothers”, Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”, and Tom Waits’ “Goin’ Out West” — may be even better.
Song for the Deaf: “Suture Up Your Future” is just more proof that Homme’s croon is rarely attached to a memorable ballad, no matter how well he tracked his harmonies here. To his credit, the master of “robot rock” couldn’t be further from his signature motorik drone when the tune in question resembles Pink Floyd this closely.
Covered in Hair: The paint-peeling scrapes of “I’m Designer” may be the most discordant math-noise this band’s ever attempted. Give it time, however, and it’s a prime example of why the band’s hardest-to-take record becomes their biggest grower.
Turnin’ on the Screw: Remove all distortion pedals from “River in the Road”, so all that’s left is Homme’s Mobius-strip singing, creeping orchestration, and the intense build of the drums — sounds kind of like Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, doesn’t it? No, seriously!
Feel Good Hit of the Summer: “3’s & 7’s” was one of the only obvious singles from this battery-acid-soaked opus (one song’s actually called “Battery Acid”), and the push-pull of the squealing riffs actually sounds like Homme’s dueling impulses towards chaos and hit-single disciplines duking it out in real time.
Lightning Song: The bendy screech of stomping opener “Turnin’ on the Screw” writes checks the rest of Era Vulgaris can’t quite cash, and Homme’s resemblance to Alice in Chains’ chief hook machine Jerry Cantrell on the chorus is almost as welcome as the loop of a Vespa-revving riff that lasts from approximately 3:30 to 4:30.
04. Queens of the Stone Age (1998)
Go with the Flow: The debut of Josh Homme’s life project lays out the basics as well as you’d hope from a low-stakes debut. As touted by his adoring press that soon became an enduring audience, yes, this is the Neu!-meets-Motörhead fusion of dreams. The songwriting got both better and worse from here; Queens’ eponymous debut sits almost too perfectly between their better albums and their weaker ones as some kind of Switzerland. A handful of its songs deserved a longer shelf life, but its mastery of a rounded, warmly fuzzy, yet squealing guitar tone that would become Homme’s signature is forever.
Song for the Deaf: The spooky, six-minute instrumental march “Spiders and Vinegaroons” is actually good, so you’ll zone out in the best way, preferably with your mind-altering substance of choice and a comfy piece of furniture nearby. It was these guys’ intro to space-rock on an album that otherwise made a point of showing how lean and tight it was. Then, four minutes in, comes the clavinet. Not your father’s Hawkwind, indeed.
Covered in Hair: The Zappa-goes-Can craziness of (yet another instrumental! Who were these guys, Tortoise?) “These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For” actually dabbles in something jazzy, with strange scales and time-signature fuckery that highly rebukes the one-chord repetition that would become the dominant signature of Queens songs.
Turnin’ on the Screw: The opening, machine-like stitching of “Regular John” sets the tone for Homme’s contrasting vocal and guitar attack for the next two decades: ceaselessly hammering at one chord juxtaposed with a jolting softness over top. Pairs perfectly with his leather get-ups.
Feel Good Hit of the Summer: With its punishing breakdowns and sudden key changes, “Avon” is a strange pick for the debut’s poppiest tune, but those verses have the most painless melody here; you can even hum along with the guitar solo. And how about those “do-do-dos?”
Lightning Song: Homme found his haunted, highly un-macho voice by gliding effortlessly over the squall of an atom bomb like “How to Handle a Rope” — like hard rock’s always been this neat and tidy.