QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE: …LIKE CLOCKWORK
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THIS is how to return in style. When Queens of the Stone Age arrived fully formed in the late 1990s, then proceeded to spend the next few years defining 21st century rock’n’roll, they appeared to be one of those rare Teflon-coated rock bands who wouldn’t ever put a foot wrong. But eventually their albums became less vital, less the benchmark to which other bands had to measure up.
Frontman Josh Homme tried to work some of his Californian desert magic on Arctic Monkeys when he produced their flawed Suck It And See album. It didn’t quite work. He formed supergroup power trio Them Crooked Vultures with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones and had a lot of fun rocking out with his top calibre rock star pals, but that turned out to be more of an insular private party than communal celebration.
Homme then endured a tough couple of years. Following complications during surgery, he required a kickstart to his heart and then had to spend four months in bed, probably the cruellest blow for a musician who rivals Jack White for restless, relentless creativity. He has described producing this album as a “coming out of the fog” and, hallelujah, what a coming out this is for the Queens.
As is usual for the man who has hosted umpteen of his Desert Sessions, Homme invited some old compadres along for the ride. Grohl is back, drumming all over the place, and Mark Lanegan, Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Homme’s wife Brody Dalle and his onetime Queens sideman Nick Oliveri all showed up to provide varying degrees of support, joined by some new collaborators, Scissors Sisters singer Jake Shears (apparently he and Homme watch Game of Thrones together) and self-styled “actual queen” Elton John.
All are welcome in the Queens family but they must function as part of a unit which is deftly helmed by Homme and currently features longstanding guitarists Troy Van Leeuwen and Dean Fertita, bassist Michael Shuman and new drummer Jon Theodore, who used to regularly blow minds in The Mars Volta. Together, they form a mighty rock’n’roll hydra which announces its presence here to the sound of breaking glass and general disturbance before some positively evil, downtuned guitar chords and sinister saxophone emerge from the melee. This is Keep Your Eyes Peeled, a controlled prowl with the perpetual threat of menace, which briefly comes up for air and light in best dynamic QOTSA tradition. The robotic, industrial rock of Smooth Sailing owes a certain swagger to Mr David Bowie, but the heady guitar is all theirs, while I Sat By The Ocean is Queens in their malleable desert rock element, its steady chug coloured by Homme’s acrobatic vocals, which follow the scenic trajectory of a 1970s power pop melody.
In contrast to this radio-friendly interlude, If I Had A Tail is a filthy, muscular strut. With a title like that, one suspects that Homme intends to get up to no good and so it proves as he drawls “I wanna suck, I wanna lick” and intones references to Lady Marmalade and Da Doo Ron Ron, while the fantasy rock band line-up of Nick Oliveri, Mark Lanegan and Alex Turner provide manly choral backing vocals.
Having kerb-crawled for a while, the band turn boyracers on the turbo-charged, tuneful thrash of My God Is The Sun, which reaches an orgasmic peak, pirouettes drunkenly and then tears off back into the night. Those guys.
Invigorating though it is to hear Queens of the Stone Age retrieve their rocking mojo, it is even more gratifying to witness the almost casual, confident experimentation on the six-minute I Appear Missing or the woozy, psychedelic croon of Kalopsia which periodically fires up like Roy Wood on steroids.
The most audacious departure is the epic concept rocker Fairweather Friends, featuring fuzz guitar all over the shop and Sir Elton pounding the ivories, with some frankly baroque flourishes and dramatic backing vocals. But riskier still are the album’s two vulnerable, soulful piano ballads, The Vampyre Of Time And Memory and the closing title track. Because sometimes you just need to express those doubts over a keyboard and keep that keening, bluesy guitar in the background.
These are brave new additions to the Queens sound. Although Homme hasn’t quite turned into Nick Cave yet, he is baring his soul with nowhere to hide. “Does anyone ever get this right?” he asks helplessly on the former, while leaving the hookline “it’s all downhill from here” ambiguous on the latter. Certainly, there is a way to fall from this peak but, equally, …Like Clockwork captures Queens of the Stone Age back at their freewheeling best.