Music

Rating Queens of the Stone Age

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Thu 03 August, 2017

Michael Edward celebrates Queens of the Stone Age’s upcoming album and tour by rating their entire output and putting their entire career into context. 

There aren’t too many world conquering Rock ‘n’ Roll bands around any more, not least any that put out consistently excellent albums.

This writer has a particular vitriol for a good number of the larger laddish rock bands, and has a consistent air of confusion at how Kasabian still have an audience. Queens of the Stone Age are something of an anomaly, both now and when they first rose to prominence.

Born from the ashes of stoner rock legends Kyuss, they added a paradoxical minimalism to their approach that went seemingly against their reverence for classic rock, plus a willingness to reference more experimental touchstones such as late period Black Flag or Neu!, and tie them up in pop songs with luscious hooks. Against a backdrop of overtly macho retro rock like Wolfmother, or a host of egregious nu-metal bands.

Their material, spread over six good to classic albums, has proved far more timeless than their heavy rivals back in the 2000s, and now as their seventh record Villains approaches release, it seems that they’re one of the last great world conquering heavy rock bands standing.

That said, it seems like a good time to spill some digital ink on them. We’ve rated their entire discography.

10. Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age EP (1997)

The first use of the Queens name, and the final release by parent band Kyuss.

The EP features two tracks previously released under the name Gamma Ray, the original name for the band prior to a cease and desist order from a German band of the same name.

It’s an interesting artefact, particularly as it features a very green vocal performance from Josh Homme, a man later dubbed the “Ginger Elvis” for his swaggering croon. The version of If Only is inferior to the one that found its way onto their debut album, though both that and Born to Hula showcase the more repetitive, robotic grooves they’d go on to elaborate on.

Spiders and Vinegaroons is an oddity, a DJ Shadow reminiscent drum loop based track. All good, but not as good as they would be.

9. The Spilt CD EP (1998)

Another early split release, this time with the band Beaver, The Spilt CD contains just two tracks: The Bronze, which contains an absolutely stunning guitar solo worth the price of admission alone, and the broken, almost atonal instrumental These Aren’t The Droids You’re Looking For.

The latter is mostly a curio at this point, sounding like the last 40 seconds of King Crimson’s20th Century Schizoid Man, but The Bronze is an excellent song with a killer final chorus that really illustrates their early ability to meld hooks, heavy and weird.

8. Stone Age Complication EP (2004)

An EP of B-Sides and oddities that contains a trio of covers. They run through some of their influences with an upbeat run through The Kinks’Who’ll Be The Next In Line, a doom laden version of The Subhumans Wake Up Screaming and a fantastically badass rendition of The Cramps’Most Exalted Potentate of Love.

Also included is an UNKLE remix of No One Knows, an updated version of Born to Hula, and The Bronze. One for the hardcore fans.

7. Over the Years and Through the Woods (2005)

A pretty damn good live album that only sits behind their six studio records in this list due to their sheer strength.

Taken from the Lullabies ~To Paralyze tour shortly after bassist/vocalist Nick Oliveri was fired. All the versions found here are great, though often fall just short of their studio compatriots. The set does include some wonderfully extended and warped versions of songs, including an unhinged I Think I Lost My Headache, an 8 minute No One Knows, plus some unreleased deep cuts such as The Fun Machine Took a Shit and Died.

The band is in a transitional phase here, which makes for an interesting listen. There’s prominent, gorgeous piano from the tragically soon to be deceased Natasha Shneider, and a wonderfully wild performance from Joey Castillo on drums that’s counter to their usual vacuous, tight, robotic studio drum sound.

6. Era Vulgaris (2007)

I feel mean putting Era as the lowest of their studio albums, as they’re all fantastic, but arbitrary distinctions must be made in the name of journalism.

Era finds Queens pushing into their weirdest sonic territory with some truly acidic, jarring moments that call to mind Black Flag‘s Swinging Man. The grooves always feel nauseating as much as seductive, and some of the guitar tones found here are among the strangest to ever find a home on a mainstream rock record.

Particular highlights include strutting opener Turnin’ On The Screw, the blistering Sick, Sick, Sick, indelibly smooth torch song Make It Wit’ Chu, and the crunching 3’s & 7’s, which contains one of the most seamless straight to swung transitions I’ve heard put to tape.

Sadly the record loses momentum towards the end, and some of the experiments don’t quite go across as well as they could, particularly Run Pig Run, which while still interesting, doesn’t quite come off. Its accompanying B-Sides collection however is a veritable treasure trove including covers of Tom Waits, Elliott Smith and Brian Eno, as well as some arguably better acoustic versions of the album tracks.

5. Queens of the Stone Age (1998)

While in the context of their discography, their debut LP can seem a bit one dimensional, if released today it would still be a breath of fresh air.

Taking macho riffs and forcing them up against their polar opposite in krautrock repetition, Queens forged something seductive and alien.

Opener Regular John is a classic rock song, it’s one chord riff and motorik groove somehow unmistakable. Their vacuum tight, completely dry sonic aesthetic completely defined right out of the gate, the album doesn’t play with its formula much beyond some slight variations, such as the Trip-Hop styled, Led Zeppelin inverting, Radiohead quoting You Can’t Quit Me Baby, but instead provides the band’s concept from which they would build.

It’s made all the more impressive by that it was mainly a studio project recorded entirely by Josh Homme and Kyuss’ Alfredo Hernandez, save for a few guest contributions from friends.

4. Lullabies to Paralyze (2005)

This was a record with a great weight hoisted upon its shoulders upon its release. Much like The White Album following Sgt. Pepper,Lullabies had the unenviable task of following universally lauded instant classic Songs For The Deaf.

While met with a decent if mixed response at the time, particularly due to people’s knee jerk reactions to Nick Oliveri’s dismissal, in retrospect it does a fantastic job, particularly as it doesn’t try to emulate its predecessor, instead moving into new territory.

With nary a dud in the track list, it contains a stunning wealth of classic singles such as Little Sister, In My Head and the Billy Gibbons featuring Burn the Witch, which features both the world’s only harmonic in a guitar solo played by a beard, and one of the few riffs that sits in the club lead by Seven Nation Army: songs where the audience sings the riff instead of the lyrics. It also features a pair of vampirically sinister epics in Someone’s In The Wolf and The Blood Is Love, the latter of which is a glorious exercise in just how much you can wring out of a single musical motif.

The only things that hold the album back for me are some weird sequencing decisions (the epics are next to each other creating a mid record marathon and a weird division in the album), and it’s overall length being a product of the CD age.

3. Songs for the Deaf (2002)

I know, I know, this isn’t at number one and I get it. The top three on this list are practically interchangeable depending on which way the wind blows or what side of the bed I got up on, and there’s no denying that as their biggest and most acclaimed record, SFTD is the contextual king of their discography, an album that was a big deal and changed the landscape of rock and roll, but it’s not without its very minor flaws.

Written to replicate the experience of driving through the desert at night and stylised as a radio hopping experience with skits á la Grand Theft Auto. With one of the greatest opening four track runs of any rock and roll album, period, it takes no prisoners right out of the gate. Dave Grohl puts in what may be his finest performance behind a kit on this record, and yes that does include In Utero.

Song For The Deaf remains a contender for their greatest singular moment and closes their shows to this date for good reason. The tail end of the album does begin to suffer compared to its astoundingly flawless front half, with tracks like Do It Again and Another Love Song not quite standing up to the magnitude of classics like No One Knows and Millionaire. The radio show concept begins to intrude on the flow of the record a little too much around God Is In The Radio, and begins to work against the momentum of the record.

The title track is one of the most sinister and menacing things the band ever recorded and feels as if it deserves to hold place as the closer, with Mosquito Song, despite its incredible string arrangement, feeling like the end credits rather than a holistic part of the record. That said, I wholeheartedly adore this record. It’s a rarely bettered example of how to write fantastic songs with infectious hooks whilst not only retaining the ability to be hard as hell, but pushing into new sonic territory.

2. Rated R (2000)

NICOTINE, VALIUM, VICODIN, MARIJUANA, EXTACY AND ALCOHOL! Repeat ad nauseum. Add a dash of C-C-C-C-C-COCAINE for good measure, and you’ve got an announcement of an arrival into the public consciousness unlike any other.

Rated R saw Queens expand from studio project into full fledged band, and from cult act to surprise hit. An exercise in seamless genre incorporation and sheer abandon without ever feeling disjointed, R feels like a true blossoming of extraordinary talent. Every idea thrown at the wall comes off in beautiful style and with effortless cool, and such is the scope of those ideas that pretty much everything they did since feels like it had its origins here. ...Like Clockwork’s plaintive existential balladry is represented in the aching Mark Lanegan fronted In The Fade, the slink of Lullabies is in The Lost Art of Keeping A Secret (for my money, their greatest single, and one of the great singles of the 00’s), the skronk of Era is in the Devo-esque limp of Leg of Lamb and the robotic paranoia of Monsters in the Parasol, and SFTD‘s crushing heft and foreboding atmosphere is foreshadowed in the ripping Tension Head, and the brooding Better Living Through Chemistry.

Rated R sets itself apart from their other records through its sheer joyful vibrancy, making it the aural equivalent of being a kid in a candy store. It is head and shoulders their most fun record, and the one I’d recommend as the perfect entry point.

1. …Like Clockwork (2013)

…Like Clockwork might be the closest Queens have ever got to creating a perfect record.

While some segments of their fanbase might have found it underwhelming upon release (namely those who just want Songs for the Deaf again), Clockwork is a grower of an album that finds Queens in an unusual mode. The bulk of the record was written after Homme died for a short period on the operating table during knee surgery, and then contracted MRSA during his recovery. He’s since gone on record in interviews detailing the depression that arose from this, particularly from being quarantined and not being able to hold his kids, and had described Clockwork as something of an exercise in exorcising those demons.

While the lyrics often remain opaque, Homme as at his most vulnerable on this record and the raw emotion tears through each moment. This is aided by a new level of meticulous detail in the recording that reminds me somewhat of mid 70s Pink Floyd. Every second feels studied and edited to the N’th degree in a way that nothing they’ve done before does.

The songwriting is both consistently incredible throughout, and with a tight 10 song tracklist, there is absolutely no fat here. Despite the plethora of guest appearances all over the record (Elton John, Trent Reznor, Alex Turner, Nick Oliveri and many more), you’d be lucky to spot any of them without reading the liner notes. They’re used like colours on a palette in order to paint something majestic as a whole.

Opener Keep Your Eyes Peeled more oozes than rocks, and pulsates an aura of sheer dread. Following this is the melancholy I Sat By The Ocean, which hides its sensitive tale of drinking to forget a lover in a swaggering T Rex strut. The Vampyre of Time And Memory finds Queens in full piano ballad mode, something hitherto unbreached for them, and does it with style, building to a stirring emotional climax.

It takes until the fourth track If I Had A Tail before we get something that comes close to the traditional swagger we expect from Queens, and they deliver a groove that feels like what might have happened if Led Zeppelin had survived Disco. My God Is The Sun follows with a vicious, punchy riff in 6/8 that hits harder each time it returns. Its frantic energy is palpable and stands with their finest barnburners, whilst retaining the refined edge of the rest of the record.

Kalopsia is maybe the biggest experiment here, its bombastic, crunching choruses completely at odds with its dream sequence like verses, something stemmed from its title’s meaning: the delusion that things are more beautiful than they are. Fairweather Friends features the most obvious guest spot on the record, the stunning technicolor piano playing of Elton John, and boasts a microcosm of a glammed up prog rock arrangement with sweeping dramatics.

Smooth Sailing is coquettish bravado at its best, featuring a stunning no fucks given lyric in “I blow my load over the status quo“, and a ring modulated guitar break that’s so viscerally awesome it’s almost hilarious. I Appear Missing feels as if it should close the record, being the closest thing to an epic that appears on Clockwork. It unfolds with majestic restraint and builds to an emotional climax via a lyrical journey that references Homme‘s time in hospital and reaches its crux with a devastating cry of “It’s only falling in love because you hit the ground!”.

The title track however overcomes its task of following I Appear Missing’s seemingly final monolith, providing a sense of thematic closure that’s simply breathtaking. An extended introduction featuring just piano and Homme‘s delicate falsetto gives way to a mournful slide guitar, and in turn a blissfully melancholic string section, before the final chorus leaves us with a swell and the message that “One thing that is clear, it’s all downhill from here”. When your last record is as good as …Like Clockwork, it very well might be, but let’s hope not.

 

Queen’s of the Stone Age play Manchester Arena on Sunday 19th November.

  •  Picture: artist’s Facebook Page

 

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