For this album review, which I don’t do many of, I’ll depart from the usual mystery I surround my writing with and give you all a little glimpse into my creative process. The entirety of my writing is based in music. By the time I entered grade school, my dad had me listening to the Who, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, the Beatles – the list goes on and on. I learned to write from the musicians I idolized even before I picked up a bass or a pair of drumsticks. Because of this, I finally decided to write about music almost exclusively. I see my writing as a collaboration between myself and the musicians I grew up loving, and it’s the reason I try to find great new music every day.
This brings me to Queens of the Stone Age and their latest record, ...Like Clockwork. The first time I heard QOTSA was in 2002 when I was sitting in the backseat of our old Toyota station wagon, as an impressionable 11-year old. I heard "No One Knows" come on the radio on WHFS, and heard the drumming of my musical idol/man crush/Jesus reincarnate — Dave Grohl. I was transfixed. The choppy guitars, booming bass and raw, yet soothing vocals from frontman Josh Homme pounded in my brain for weeks after.
I had never really liked bands whose lineups were constantly changing, but this all changed with Queens. More of a musical vehicle for creative collaboration than a set band, Queens’ only consistent member is lead singer and guitar player Homme. The band’s current lineup that has been relatively stable since 2007, with the newest member being recently added former Mars Volta drummer, Jon Theodore. Their ever changing lineup and use of guest musicians gives each of their songs a unique sound, because each one reflects the relationship between whichever musicians were called upon or happened to aid in the composition of that particular track.
Now for …Like Clockwork. This is the first new Queens record in 6 years, following up the acid-dance party weirdness that was 2007’s great Era Vulgaris. And, like previous Queens records, this one brings with it a host of guest musicians and other frequent Queens contributors, like Mark Lanegan, Alain Johannes and Nick Olivieri. I’ll get into more specifics with each track, but for a little taste…this album features the drumming of Dave Grohl on six tracks, as well as Sir Elton John’s backup singing and piano on several tracks.
The album opens with the bluesy slow rhythms of "Keep Your Eyes Peeled." Staying primarily in the low end with a dark, simple beat, this is an album opener that focuses on sounding ominous. With a booming bass line in line with Josh Homme’s crunchy bottom-string guitar attack, this lower-tempo track is punctuated by light piano accents and choruses highlighted by, what Homme has called in a past interview, “guitar Frisbees,” aka wavey-psych-guitar fills.
They pick up the pace with "I Sat By The Ocean." Immediately bringing in higher-pitched slide guitar parts to accent an always-tight rhythm section, this song also serves to perfectly showcase the vocal range of lead singer Homme, who goes from a solid mid-range tenor at one point, only to jump to a quick falsetto part. For a man hugely influenced by Elvis in his youth, this isn’t a hard connection to make. This song is a fantastic example of a classic Queens theme: serious low-end crunch contrasted by some biting high-end shimmer.
Possibly the song with the oddest title, as well as one of the songs on the record that really shows Queens’ range, "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" is a slow, piano-laced ballad that is an exercise in emotionality. Especially from listening to the live version, I now fully realize what happens when you literally lather a keyboard with cool effects, of which I am quite fond. This song takes on the tone of a slow dirge, with soulful lyrics and a minor-chord-dominant piano part lending an aura of creepy melancholy to the track. When the band comes in after the piano intro, it’s clear that they are there in a purely backseat, accenting function, so as not to take away from the keyboards and lyrics which are the focal point of this song.
Knowing that Josh Homme loves to get his audience dancing, we move into the swinging "If I Had A Tail" I challenge you, Charlie Murphy-style, to not swing your hips when you listen to this song. Starting off with a bright finger-picked guitar intro from Troy Van Leeuwen, the song quickly gets moving with Michael Shuman’s funky bass line and Grohl’s simple drumbeat providing a great backbone for the rest of the band’s guitar and keyboard accents. However, the chorus is what really gets me into this song. Instead of overwhelming the song with a continuous riff, the band syncs up, note by note and beat by beat, letting each ring and echo throughout the chorus.
The first single from the album, and a song paired with possibly the creepiest animated music video ever, "My God Is The Sun" has been playing on my computer since it was leaked on YouTube months ago. Before I even get into the song and its nuances, go watch this video. It’ll give you freakin’ nightmares. OK. First of all, MARACAS INTRO. Maracas are possibly the most fun instrument outside of the banjo and the bongos, and they are used to an awesome effect in this fantastically weird song. This song has all the makings of a classic Queens’ track, right up there with "No One Knows, "The Lost Art (Of Keeping A Secret)” and "Little Sister." With a much more stressed pace than the previous four tracks, this song makes great use of a chaotic, loud, three-guitar chorus that never sounds choked or forced. This song also probably brings in the most guest musicians of any other song on the record, with former Queens members Nick Olivieri, Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees), and Arctic Monkeys lead singer and guitarist, Alex Turner, adding vocals and guitar. Topped off with a slowed-down ending before exploding again into loudness, "My God Is The Sun" is a deserving first single for this record.
The next song, "Kalopsia," was another collaboration between Homme and Turner. However, they brought in another friend: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor on backing vocals. Dominated by contrasting sounds and aesthetics, the darker, slower, piano-and-synth populated verse gives this song an angsty Britrock/Britpop/Mod-rock feel before going into a verse rich with dissonant, distorted guitars. My favorite part of this song is the phased-out, space-age sounding synths, giving this track’s verses a very Bowie feel.
"Fair Weather Friends" sees the return of Lanegan, Olivieri, and Reznor on backing vocals, with Lanegan helping to contribute lyrics. Rarely does Homme sing without some serious backing instrumentation, but after a demonic-sounding opening choral attack, his soothing vocals layered over a simple, subdued guitar part really took me out of my Queens comfort zone. But, in classic Homme fashion, he pulled me right back in with the loud. This song is probably the one that is most characteristic of Dave Grohl’s drumming. Featuring wicked-loud choruses and bridges, with lower-dynamic verses, the drums on this track really brought me back to Grohl’s days in Nirvana, the first two Foo Fighters records, and his drumming venture with Them Crooked Vultures. The way the harmonies of Homme, Lanegan, Olivieri, and Reznor meld together in the introduction and choruses is mind-blowing.
Oh man…how many guest musicians can Josh Homme be friends with? A lot, apparently. Jake Shears, frontman of glam-art-rock band The Scissor Sisters, makes a backing vocal appearance on "Smooth Sailing." Another psych/funkadelic dance number, "Smooth Sailing" sees Homme hit those high notes again in a fashion reminiscent of "Make It Wit Chu," off Era Vulgaris. But this song is something all its own, with the beat and rhythm dictating where the guitars go with their virtuoso weirdness. The synth/phase buildup after the chorus is so much fun I’m bouncing in my seat as I listen and write this.
"I Appear Missing" is another song that makes great use of the melodic, subdued verse combined with the thumping attack that is a Queens verse. I also swear I’ll stop talking about Dave Grohl after this, but that bridge…classic Scream-era, hardcore-punk loving Grohl. OK that’s enough Dave. This song relies on its three-guitar bite to provide a rich melodic background for the softer verses, while turning up the distortion and effects for a really dark, gritty chorus. It really isn’t every day you get a band that has three excellent lead guitar players, but Queens really pull it off, especially with Van Leeuwen and third guitarist Dean Fertita often pulling double duty on lap steel and keyboards, respectively. Ending the song with another creepy chorus, Homme’s solo falsetto pierces through a song that is really mostly about loud.
"Like Clockwork," the final song on the record, is the only one to feature the original drumming of newest Queens member Jon Theodore. What really amazes me about this song is the amount of craft and control put into it. Hopefully, this is a stable lineup of musicians, because having watched live performances over the last few days, they have a great chemistry together. This is a band primarily known for a free-wheeling, raw, psychedelic hard rock sound. "Like Clockwork" definitely has a lot of elements of psychedelia in it, but it uses it in a way that really highlights the skills of each musician. Starting out with a 2-minute Homme piano and vocal intro before moving into a slide guitar-laden bridge with softer backing vocals, the track continues to build and sunrise, adding layer upon layer of guitar and synth, before lowering the dynamic yet again for that same piano-centric sound, this time coupled with minimalist guitar effects.
…Like Clockwork would automatically be a great record simply for the fact that this is the first Queens record in six years, and we have all been dying for new Queens material. What really makes this a fantastic album though, is its unity. Each song complements each other song, and by listening to the record front to back, you can see how even the track order was a measure of the artistic expression in the album. For a band that is so driven by creative collaboration, QOTSA’s hard rock credentials will have a tough time being rivaled by most other bands out there today. This album has the makings of not just a desert-rock classic, of which Queens are some of the patron saints, but an immediate classic in the world of rock in general.
Adam Parshall is a BC Gavel alumni staff writer and will be spouting his musical mantras at various points throughout the summer. He also writes for local Boston music blog Allston Pudding and really likes it when you read his things. You can follow him on Twitter @parshallythere.