By Bill Adams
While it was never really addressed at the time of its release, Era Vulgaris was a really problematic album for Queens Of The Stone Age. At the time of that album’s making, the record-buying public was snapping up everything it could find with Josh Homme‘s name on or associated with it and calling it all genius. The storm of approval was spectacular and thick and a lot of Queens’ early work was deserving of such praise but, when Era Vulgaris came along spitting new pop inspiration in response to the public’s interest, it amounted to a significantly diminished return. New fans ate songs like “Sick Sick Sick” and “Make It Wit Chu” up like the candy they were, of course, but older fans weren’t thrilled; the sound on Queens’ fifth full-length was just too smooth, poppy and non-confrontational compared to the smart and subversive stuff which won fans on Songs For The Deaf, Rated R and the band’s self-titled debut album. It couldn’t be said that Era Vulgaris did anything BAD for the band exactly (it sold well), but it really didn’t help the group either; the pop angle to many of the songs on the album really helped dissolve the momentum the band had.
After the album cycle behind Era Vulgaris, Queens Of The Stone Age really needed to figure out what to do next. Band mastermind Josh Homme put the band on blocks and let things get quiet; so much so that even those listeners left disappointed by the band’s fifth album began to wonder, “Whatever happened to…?” After the wondering started, that’s when Homme reissued Queens Of The Stone Age’s self-titled debut album (maybe to help fans cleanse their collective palette) and now – six years after QOTSA’s poppy dalliance – the band has returned with …Like Clockwork; their best record in over a decade.
When listeners first hear the build and the perfectly stale, attenuated, laden stomp which opens “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” it’s likely they’ll relive the same kind of confusion they experienced the first time they heard Queens Of The Stone Age. The plodding, stoned and slump-shouldered rhythm doesn’t imply greatness or wizardry at all – it just feels a little sullen and defeated; like the good times are already gone, and all that’s left ahead in this run-time is an incredibly long denouement. That might be worrisome, but the sensation fades quickly when listeners realize that what they’re hearing is a return to the sand-blasted, dehydrated and surreal desert landscape on which Queens Of The Stone Age first began making noise fifteen years ago and, after they realize that, they’ll discover nothing about this return is safe – the desert is still a harsh, unforgiving and unusual place – but it’s a great ride.
After “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” ushers them into …Like Clockwork‘s sordid, surreal setting, listeners will discover that principle players Homme, guitarists Troy Van Leeuwen and Dean Fertita and bassist Michael Shuman have returned in more ways than simply revisiting the climes of their early music. Throughout songs like “If I Had A Tail,” “The Vampyre of Time and Memory.” “My God Is The Sun,” “Fairweather Friends” and “Smooth Sailing” the sounds of the seventies flavor every microtone but they don’t try to take listeners back there. Sun-faded, cracked and weathered, each gives a more wilfully ironic impression which is perfectly salacious. Particular standout songs “Fairweather Friends” and “Smooth Sailing” have a bit of fun totally overshadowing rock royalty (guest players Mark Lanegan, Nick Oliveri, Trent Reznor and Sir Elton John all make appearances, but none stands out or is particularly recognizable) and mocking the concept of “rock royalty” completely (love that sardonic “I blow my load on the status quo” line in “Smooth Sailing”), but the result turns out to be really exciting because the band’s own persona remains dominant overall rather than coming off as obnoxious. It might not seem like it should, but the way it all comes together leaves listeners with the feeling that, while they might have been out of commission for six years, Queens Of The Stone Age hasn’t lost one step in their downtime; in fact their potency has only increased.
As …Like Clockwork finally spirals to a close with a decidedly dramatic, Pink Floyd-ian jag through its title track, listeners will find that they’ll have no choice but to admit that …Like Clockwork meets every possible expectation fans could have had of Queens Of The Stone Age. The ten songs on this album have the sound, the style, the form and the humor of the band’s first three albums, and hearing it play out is incredibly satisfying. They may have had to wait six years, but …Like Clockwork is precisely the sort of record that longtime QOTSA fans have been hoping for.
Bill Adams is also the editor-in-chief of groundcontrolmag.com