Queens Of The Stone Age (Loose Groove ’98) Rating: B+
After breaking up seminal stoner rockers Kyuss, Josh Homme took current Kyuss drummer Alfredo Hernandez and formed the markedly different Queens Of The Stone Age (QOTSA for short). Noted heavy metal writer Martin Popoff’s description of QOTSA as “Weezer meets Kyuss” is apt, as the band’s sound is considerably cleaner and more commercial than his former band, who were great but lets face it were never going to sell a ton of records. QOTSA are still very much a riff/groove-based band, and they still rock hard, but their songs are more song-based and less serious, as QOTSA are more about succinctness and having fun than Kyuss, who were obviously trying to make major statements. Homme is now the vocalist, and his smoother voice is considerably mellower and less distinctive than John Garcia’s, though a case could be made that it’s more easily palatable despite being less powerful, and I suppose that goes for both bands on the whole. Although this album is consistently enjoyable and rocking, there’s something a tad too clinical about it, and these structured, overly repetitive songs could use some of the wild abandon and thrilling (as opposed to being merely entertaining) eruptions of pure he-man power that made Kyuss so undeniable at their very best. Still, I suppose Homme had a “been there, done that” mentality when making this album, and he does cut down on the meandering down time that marred even his former band’s best albums. So while I prefer Kyuss, at least so far, this album does have much to recommend about it as, aside for the rare track that repetitively grinds on for too long (the still-good due to some serious riffage "Walkin' On The Sidewalks"), never completely achieves ignition ("You Would Know"), is more a so-so jam session than an actual song ("Hispanic Impressions"), or is an ill-fitting attempt to be someone else ("I Was a Teenage Hand Model" - Beck maybe?), Queens Of The Stone Age offers consistently well-crafted hard rock. After all, Homme still has that cool distorted guitar tone, albeit cleaned up a bit, the rhythm section (Homme plays bass) pounds away impressively, and the band’s embrace of psychedelia makes them further stand out from other current hard rockers. Openers “Regular John” and “Avon” are probably my favorite songs here (as per most albums this one is frontloaded), but by and large this albums strength is in its consistency, as "If Only," "How To Handle A Rope," "Mexicola," and "You Can't Quit Me Baby" are also extremely strong efforts.
Rated R (Interscope ’00) Rating: A-
It’s tempting to consider QOTSA as Kyuss lite, but the two band’s agendas are so different that comparisons aren’t really even fair. QOTSA are a much poppier, song oriented band than Kyuss ever was, with verse chorus verse structures taking the place of Kyuss’ expansive desert jams. In addition, glam and punk rock are primary influences along with Black Sabbath, and the band even attempts a strange sort of soul metal on “Leg Of Lamb” and “In The Fade” (good songs both, the latter features Mark Lanegan on typically fine lead vocals). What both bands have in common is Josh Homme’s stellar guitar playing, and though neither he nor new bassist Nick Oliveri (ex-Kyuss and the only other steady band member aside from Homme) sing nearly as well as John Garcia, the band’s energy and humor help them overcome their vocal limitations. OK, now I'll stop comparing the two bands while noting that highlights of this album include their drug friendly, tongue in cheek “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer,” the catchy and melodic “The Art Of Keeping A Secret,” and “Auto Pilot,” which is another catchy yet crunchy number notable for Homme’s wailing guitar riffs. “Quick And To The Pointless” and “Tension Head” are thrashy rants amusingly (or annoyingly depending on my mood) “sung” by Oliveri, “Better Living Through Chemistry” and (most of) "I Think I Lost My Headache" sound the most like Kyuss (i.e. they’re heavy), and “Lightning Song” is merely a pleasantly melodic instrumental interlude. All in all, a few missteps aside, such as the silly chorus to “Monsters In The Parasol” and the out of place horns on the latter part of the epic "I Think I Lost My Headache," this second album does a good job of expanding the band's sound and solidifying their identity. There’s quite a bit more diversity here than on their strong but samey sounding debut, and they sure sound like they’re having fun playing these songs. It's likely that you’ll have fun too when listening to most of Rated R, which finally gave Homme and Oliveri some of the commercial success that they’d long deserved.
Songs For The Deaf (Interscope ’02) Rating: A
With Dave Grohl in the drummer's chair, the great Mark Lanegan (ex-Screaming Trees) singing lead on several songs, the nutty Nick Oliveri adding his beefy bass guitar sound, and Josh Homme still supplying the coolest fuzzed out guitar tone around, Songs For The Deaf was bound to be really good. It's even better than that. The band's heaviest, moodiest, and flat-out best album to date, Songs For The Deaf is trippy yet tuneful, and powerful but playful. When QOTSA surge forward with all their might they can be pretty awe-inspiring, but the band doesn't forget to deliver singable chouses, either ("First It Giveth," "The Sky Is Falling," and "Gonna Leave You," for example). Sure, the album has some ham handed moments, variety is again in short supply, and they'd be better off letting Homme or Lanegan sing than have Oliveri scream (the wonderfully titled, riff-tastic "You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire" and "Six Shooter," the album's lone misfire). But that's nitpicking, 'cause even the dreaded "concept" presented here (the album is set up like a radio broadcast) is a cool one, and even the completely unexpected "hidden track" (QOTSA do folk!) is surprisingly accomplished. Whether recalling the '70s (the "Spirit In The Sky" borrowing "God Is In The Radio"), the '60s (the wouldn't sound out of place on Nuggets "Another Love Song"), or good old 2002 (every other song), QOTSA potently mix pop, punk, goth, and metal elements together into a cohesive, hard rocking whole. Not that there aren't standouts. For example, Mark Lanegan makes his spooky presence felt on "Songs For The Dead," on which Grohl also reminds us why he's one of the best rock drummers around (even if he no longer drums with the Foo Fighters). "Go With The Flow" is simply a dynamite, nothing fancy hard rock song, and "Do It Again" will have you chanting along (fist pumping) in no time, helped along by jackhammer beats, typically meaty riffs, and another catchy chorus. The Pumpkins-esque chug of the title track is another Lanegan-led winner, while "No One Knows" was a bonafide hit, and a terrific one at that, as this great hard rock band delivers on the promise of their first two albums and finally make me forget about Kyuss. All hail Queens Of The Stone Age, the current kings of hard rock.
Lullabies To Paralyze (Interscope ’05) Rating: B+
Homme and Oliveri kept busy, Homme continuing his Dessert Sessions and Eagles Of Death Metal side projects (the former is a collaborative series of releases with a loosely knit group of like-minded musicians, while on the latter one Jesse Hughes is actually the main man) and Oliveri releasing the second album from his side project, Mondo Generator (the presumably ironically titled A Drug Problem That Never Existed). Then an unexpected thing happened: Homme booted Oliveri out of the band, reputedly due to a drug/overall behavior problem that hindered his performance. This was especially disappointing since Homme and Oliveri always gave me the impression of being genuine buds as well as bandmates, and in many ways it was the outgoing Oliveri who had become the face of the band; I recall him mugging on many a magazine cover whereas Homme kept a more low-key profile. Who knows, perhaps that was part of the problem, but musically speaking QOTSA, more so than Kyuss, was/is Josh Homme's band, so he simply retooled the band around Joey Castillo, Alain Johannes, and Troy Van Leeuwen, who, along with semi-member Mark Lanegan, released Lullabies To Paralyze in 2005 (Oliveri has recently toured with former Kyuss drummer Brant Bjork). QOTSA seem to miss Oliveri's energy and playfulness somewhat, but this is still a strong album, even if it's a clear cut below the previous two. Though the band's music is still sensual, moody (mostly due to Lanegan), and rocking, the grooves are slightly less tightly wound this time, the overall songwriting is less sharp, and the sequencing seems more scattershot. Still, these are the quibbles of a spoiled fan, for this is still a fine hard rock album whose highlights do stand out after several listens: "Everybody Knows That You're Insane," a none too subtle but quite catchy dig at Oliveri, "Tangled Up In Plaid," a moody stomper that builds impressively, "In My Head," a catchy, propulsive glam pop pleasure, "Little Sister," a short, punchy pop number with a notable guitar solo, and "Someone's In The Wolf," the intense epic that the beginning of the album builds towards and the rest of the album can't keep pace with. Yes, this is yet another album that I'm going to complain about being too long; it's not that none of the rest of the songs aren't good, but "Skin On Skin" and "You Got A Killer Scene There Man..." aren't, and "The Blood Is Love" and "Long Slow Goodbye" drag on for too long, padding out an album that starts to seem like more of the same after awhile. Then again, it's tough to keep the inspired spark that propelled albums like Rated R and Songs For The Deaf going, and given the band's recent turmoil I suppose that this is as good as could've been expected.
Era Vulgaris (Interscope ’07) Rating: A-
With the band’s lineup now solidified, QOTSA came back with another strong outing with Era Vulgaris, which requires a few listens to appreciate but which becomes addictive once one gets to know it. More focused, concise, and flat-out efficient than Lullabies, the album features relentlessly grinding riffs and adventurous yet pummeling rhythms, as per usual. The band are loud and abrasive but also moody and melodic, while cleverly cynical lines like “it’s just like diamonds…in shit” are also well worth poring over. Basically, this album is just QOTSA doing what they do, and doing it consistently very well. Among the highlights are “Sick, Sick, Sick,” with its bruising riffs, jackhammer beats, and guest vocals from The Strokes' Julian Casablancas, and “Into the Hollow” (previously performed by producers Homme and Chris Goss as the 5:15ers), and “Make It Wit Chu" (previously recorded as a Desert Sessions track and which also appeared on their 2006 live album Over The Years And Through The Woods), both of which show off the band’s more melodic, soulful side, the latter with help from not-so-secret weapon Lanegan. Elsewhere, “Turning On The Screw” and “I’m Designer” are subtly hooky despite their jagged edges, while “Misfit Love” is moody and rocking, with the band lurching about all over the place, a description that could also be applied to the hard charging “3’s & 7’s.” Rarely predictable, “Run Pig Run” sees the band creatively changing gears throughout, and odd time signatures mark the atmospheric, mellower “Suture Up Your Future” and “River In The Road,” the latter also notable for more memorably sighing vocals from Lanegan. As per most albums, this one starts stronger than it finishes, and not every song is a bulls eye ("Battery Acid" is the weakest entry), but by and large QOTSA trim off the excess fat this time, resulting in a lean, loud, and ferociously rocking package that’s playful and sexy, yet also serious and considered. In short, Era Vulgaris sees a damn good band releasing yet another damn good album, nothing more and nothing less.