Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#18)


Let's keep it rolling with #18 right after the break.

qotsa3Queens of the Stone Age hits something deep, something primal. It is really hard to find music that does that. Oh, you can find a lovely little tune that makes your heart swim, a devastating dirge that can dash you to pieces, a thumping banger that makes you want to shake your tail feathers, a sultry voice that turns you on, a lyric that boggles your mind with its poetry or wit, a tragic lament that gets you all teary-eyed, an infectious hook that gets so lost in the brain you swear your own pulse is playing mimic. But to shovel beneath all of that and rumble the gut? A lot tougher.

It seems shallow, I know. Why go for the gut? Isn’t it better to tickle the brain or shiver the heart? Perhaps. But it’s not hard to make me ecstatic or gloomy, and my mile-a-minute brain loves a race competitor. But to get right there into the core, sink bone deep, tear out urges as instinctive as apeman ancestors, to sound like the most awesome f-cking thing on the planet? That requires more than just a good guitar riff or drum solo, a pretty couplet or fierce lung power, a pop hook qotsa2and punchy bassline. No, that requires a kind of authority that can’t be taught and is useless to study.

That’s what Queens of the Stone Age is good at. They’re fearless and diverse, but always locked in on the groove, the kind that can chug like motor rock or stumble, jerk and spazz like heavy funk. They’ll always be known as a devastating riff band, guitar workouts that are beastly, roaring with a crunch, and flexing muscle that make the Schwarzenegger-Weathers arm clutch of Predator look like a courtesan daintily touching the hand of a demure fair lady. But never sleep on the rhythm section, especially during the band’s peak years, including that briefly lived match made in heaven between Nick Oliveri’s manic, monstrous bass and Dave Grohl’s meticulously metered crash-and-bang.

Grohl’s one-and-done tour & album “cameo” was devastatingly short-lived, but better to have loved and lost than blah blah blah. Even more crushing a defeat? Oliveri’s ejection from the band for being too much of a party animal not long after Grohl returned to the Foo. Such losses would break most bands, but not mighty Queens. The band has always been as much a vehicle for frontman Joshua Homme as a full band, even when he was sharing songwriting duties with Oliveri and later when he traded off with second guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen (a busybody whose been a featured player with the likes of Failure, A Perfect Circle, Mark Lanegan, and Enemy, which he co-founded between stints) and Grohl-replacement drummer Joey Castillo, a demon on the skins that filled the void nicely.

qotsa1Though they’ve had a fairly stable lineup for the last few years and a rock solid pairing during the early days (to say nothing for the lyrical contributions and gravelly voice of Lanegan’s frequent appearances), Homme has been the only permanent member of the band. This is hardly a unique situation, but no matter who happens to be filling the other various slots, it always remains a group effort, featuring songwriting from various members and input from all musicians and engineers/mixers while fine-tuning the songs in the studio. With Homme being the only consistent contributor throughout, their albums have unique impressions and subliminal themes each time out—no Queens record is the same as another.

Formed after the collapse of Palm Desert rockers Kyuss in the late 90s, they first went by Gamma Ray before settling on Queens of the Stone Age, named so, as Homme says, because it’s “heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls. That way everyone's happy and it's more of a party. Kings of the Stone Age is too lopsided.” Their eponymous debut LP was the purest distillation of their repetitive power riff style, drilling trances broken by sun-baked psychedelic lapses. Any concerns that they would simply press on forever as a “Kyuss sequel” were laid to waste by the release of Rated R, arguably their most varied, “mellow” and “pop” album to date (quotation marks qotsa4critical), featuring hedonistic mantras, jarring punk-metal storms, and screeching freakouts commingling with undulating bongos, spacious fuzz-guitars, and wraithlike harmonies. And up Mount Olympus they kept climbing, grizzled, weed-paranoid and sweat-drenched, until they reached the summit with Songs for the Deaf, the greatest album so far this millennium.

Following up Deaf would have been a hard enough chore by itself, but to carry on without Oliveri (and Grohl) must have seemed an impossible task. Homme’s response was Lullabies to Paralyze, a darker but more song-oriented effort that was more uneven than its two immediate predecessors, but during several stretches, just as tooth-rattling and melodic. Continuing in that dark vein and adding a healthy dose of industrial grind and grime came Era Vulgaris, their toughest album to absorb, but as astonishing as ever in long, jagged strides. The group’s run has been stop-and-go thanks to numerous side projects for Homme, including Eagles of Death Metal, supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, numerous collaborations with artists as diverse as Primal Scream, PJ Harvey, Masters of Reality (and yes, a duet for an unplugged version of YouTube sensation “What What (In the Butt)”), and his Desert Sessions project, which elicited several songs reworked or rerecorded for Queens records. But they’re reportedly in the studio right now working on a sixth album, and when it does get released, expect enormous anticipation (if not outright salivation) to be coming from plenty more than just myself.

qotsa5I used to qualify my intense affection (nay, drop-to-the-knees-worship) for QOTSA on the basis of comparison—anyone listening to corporate rock radio will find it a barren wasteland of bottom-of-the-barrel regurgitations of the same post-grunge/nu-metal junk that began overtaking sensibilities near the end of the 90s. The absence of appealing hard rock on the airwaves in the last decade-plus has been more depressing than the gloomiest cut those bands pretend keeps the “rawk flag” waving. So here comes this band Queens of the Stone Age and suddenly they begin getting mainstream radioplay, starting small with tunes like “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret” and then really taking off with the success of singles like “No One Knows” and “Go with the Flow.” Amidst all the dreck, I assumed I liked those tunes slightly more than they deserved. But even now, as they’ve “shrunk” back towards more minor hitmakers (if not major cult force), they still remain the best hard rock that (oughta) get worldwide attention. Nope, it’s not just a matter of being a lot better than the rest of field; it’s being a lot better than almost anything that’s ever made you want to bang your head and trip out on impenetrable groove.

Queens of the Stone Age has frequently been labeled as “stoner rock,” which never fit—although I’ve seen Homme perform several times with wet, red eyes, drugs don’t really fuel their sound even if songs like “Monsters in the Parasol” reference usage. That brand typically thrives on slower tempos and murky production, but QOTSA thrives on more variety, and no matter how hard and dirty the distorted bass and guitars can be, they’re still crisp and loaded with explosive metallic licks and chest-beating hooks. Homme prefers the term “robot rock,” which doesn’t quite fit, either, again because of the diversity in the sound and also, robots don’t usually lurch out on acid interludes, qotsa6and as of yet, they never f-ck. Only a few songs in the Queens canon explicitly detail horny dudes on the prowl, but damn if their heavy, rhythmic sound doesn’t sound like the best interpersonal athletic activity even the best wet dreams could inspire.

Their fractured puzzle lyrics usually don’t tell clean stories or even tint logical feelings or premises, but they’ve always been about the vaguely concrete but sub-human indefinable sensations. It’s the music—those titanic riffs, colossal beats, psychedelic tinges, slabs of fuzz broken by Homme’s falsetto—that gets in there and churns the innards. One doesn’t become mighty just by being loud, aggressive, or passionate. It’s the intangibles that accompany the force, adventurous songwriting that explores the limits while remaining tethered like a junkyard dog to the essentials. All the testosterone clichés supplement their description, but their carefully deliberated band name invites in the ladies, too, so its far more than just male libido and belligerence. It’s in all of us, that desire for the primitive dumb rock force but having the brains and selective tastes to weed out the stale, overly-sleazy and complacent. More than a decade in, they’re still fresh and invigorating, full of infectious swagger, and they’ve captured something that so few rock bands have before them. No matter how primeval it might be, Queens of the Stone Age strikes the nerve of human desire and instinct, and never, ever let go.

Regular John
You Would Know
The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret
Auto Pilot
Better Living Through Chemistry
Monsters in the Parasol
In the Fade
Tension Head
Tangled up in Plaid
Burn the Witch
In My Head
I Never Came
Someone’s in the Wolf
Turning on the Screw
Sick, Sick, Sick
Misfit Love
Make it Wit Chu
…and the album Songs for the Deaf

Also endorsed: Kyuss, Eagles of Death Metal, Them Crooked Vultures

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Matt Medlock


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