Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork: Forget the Rat and the Race

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Dave Grohl have become a gospel influence for a league of heavy rockers in the decade since. It’s a nice thought, but unrealistic.  Select http://volnapodarkov.ru/?best-professional-resume-writing-services-northern-virginia closely examines documents for content, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, POV, and all other aspects of editing/proofreading. Homme, even if he was remotely interested in such a stylistic turn away from the vibe of  Era Vulgaris or the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures with Grohl and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, likely couldn’t capture the same tones and atmospheres. Different time, different equipment, different personnel, different interests. Like Clockwork (you’ll forgive me if I remove the ellipses for sentence flow) was never going to be that album. Second, it’s Homme‘s first Queens of the Stone Age outing since Them Crooked Vultures, and the time since Era Vulgaris marks it out as a return to the band, put on hiatus in the wake of touring for fifth full-length in 2009. They also toured in 2011 around a reissue of the self-titled. Not a reunion, then, but a return. Third, a near-death experience following complications from leg surgery that plays into a questioning of mortality in several of the lyrics, arguably most of all the penultimate “I Appear Missing.” Fourth, with recording sessions begun in 2011 and completed in 2012, it was executed smack in the middle of a well-publicized lawsuit that pitted Homme and former bassist Scott Reeder against former Kyuss bandmates John Garcia, Nick Oliveri — who seems to have extracted himself from the situation entirely, though he guests on Like Clockwork on the song “If I Had a Tail” — and Brant Bjork over the use of the band’s name; an action that resulted in Kyuss Lives! becoming Vista Chino for the release of their forthcoming debut. Many of the lyrics here to cuts like “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” “Fairweather Friends,” and “Kalopsia” — some of Like Clockwork‘s moodiest and most effective moments — could easily be read to reflect the conflicting emotions of that lawsuit. Whether or not they’re actually concerned with it at all is another matter entirely, but it’s an interpretation that could fit as well as any number of others.

Another matter entirely is the profile of the release. Where Era Vulgaris seemed a step backward in the band’s and in Homme‘s rock stardom, Like Clockwork arrives with increased prestige thanks to a number of factors, among them the return/continuation of a collaboration with Grohl, who played on most of the songs here after the departure of drummer Joey Castillo, as well as appearances from Trent Reznor (who was also on the last album), Sir Elton John, Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters, the always-welcome Mark Lanegan, new live drummer Jon Theodore (ex-Mars Volta) on the closing title-track and Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys. Coupled with a pervasive and intimidating viral and social media marketing campaign that capitalized both in the aesthetic strength of graphic artist Boneface‘s artwork for the album in a series of short films and on the perceived laissez-faire attitude of Homme‘s persona that instead of the guy who sweated out a year-plus writing and recording this material, he’d be the guy who, when Elton John called and said he “needed an actual queen” in the band, would answer, “Honey, you have no idea,” as well as “event”-type live performances in advance support of the release partnered with outlets like NPR and The Late Show with David Letterman, this has made the fanfare extensive, multi-tiered and as modern as the sound of the album itself, which is no less complex or dynamic. Of the sundry stories, the one that has yet to be established so far as I’ve seen is that which has the most to do with the actual music contained on Like Clockwork‘s 10 tracks — namely that this is the record that confirms Queens of the Stone Age as the band that will age with Homme. There’s nothing about the material here that Homme couldn’t sustain, build on and revisit as his whims dictate for the remainder of his career. In short, in coming back to the band that made his career (as influential as Kyuss has been in the years since, during their time together, they were more or less a commercial nonentity) , Josh Homme has set a formula he could feasibly work with for the rest of it. The model, as they say in business, is sustainable. More over, Like Clockwork proves Homme is a strong enough presence on the album to be roughly the only factor tying it together, since although band members Troy Van Leeuwen (guitar), Michael Shuman (bass) and Dean Fertita (keys/guitar) make consistent appearances, the surrounding swirl of people on and off the record and the bipolar nature of the record’s atmosphere is such that it’s basically Homme at the center keeping it from falling apart.

That in itself is a critical narrative and a very specific reading of the album that not everyone will agree with or be interested in when it comes to listening. So be it. The fact remains that as the sunny side A opener “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” — which is an immediate lurking threat built on rumbling low end tension — transitions into the upbeat bop of the subsequent “I Sat by the Ocean” — sad lyrically but musically uptempo and lighter feeling — Homme is the constant, and he’s able to successfully steer these songs in a number of directions without sacrificing a sense of mastery. Songwriting is credited to Queens of the Stone Age as a whole but for the closer, which Homme shares with that song’s co-producer James Lavelle and Charlie May and “Fairweather Friends,” which is credited to the band and Mark Lanegan, and definitely other contributions stand out, most notably Grohl‘s drums, Reznor‘s vocals and Elton John‘s piano and vocals, but Homme nonetheless emerges at the fore and is the driving force within the tracks. He gives, specifically on “Fairweather Friends,” the performance of his career vocally. Throughout, his voice is fluid in moving into and out of falsetto, and in stepping up his game — presumably one does not have Sir Elton appear on one’s album and then half-ass it — he draws a continuity between tracks that Era Vulgaris was lacking and that still sounds less uniform than most of 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze. There are missteps along the way in the lyrics to “If I Had a Tail,” which remains a catchy, well-written song that shows obvious awareness of its dopey premise but has one all the same, and “…Like Clockwork” itself, which feels overdone with Homme nonetheless effectively crooning out a comedown epilogue following the album’s apex in “I Appear Missing,” but in terms of the song craft, there are few acts who can so ably bring any sense of looming danger at all to material still considered commercially viable, and Like Clockwork wouldn’t have received the substantial push it has if somebody along the line didn’t think it was going to sell. Those who continue to lament the split post-Songs for the Deaf with Nick Oliveri, who to that point was the most substantial (or at least the most visible) contributor to the songwriting apart from Homme won’t find much solace. There’s next to no screaming, and the edge that still seems so sharp on those early albums has been irrevocably smoothed in the production and the arrangements, but the broader audience that Queens of the Stone Age was able to reach over the years who’ve followed them through Lullabies to Paralyze and Era Vulgaris will have no such qualms in handling the up-and-down/back-and-forth/manic-depressive tradeoffs the band makes across Like Clockwork‘s 46 minutes.

Its two sides themselves stand somewhat in opposition overall, but the real rollercoaster on a track-by-track basis, as the aforementioned “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” launches the album with a sense of moody fearfulness, start-stop guitar peppering steady bass and low end rhythm while flourishes of piano add a classic feel and Homme‘s vocals play into the theme, returning to the lines, “If life is but a dream/Wake me,” more insistent than melancholy, though that vibe is present as well in the music, whereas “I Sat by the Ocean” answers back with an immediately more engaging, pop sensibility, a more blatant hook, and friendlier feel. Castillo — who plays on the first two tracks, the subsequent “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” and side B opener “Kalopsia” — is well suited to the track’s straightforward push, and the interplay of Homme and Van Leeuwen on guitar amid the handclaps of the bridge only enhances the spirited feel, opening to more keys in a pretty chorus that’s too smooth to be live-sounding, but not wholly unnatural either. It’s with “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” that Like Clockwork unveils the chiaroscuro at the center of its methodology, pulling the listener into a depressive sinkhole with a simple piano line, lyrical tales of insecurity, vulnerability and falling apart, a bluesy solo deep in the mix that’s a short but effective cue, and a linear build that plays out gracefully as the verses and choruses trade between them. Homme asks, “Does anyone ever get this right?” even as he touts some level of naive triumph in the lines, “You think the wost of all is far behind/The vampire of time and memories has died/I survived/Hooray,” but there’s no real sense of hope conveyed and it’s the questioning that serves as the takeaway impression. That makes “If I Had a Tail” — Oliveri‘s return on bass, Grohl on drums, Lanegan and Tuner joining Homme on vocals — a transitional middle-ground between “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” and side A finale “My God is the Sun,” and it’s a role the song plays well. Homme plays off bubblegum pop in the verse section “Gitchee gitchee/Oooh la la/Doo run run/You won’t get far,” still more hopeless than teasing, but not as outright miserable as on the previous cut, the song given an underlying sense of swagger from Grohl‘s drums and Oliveri‘s bass, which is relatively understated but works in a few choice fills before the would-be drama of the chorus “If I had a tail I’d own the night/If I had a tail I’d swat the flies” opens to a disco interlude and makes way for an attitude-laden guitar solo leading back to the verse. They repeat the cycle and build off the last chorus to a section of insistent “Uh huh”s and “oohs” — Lanegan most prominent here — as Grohl revels in closing and opening his hi-hat and the riff gets bigger and thicker to finish, cut right before a short lead line that appeared earlier returns to end, leading to some backwards sampling transitioning into the propulsive rocker, “My God is the Sun.”

Also the advance single, “My God is the Sun” is Like Clockwork‘s most rocking cut, and placed well to give the album momentum leading into the second half. There’s less flourish to the arrangement, but the band still finds room for pitting sudden bursts of volume and crashes against false-sense-of-security quiet lines. The chorus is a standout, Homme seeming to take ownership of the desert in its titular proclamation, but what’s most notable is the smoothness of the shift the band has made between “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” and “If I Had a Tail,” so that as “My God is the Sun” launches with the guitar at what for the course of the album is Queens of the Stone Age‘s top speed, the change is no more jarring than it’s meant to be. It is one more indication of how well structured the songs are, and giving way in CD and digital formats directly to “Kalopsia,” it’s a (relatively) stripped-down take on the ability the band has always had to bust out a killer rock song when called upon to do so, its fake-you-out ending recalling “The Blood is Love” from Lullabies to Paralyze. Starting out the second side, “Kalopsia” is hard to think of not paired with “Fairweather Friends.” In coupling the two in the tracklisting, Like Clockwork finds its two most landmark guest appearances — Trent Reznor and Elton John — running in succession, the former opening with dreamy instrumentation underscoring a duet between Reznor and Homme, wispy call-and-response guitar and “Bye-bye, black balloon/See you real soon” saying farewell to care and concern just as, like clockwork, the song explodes into its crashdown chorus progression, Reznor taking the fore in his signature sneer for the lines, “Oh, why you so sad/What have you done,” before Homme joins in with, “Forget those mindless baboons/They’re off playing god.” The notion of Josh Homme and Trent Reznor combining their already formidable David Bowie impressions into one singular onslaught might not appeal to every listener of Queens of the Stone Age, but on the level of sheer pop brilliance, it works and is lent gravitas by a key break of breathing, a return of the far-back drums, the dreamy guitars and verse. Like the album itself, “Kalopsia” is a game of contrast. Homme croons, “I love you more than I can control/I don’t even try/Why would I” atop a descending piano line before the chorus starts in again, this time with the lines, “Oh, why the long face?/You’ve got it all wrong/Forget the rat and the race/We’ll choke-chain them all,” and with the conviction in the two voices delivering the lines, there’s little doubt left they’d get away with it. Chaos erupts in the last minute, briefly, and the guitar sounds a corresponding siren as “Kalopsia” gives way to the sampled chants (in awe, perhaps) that start “Fairweather Friends.”

This too is going to be a leap for some listeners to make, and a leap some will simply choose not to make. “Fairweather Friends” is either Like Clockwork‘s greatest triumph of mature heavy pop-rock authority, or the over-produced epitome of how far Queens of the Stone Age has gone in losing their way from what typified their sound early on. The track does not allow for in-between interpretations, nor does it seem like it was intended to. Sir Elton John arrives following a short, quiet intro, his piano and vocals joining Homme‘s guitar and singing in a build before the song takes off, fuzzy leads and the piano answering back and forth as Homme pushes his vocals in a way he simply never has. Their call and response extends to the chorus vocally, John echoing Homme in a stirring reminder of just whose track it is, and instead of back into the verse, they continue the momentum into an instrumental section of piano and guitar that shifts into the lines, “One day when we’re far away from everything that hurts/Drink wine and screw is all we’ll do every day,” Homme moving into an echoing falsetto as he references “Walkin’ on the Sidewalks” from the first album before shifting back into the chorus after another buzzing lead — Grohl‘s drums in the bridge aren’t to be underappreciated either — and just as the last chorus seems to reach its chill-down-the-spine apex, Homme cuts mid-line and mumbles, “I don’t give a shit about them anyway.” The do-you-mind-if-I-put-my-balls-here funk-infused swagger of “Smooth Sailing” could not have a more fitting intro. Making dirtball reverie in a groove that a press release would likely refer to as “danceable,” “Smooth Sailing” calls to mind some of what has always worked about Queens of the Stone Age‘s sound and some of how they’ve grown out of it. At their best moments — thinking of cuts like “First it Giveth” from Songs for the Deaf, “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret” from Rated R, “Avon” from the self-titled, or even “Tangled up in Plaid” from Lullabies to Paralyze — they’ve never failed to bring listeners with them: “Check this out, we’re all gonna go be awesome.” “Smooth Sailing” has some of that Era Vulgaris let’s-put-style-first vibe, and Homme adds to it in the cadence as the verse — “I’m burning bridges, I destroy the mirage/Oh, visions of collisions, fuckin’ bon voyage” — before sleeking out the information that, “It’s all smooth sailing from here on out.” Of course, we’ve been listening long enough by this time to know there’s no way that’s the case. Even as “Smooth Sailing” stomps out its party rock vibe, the context around it is too hard to ignore, particularly on subsequent listens.

But if the turn back to darker vibes is somewhat telegraphed by the time “I Appear Missing” takes hold, the six-minute excursion is worth the ride. It’s the longest of Like Clockwork‘s pieces and similar in its structure and feel to “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” from the first side, but wholly more realized. It is the peak of the album, the lineup of Homme, Grohl, Van Leeuwen, Shuman and Fertita enacting a drama that is unmatched elsewhere both on this album and throughout the Queens of the Stone Age catalog. Some of Lullabies to Paralyze comes close to capturing this kind of melancholy, but the language here is clearer, musically, and the swaying chorus gives pop grandeur to the song, emotional weight conveyed via Like Clockwork‘s most memorable hook. It’s a triumph of a downer, intricate, precise, immediate but patient, tense but accomplished — an anchor arriving in the second verse with the lines, “Pieces were stolen from me/Dare I say, given away?” as lower backing vocals enforce Homme‘s sense of regret. The second chorus arrives with no less release than the first and is extended with the one-liner, “It’s only falling in love because you hit the ground” — Homme‘s lyrics remain an understated asset in the band’s long-standing appeal; his ability to turn the cliché on its head might as well serve as a metaphor for the entire course of his work with Queens of the Stone Age, this album included — before a swirl of keys and guitar and drums stops and opens wide to fits of quiet lines and louder bursts, lyrics desperate and sing-song, biding their time. A bridge matches vocals more exactly to the guitar, and the chorus returns at last for its last runthrough en route to an ending no less grandiose, far-off vocals echoing from untold layers of lead and rhythm guitar, bass and drums, but finally rising over top of the fading music, so that by the time “We’re fallin’ through,” it’s nearly acapella. This could’ve easily and I’d argue probably should have been the end of the album. It’s not. Closer “Like Clockwork,” led by the piano and Homme‘s lounge-smoke falsetto, has a build of its own, but after “I Appear Missing” is rendered all but completely unnecessary.

If it had been two minutes of piano and voice of outro epilogue, that would make some sense — Like Clockwork is certainly not without its indulgent streak — but though the melody is lush and Homme pulls it off vocally, it hits flat after “I Appear Missing,” like some of Guns ‘n’ Roses less effective Use Your Illusion-era ballads. Even Homme‘s reminders that “Not everything that goes around comes back around, you know” and “Holding on too long is just fear of letting go” seem less genuine. Drums arrive with a wandering guitar lead, and the song rises to a Beatles-style swell that falls short of genuine payoff, and though the second verse is more active in that the drums continue — it is Jon Theodore‘s only appearance on the record — where the song prior used pop drama to its own ends, “Like Clockwork” caps by going the other way. Perhaps that feeds into the two-sided atmosphere of the album itself, but the similar mood of the last two tracks undoes the necessity of the final one. It’s an unfortunate sendoff from a record full of ups and downs but with little else to be trimmed away, but if that’s the leap that I’m not willing to make as a listener following along Queens of the Stone Age‘s progression, so be it. My first impression of Like Clockwork overall wasn’t dissimilar. I wouldn’t put myself in the camp of wishing it was 2002 again with Homme and Grohl pumping out some half-hearted variation on “No One Knows” — though the strong use of red in the Like Clockwork art might lead one to think that’s what they’re getting — but I found these songs to be overly smooth and lacking in impact. Subsequent returns have won me over to parts of both ends of the spectrum of mood, “I Sat by the Ocean” and “Kalopsia” and “Smooth Sailing” and “I Appear Missing” each offering a different and effective emotional crux while remaining consistent with the record’s overall flow and pulled together, again, thanks largely to Homme‘s presence at the forefront. When it comes to the album’s staying power, I can’t know yet if it will have the kind of years-down-the-line presence of the older Queens of the Stone Age offerings — I feel like it was years before I finally “got” Lullabies to Paralyze as anything more than a watered down version of Songs for the Deaf — but what’s more important is that more than a decade and a half into their tenure, the band is as stubborn as ever in its refusal to be anything other than exactly what it wants to be. That creative willpower will make Like Clockwork appealing to listeners new and old who are able to come to terms with it, and that creative willpower is at the core of Homme‘s songwriting. He can take the band wherever he wants to go from here.

Queens of the Stone Age, Live at the Wiltern, Los Angeles, May 23, 2013

Queens of the Stone Age on Thee Facebooks

Matador Records

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9 Responses to “Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork: Forget the Rat and the Race”

  1. jullan says:

    Oliveri doesn’t play bass on this. FYI.

  2. TVsRoss says:

    Hate to nitpick on a solid review, but “I’ve got a secret” from Rated R is actually “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret”.

    Again, solid review (seriously, I’m not trying to be a dick). I agree for the most part, especially in regards to the title track (which had it ended at the swell around the 3:20ish mark would’ve been perfect, but it still does a good job of being a way to decompress after “I Appear Missing”). Subsequent listens have definitely boosted my impression of the album, which is a good sign.

    • No sweat, I appreciate the correction. Sometimes when I’m thinking of a couple songs at once, that kind of thing gets jumbled. I was hearing the first line in my head while typing. I also had “got” where it would’ve been “Got,” so all the better to fix it one way or the other.

  3. asamford says:

    after reading this review, I am enjoying this album even more than I already was, and I already dug the shit out of it.

  4. ?or?e says:

    Excellent review. Todays rock would be a sad place without Homme and his stubbornes.

  5. Dan G says:

    One more correction: No return of Oliveri on bass. He only does backing vocals on one track.

  6. Slo go says:

    Best review I’ve read. Most accurately describes the album, highlights the lyrical juxtapositioning & pinpoints the actual significance of the guest contributions for the better part. Excellent job

  7. Harvey Mee says:

    Alright,time to actually go to store and buy the thing. Great review.

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