Queens of the Stone Age: The Hand That Ticks On

By Danny DeGennaro 

Queens of the Stone Age is a band I've always wanted to worship.

I wanted nothing more than to throw myself onto the holy alter of phlegmy distortion, caterwauling vocals, and sunbaked riffing. I've never been able to, though. Their issue has always been one of consistency—where one song may feature simple repetitive elements utilized to great effect ("Feel Good Hit of the Summer," "Sick, Sick, Sick") other songs lose steam, or worse yet, never pick up momentum to begin with ("Burn the Witch", "I'm Designer").

The world they created within albums would stutter to life, shambling Frankenstein-with-a-greaser-coif style, only to hit a brick wall in the form of a tempo shift, a lack of emotional continuity, or a plain ol’ boring riff. By contrast, artists like Ween or Brian Eno would come up with albums so full of fucked up, damaged, personal statements (Ween) or albums of such sublime beauty that a listener's only choice was to submit completely or revisit it at some other time (or not).

So, what makes the recent "…Like Clockwork" different than the past output of the Queens?

Interestingly enough, this album makes no allusions to any Desert Sessions output. There are no reworked songs here; everything was crafted from a particular place strictly within the band itself. Josh Homme has gone on record saying that the band always has a direction whenever they go into the studio to record an album. Well, with the exception of "…Like Clockwork", that is. Rather like giving someone a synopsis of a movie before they watch it, certain perceptions are levied upon the viewers that are impossible to shake. Their viewing experience is largely defined by the almost incidental description that was given to them. In that same way, the band having a destination imposed certain limitations, unconscious though they may have been. Walking into a studio and asking your bandmates to please trust and respect one another's decisions is an entirely different kettle of fish.

The principal difference between this and every other QOTSA album most likely comes down to Josh Homme himself; after going into knee surgery, Homme was declared legally dead after choking on oxygen tubes. As if that weren't enough, he also contracted MRSA, and was bedridden and depressed for four months. As a result, every note, every syllable uttered on "…Like Clockwork" possesses a desperation and hunger for vitality missing from their other albums. Snotty asides no longer seem dismissive; they seem invigorating, like each breath that escapes is a blessing.

Where there was swagger, there's now a much more deliberate stagger—not that the songs don't cook, but the hypersexual bass glissandos and is-it-hot-in-here-or-is-it-just-you guitar work are more focused (partially due to bassist Nick Oliveri's absence, though to be fair this is the third album he's been absent). If other albums were concerned with transcribing high noon in the Mojave, this album proves they've mastered it. Riffs crackle with a natural intensity, informed equally by Kyuss, Yawning Man, and most importantly, the Queens themselves. If brutal distortion and crushing riffs were once about the ultimate expression of masculinity, the distortion is only present now because there's a desperation and immediacy that has to be expressed, and there simply isn't any other way to do it.

With the release of "…Like Clockwork" Josh Homme has revealed himself to be an orchestrator of Frippian proportions. Robert Fripp, the only constant member of King Crimson through it's multitude of lineup changes, is famous not just for his manic, expressive, methodical guitar playing, but also for collaborating with everyone from Brian Eno to David Bowie to Andy Summers. Similarly, Josh Homme has made it his beeswax to utilize and give a platform to any artist he finds interesting and worthwhile. PJ Harvey, Dean Ween, and Brant Bjork have all found outlets for their own unique brand of mayhem in the form of the Desert Sessions.

The Desert Sessions is precisely what you think it would be—a collective of musicians who, informed not only by the creative energy of one another, but by various chemical refreshments and the intoxicating San Bernardino heat, endeavor to make music purely for the joy of making music. When he's not orchestrating blissed-out desert rock conceived of and delivered at breakneck speeds, he's playing with The Eagles of Death Metal, or shredding with rock royally John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl as Them Crooked Vultures. Did I mention he produces and is handsome? Tall, too.

Josh Homme has a knack for tilling greatness in his own ultra-fertile musical soil. It takes a big personality and a big talent to do this many things this well. That's not to take away one iota of credit from any of his (numerous) collaborators; he understands the value of laying back and supporting just as much as stepping forward and laying down a face-melting solo. The Queens have finally succeeded in making a statement where the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts. Even more exciting, this album could've only happened right now, with these people, in this era. "…

Like Clockwork" is the rarest of treasures—an album that's timeless but simultaneously totally of it's time. Unshackled by the burden of straddling or defining genre boundaries, the Queens came up with an album that flies directly in the face of the macho posturing and the Me! Me! Me! mentality that seems to pervade everything that's foisted on us as art.

How does a band reconcile being a rock band without succumbing to the inherent trappings of being in a rock band? I'll let Josh Homme sum things up: