Queens run away with rock crown

06132013-TW-Bent Notes

I’m calling it: Queens of the Stone Age are hereby proclaimed the kings of modern rock.

Their latest release, “…Like Clockwork” is the most consistently intriguing, finely wrought set of the songs the veteran band has released thus far, a brawling, sonically-rich suite that recalls the intricate productions of ’70s bands such as Queen and Pink Floyd while boasting a very 21st century sense of whisper to a scream dynamics and orchestrated fury.

Formed in 1996 from the remains of beloved desert rockers Kyuss, Queens of Stone Age front man and main songwriter Josh Homme led the band through two full length albums that showcased their growing skill at combining Kyuss’s full bore power with a more melodic and experimental approach.

By the time of 2002’s “Songs for the Deaf” the band had reached an obvious peak at a point when the public was hungry for anything resembling new hard rock that wasn’t simply a grunge retread. The result was the rare commercial success that also managed to capture the hearts of more alternative minded rock fans and serious musicians.

While the albums that followed, 2005’s “Lullabies to Paralyze” and 2007’s “Era Vulgaris” each had their moments of inspiration, they were marred by the inevitable fallout bands often suffer through after tasting worldwide success: musical/personal differences, drugs and broken relationships.

Whatever the damage done, the band, and particularly Homme, soldiered on, working on side projects such as Them Crooked Vultures, Homme’s collaboration with Foo Fighters Dave Grohl and former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.

By 2012, Queens of the Stone Age was finally ready to reunite to begin recording “…Like Clockwork” a masterwork that pushes the advances made both together and separately into new, emotionally fraught but musically revitalized territory.

The new album offers proof that the Queens have developed into one of the most distinctive, inventive guitar-based bands currently working. While much of their former sound is in tact here, from the songs’ shifting time signatures to Josh Homme’s singing slide guitar, a new focus and lighter touch have resulted in their most varied and assured work since the glory days of “Songs for the Deaf.”

Homme has also developed as a singer, injecting a disquieting falsetto into the cracks and crannies between the band’s honed roar that often feels like a second, not altogether sane personality peeking through.

It’s an approach that’s in keeping with the album’s theme of romantic and spiritual confusion, even outright disgust.  “I sat by the ocean, and drank a potion, baby, to erase you, Face down in the boulevard, yet I couldn’t face you,” runs a typical sentiment found throughout “…Like Clockwork.”

The album also speaks to the way time can, in Homme’s words, “wound all heals.”

“You think the worst of all

Is far behind

The Vampyre of time and memories, has died

I’ve survived, I speak, I breathe. I’m incomplete

I’m alive, hurray, you’re wrong again cause I feel no love

Does anyone ever get this right?”

“…Like Clockwork” is one of the only commercial rock records in recent memory that the term “epic” could rightfully be applied to. Though the songs are at times crammed to bursting with track upon track of guitars, interlocking vocals and dissonant shards of noise, there’s never any sense of overkill, as each element meshes beautifully with those surrounding it, creating more of an orchestral tapestry than a mere conglomeration of sound.

Which brings me to my one criticism of this album: the sense that nothing, from the riff that leaps forth during the chorus of “My God is the Sun” down to the most minute ambient background scrape and buzz, was left to chance, that each second of sound was planned for and surgically inserted into the songs.

In short, it lacks the kind of raw, left to chance quality that some of my favorite albums absolutely reek of.

I suspect that sort of precise sonic sculpting is simply a symptom of the modern, Pro Tools recording era, and to their credit the Queens inject enough ragged human emotion into their playing to make any production squabbles seem almost beside the point.

At its core, “…Like Clockwork” is a huge, messy broken heart of a record disguised as a slick, bombastic hard rock opera. Unfortunately, it’s also going to be one hell of a hard act to follow, for this band or any other you care to name.

Here’s hoping the lyrics that end the album “One thing that is clear, it’s all downhill from here,” don’t prove prophetic.


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