There’s no rulebook for what makes metal metal, or what makes pop pop, but few bands in the past fifteen years have explored their commonalities as proficiently as Queens of the Stone Age. Since 1998, the band’s only constant member, singer/guitarist Josh Homme and his ever-rotating supporting cast, have conjured thunderous music that continues to be embraced by a wide audience. After barely escaping with his life on the operating table in 2010, Homme has reconvened the band for …Like Clockwork, the band’s first album in 6 years. Along for the ride this time are guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, jack of all trades Dean Fertita, bassist Michael Shuman, and about a dozen guests.
From the drop-C tuning to the disquieting artwork …Like Clockwork is like a brush with death, and fittingly, adversity seems to have breathed new life into Homme’s band. It’s their most consistent effort since the iconoclastic Songs for the Deaf. While Clockwork is in many ways the archetypal Queens –mechanized, atonal guitars, Homme’s multipurpose vocals, a polluted production style– they’re not trying as hard to summon the ferocity this time around. Polished and thoughtful but refusing to emerge from the shadows, there’s a sense of unified purpose that persists across the album’s ten songs.
QOTSA have always paid their dues, and here they hold their influences tighter than ever while pushing their own narrative forward. The monster groove on “If I Had A Tail,” is like some mutant strain of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Homme could have co-penned the excellent “Fairweather Friends” with Jack White. On “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” a barbed ballad with a blackened Savoy Brown soul, Homme exclaims: “I’m alive/Hooray!” The autobiographical aside, and there’s a lot of it (“Shock me awake/Tear me apart/Pinned like a note in a hospital gown”), Homme’s lyrics pull a full 360, encompassing the goofy (“I sat by the ocean/And drank a potion”), the defiant (“I blow my load over the status quo”) and the political (“Land of the Free/Lobotomy”). There are several layers to peel away, and Clockwork is often as interesting an album to listen to as it is to hear.
So QOTSA have thoroughly earned their darkness this time, which stands in contrast to their last record, 2007’s castigating but patchy Era Vulgaris. The breadth of guest spots on Clockwork serve to augment what is already in place rather than compensate for any deficiency. No contribution is more valuable than Dave Grohl’s, who lends his brutal, busy style of drumming to six tracks with a new appreciation for tact. On the roguish “Smooth Sailing,” he plays what sounds like a Goldberg machine so athletically it almost goes unnoticed behind the seasick guitars, and the understated, octopus-armed fills on “I Appear Missing” may take a few listens to soak in.
Not every song hits the mark though, particularly the opener “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” and the closing title track, both of which of which move too slowly and ponderously to scratch any particular itch. As a result, the album takes a little longer to get going than you may like, and departs a bit too early. Still, you get the sense that Clockwork is much more than the album that Homme wanted to make; it’s the album he had to make. Now on the other side of forty, this is QOTSA as weary of mortality as they’ve ever been. They also sound as vital, forceful and rough around the edges as they have in over a decade. Welcome back, gentlemen.