QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE
In Times New Roman (Matador)
JUDGE NOT … BOOKS … COVERS, yada yada yada. You know the drill.
By appearance, instrumentation, volume and density, Queens Of The Stone Age are a rock band operating at the heavy end of things. A heavy rock band if you must, even if there are issues to be had with that term in today’s genre-rich environment.
And this album packs a tonal punch as much as power one, with anger and querulousness, at the very least, in sufficient quantity to back this heavy boys description. The world in general, some interpersonal issues specifically, are canvassed with lines like “Just a paper machete/The truth is just a piece of clay/You sculpt, you change, you hide, then you erase”, “My love, I will not survive/Emotion sickness, well I wanna die”, and “Clutching/Hanging/By a nail in this life/Desperate always looks that way”.
Behind that mood is the kind of riffage that leans into the holy English pantheon of swarthy men in scuffed boots and scungy denim, rather than more Scandi/American punk-meets-death speediness of subsequent decades, and sludge is an undercurrent. There’s a solid heft to the drums rather than overwhelming double-time force, and additional instruments work mostly on and around the central sound rather than being incorporated into it for impenetrable impact.
But if a heavy rock band they be, QOTSA remain the funkiest, the slinkiest and the most limber of the type. This is a group for whom hips matter as much as (boot) heels, whose contact with blues roots doesn’t forget that people like Howlin Wolf were more interested in making their audiences drink, dance and fuck (which brought them back) than dunk and fight (which did not). A band that wants to be more than one thing.
Take Emotion Sickness, an early single but the album’s penultimate track. A punchy riff opens proceedings, paired with snap-sharp drums and then a second guitar twisting above it, while the voice hovers between diffident and disdainful even when rolling its Rs mockingly. When the chorus comes in though, 1minute 11 seconds in, the bass leaps forward in a twisting, almost dance shape, cymbal becomes as important as snare, the vocals go higher to pair with an attenuated guitar line now harmonising, and the melody is almost sweet. Consequently, when the song reverts to its snarkier verses it carries at the very least the memory of that chorus, letting you know resolution is always near.
At the other end of the album, Obscenery is pulling a cart of sludge – you can feel its weight threatening movement and the vocal carries strain. But the horses pulling this cart have an incongruous prance to their movements, almost as if poised to leap forward, and when strings arrive halfway through, they progress from lower-end sceptical to showpony in the time it takes the guitars to suit up for some grandeur.
In another time and place, Time & Place might be a crooner’s dance song, pitched halfway between Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy and Cabaret Voltaire’s The Crackdown and feeding the freaks just enough to peel them off the nightclub wall, while Made To Parade reimagines glam if a star-spangled Ozzie Osbourne and Tony Iommi were at the controls, not Marc Bolan. Going further still is What The Peephole Say, one of many Bowie-influenced moments here, which is funky, arty and in pursuit, like Ashes To Ashes played at three times the speed in a space disco.
By the time a nine-minute Street Jacket Fitting runs through all the gears – including an acoustic “Jimmy and Robert wrote this down at Bron Y Aur” closing section – to finish the album, QOTSA may have convinced you that even if “Safety is an illusion/That’s why disappears”, you still can drink, dance and fuck on the way to oblivion.