A Beginner's Guide to Queens of the Stone Age
    • WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21, 2017

    • Posted by: Gus Mirabella

    Later this summer, Queens of the Stone Age will be releasing their seventh LP, Villains. On the heels of their most commercially successful work, 2013's ...Like Clockwork, the desert rockers are seriously switching things up on the new album. While the band typically features a bevy of guests on their self-produced records, Villains was produced exclusively by superstar producer Mark Ronson and will feature no outside musicians. If lead single "The Way You Used to Do" is any indication, the result will be nine tracks of light-hearted, danceable desert rock. Through two decades, the band has consistently released a distinct brand of straightforward, badass desert rock. Despite the new tactics, the outcome of Villains seems almost inevitable. As the August release draws nearer, now is the time to get to know QOTSA.

    Coming to understand Queens of the Stone requires one to know their founder, frontman and only continuous member, Joshua Homme. One of the most revered figures in the world of modern rock, Homme helped pioneer desert rock with Kyuss in the late 1980s. The seminal band became known for their sludgy, slow-tempo brand heavy rock, which was literally created from the desert's dust. The band amassed a local following playing their innovative sound at "generator parties" throughout the California desert in the late 80s/early 90s. The desert rock sound, which is essentially stoner rock set in the desert, features distorted guitars, meaty grooves and pounding percussion. "Gardenia," the first track on the band's third album, Welcome to Sky Valley, is a prime example. The heavy sound, complimented by song's sedated tempo and irreverent lyrics (singer John Garcia concludes the song yelling "get back, get back, motherfucker!") capture all of the essentials of the genre.

    Homme never quite walked away from the signature desert sound. He began an incredible collaborative music project known as the Desert Sessions in 1997, featuring artists anywhere from PJ Harvey to Dean Ween. His "other" bands, Eagles of Death Metal and supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, have largely done their business in the American Southwest. Even Homme's production work brings the desert to his collaborators, Arctic Monkeys' Humbug and Iggy Pop's Post Pop Depression being two fine examples. It is undeniable that the desert sound is inherent to Homme, and QOTSA absolutely owns it. Take "Go With the Flow," the second single from 2002's landmark Songs for the Deaf.

    The song is a perfect encapsulation of QOTSA at their absolute peak. As Dave Grohl steadily pounds away at the drums, Nick Oliveri's bass line drives the song along. Homme's lyrics flow with the steady rhythm, balancing out the heaviness with a cool poeticism. A line like "I want something good to die for to make it beautiful to live" does not feel like it belongs in a song like this, but Queens knows how to strike a balance. Take this music video, for example. The tenacious drive of the song is matched by the polarizing red, white and black color scheme during a reckless driving scene. The crash that results leads to sex and sparks the colors of the rainbow, symbolizing a balance between the heavy and the sweet.

    The happy medium of heavy and sweet dates back to before the band's existence. It was Chris Goss, Kyuss' longtime producer, that originally called the band Queens of the Stone Age. When the group disbanded and Homme's new project, Gamma Ray, was legally forced to change names, QOTSA came naturally. The name worked because rather than Kings of the Stone Age, which was "too macho," Queens struck a perfect balance. According to Homme, "rock should be heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls," a sentiment evident throughout their illustrious career.

    Take the beginning of Rated R, QOTSA's second LP. The first two songs on that record are "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" and "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret." The former is an abrasive ode to the album's central theme: drugs. The verse features a single note repeated throughout while Homme repeatedly sings "nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstacy and alcohol." The chorus diversifies somewhat, sonically exploding as a litany of vocalists scream "cocaine." While the first three minutes do their best to shock and awe, the following three minutes are brimming with commercial appeal. Movements like this appear throughout QOTSA's discography, always keeping the listener on their toes.

    On a broader level, the leap seen in the opening songs of Rated R is evident when looking at their full discography. Sure, songs like "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" and "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret" show a significant contrast, but they also end up creating the cohesively quirky desert rock sound we recognize as Rated R. QOTSA's knack for cohesion keeps their sonic explorations in check. After their 1998 self-titled debut, an album Homme primarily recorded alone and strictly adheres to the boundaries of desert rock, the band takes a different approach on every album. Rated R gets weird with it's time signatures and signifies the band's expanding sonic palette, "Monsters in Your Parasol" and "Better Living Through Chemistry" being examples of this.

    Songs for the Deaf, which came two years later, synthesized their sound by going back to the desert--that's the idea, anyway. The now-platinum record is a concept album imitating a car ride from L.A. to the desert, radio interludes included. Almost every song on the record has something really cool going on instrumentally, lyrically or thematically. Watch Dave Grohl slay the ending of "Songs for the Dead" and fail to be impressed. Impossible!

    Lullabies to Paralyze followed and changed tones, ushering in a slick, sexy new sound. This addition came at the dapperly dressed do-it-all man Troy Van Leeuwen. His presence is particularly noticeable on songs like "Skin on Skin," which sounds like it's covered in a full-bodied leather suit. Meanwhile, more mainstream songs like "Little Sister" sounds like it merely wears leather driving gloves, with which badass things are to be done.

    While Songs for the Deaf was essentially impossible to follow-up, Lullabies is a significant contribution to QOTSA's discography despite the departure of bassist Nick Oliveri, who got into heaps of legal trouble for various despicable reasons, and vocalist Mark Lanegan, who significantly contributed to Rated R and Songs for the Deaf. Regardless, through Homme's de facto leadership, QOTSA trudged towards their fifth release, 2007's Era Vulgaris. Inverting the desert journey concept from Songs for the Deaf, Era Vulgaris imitates a trip through downtown L.A. Accordingly, the album has a dark, dirty vibe. Sure, there are songs like "Into the Hollow" that could slide into Rated R, but you also have songs like "Battery Acid," "I'm Designer" and "Turning on a Screw" that have an industrial nature to them.

    The aftermath of Era Vulgaris wasn't overly positive. The reception to the record was lukewarm, and despite the experimental nature of the record, many songs came out as slightly flat calling critics to question the band's longevity. After they toured the record, Homme went off and formed Them Crooked Vultures, among other things. Along with Homme, the group is comprised of Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin). The supergroup only released one self-titled album, but it was an absolute tour de force. After various reports that there was more to come, new QOTSA seemed increasingly unlikely.

    But then, new Queens came! "My God is the Sun" arrived in 2013 and announced a forthcoming record, ...Like Clockwork. The album was said to be an attempt at working through the darkness that came to Homme while in the band's absence. The record features more bare pianos than any Queens record ever has before, as songs like "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" and "...Like Clockwork" show Homme emotionally singing through his obstacles, namely a leg surgery that sidelined him for an extensive period following Era Vulgaris. Somewhat incredibly, the album went number 1.

    At the end of the day, not one QOTSA album feels out of place or unnecessary. While constantly evolving, the band has remained true to themselves, no matter who "they" are. Despite constant lineup changes and a litany of guests on every album, QOTSA constantly is themselves. That is the most intriguing part of their upcoming release--they've changed their own rules. Self-production has gone to the wayside in favor of glossy, high-profile production. All of the guests they've featured over the years (Sir Elton John, Trent Reznor, Alex Turner, etc.) have been shunned from the studio. And yet, "The Way You Used to Do" seems like as safe a bet as any that Villains will be another solid Queens record. It's got a fun, dancey vibe that will likely set the pace for the rest of the album in the same (appropriate) way "My God is the Sun" did for ...Like Clockwork.

    It's a safe bet with Queens, once you realize the extent of their consistency. For the first time ever QOTSA has a few mainstays aside from Homme. The debonair Van Leeuwen first worked with the band on the Songs for the Deaf tour back in 2002. Bassist Michael Shuman and multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita have now been in the band a decade, making them each one of five members to last a decade (drummer Joey Castillo being the fifth). Considering there have been sixteen band members in just over twenty years, the longevity of the current lineup is significant. With this in my, the question now becomes "what does this mean for Villains?"

    The thing about QOTSA is that they have always been cool, no matter what. The band's aesthetic has always been on point, apparent in the way they played and looked. Along with their consistently excellent album covers, the band often has fun with promotional videos publicizing an upcoming LP. With Era Vulgaris they unveiled various videos and promotional materials teasing the record, many of which featured anthropomorphic lightbulbs, Bulby and Stumpy the Pirate. For ...Like Clockwork they took it one step further. The band hired British artist boneface to do the album art, and accordingly incrementally released a number of wild animated videos promoting the record.

    Like clockwork, QOTSA released the Villains equivalent to the dark, bloody spectacle above. This time around, the band went in a considerably more light-hearted direction, Homme taking a lie detector test beside his bandmates.

    Looking to the foreshadowing nature of their promotional videos, it looks like the band's seventh LP will be a fun affair. Well, that and the hip-shaking rhythm of "The Way You Used to Do." QOTSA isn't likely to shatter the expectations, but keep your eyes peeled anyway, because a quality LP seems like a pretty safe bet.

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