Queens of the Stone Age, '...Like Clockwork' (Matador)

8
...Like Clockwork
Critical Mass
Release Date: June 4, 2013
Label: Matador

by Michael Tedder

Here are two things to get out of the way regarding Queens of the Stone Age's sixth record, ...Like Clockwork. First: Prodigal renegade bassist and facial-hair terrorist Nick Oliveri sings backup on one song here. That's it. So this is hardly a reunion of the QOTSA lineup that made 2002's Songs for the Deaf, which, if not the best "rock" album of the past ten years, is most certainly the best RAWK! record of the past ten years. Second: Yes, there are a number of guests on this thing, including Trent Reznor, Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner, and Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears. They sing back-up vocals too, and honestly reside so low in the mix that you wouldn't even know (or care) except that their presence became a key component in the marketing buildup. (This is not a new phenomenon: If you could point out where Shirley Manson actually appeared on 2005's Lullabies to Paralyze, please let us know.)

Neither of these caveats should disturb you too much, though, for there is no need to sell a QOTSA album by invoking memories of modern-rock hits or speculating as to who dropped by the studio to try out the gravity bong. It's simply enough that Josh Homme, the finest hard-rock songsmith of our times and a none-too-shabby guitar player to boot, is back in action after an extended break.

A well-deserved extended break. Following the tour for 2007's Era Vulgaris and a brief stint with his Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones collaboration Them Crooked Vultures (not bad, as supergroups go, though clearly an affair where songwriting took a backseat to instrumental prowess), Homme devoted much of his time to his new family. (He and wife Brody Dalle, late of the Distillers, have two children.) He also fucking died for a few minutes on an operating table. So his recent lack of productivity is understandable, as is the dark cloud of unease that wafts through Like Clockwork, as if it were a poorly ventilated smoke room.

Plenty of bands handicap themselves by trying to be the Heaviest Group on the Planet. Homme's genius is that he long ago realized that the lane was wide open to be the Sexiest Heavy Group on the Planet, and he's achieved this goal without looking corny. His collaborators have always pummeled with the best of 'em, but they were always just as interested in taut grooves and slithering melodies as, say, guitar riffs that sounded like a whale being thrown against a skyscraper. That blend of seduction and destruction is still present, which is fortunate, because otherwise things are starting to get really tense here.

Homme has always had a defiant, contrarian streak: His band's name was a deliberate rebuttal to late-'90s mook-rock culture, and he followed up Songs for the Deaf's commercial breakthrough with a hard zag into the murky psychedelia of 2005's Lullabies to Paralyze. Clockwork is the first Queens record to feel like a conscious return to a previous sonic identity; though perversely, it evokes the group's least-known period — the Devo meet Black Sabbath nerviness of their 1998 self-titled debut. Here, "I Sat by the Ocean" and "Smooth Sailing" mercilessly ride minimal, circuitous grooves that offer little variation or relief — just unremitting propulsion as Homme's and Troy Van Leeuwen's guitars team up to block out the sun. This isn't tension and release. This is tension, then more tension, then even more tension on the chorus until your subconscious has been thoroughly scrambled; only then does release come, usually in the form of a gnarled guitar solo.

None of this is immediately sticky, save single "My God Is the Sun," which boasts the sort of swallow-the-sky chorus most bands quit writing after they leave their major label. (After concluding their deal with Interscope, QOTSA recently signed with indie institution Matador.) By and large, Homme has yet again submerged his talents for hooks in knotty, controlling arrangements that border on sadomasochistic, but there's pleasure to be had once you give in. Even if bassist Michael Shuman rarely lets these grooves open up, there's still a sideways swing in the way he tightens the vise grip; the lethal precision reigning throughout only insures that you'll be in the exact proper position when the aforementioned gnarled guitar solo knocks you to the desert floor and takes your wallet. Also, as you've probably heard, Deaf MVP Dave Grohl plays drums here about half the time, and even though former QOTSA mainstay Joey Castillo was no slouch — and new guy Jon Theodore is a goddamn monster — there's a joy in the way Grohl caves in your chest with fills that even his most adroit peers can't quite replicate.

It should be noted that this all sounds fantastic. The band self-produced Clockwork with James Lavelle, the man from trip-hop-rock collective U.N.K.L.E., and the full-bodied guitars, crisp drum fills, and naturalist dynamic range further fuel the ongoing Steely Dan studio-rat revival that Frank Ocean helped kick-start and Daft Punk amplified. But all the well-buffed guitar tones and boldface guest stars can't distract from what's really going on here.

This is an album about ratcheting up the tension, which means it's also an album about sex and death: the two ultimate forms of release. (I mean, just look at that album cover.) Homme's deep croon and sensuous approach to the groove have always implied seduction, but "If I Had a Tail" is so unabashedly horny that the Weeknd might be obligated to cover it. (Sample lyrics: "I wanna suck / I wanna lick / I wanna grind / I wanna spit.") The otherwise dominant, panic-inducing strut slackens somewhat for that one, but on the title (and closing) track, Clockwork unveils a stark piano ballad that suggests Homme has been studying his friend and occasional QOTSA cohort Mark Lanegan closely, too. It's a look at mortality that demonstrates the skill with melody and concise imagery our host is usually more apt to undercut, playing it straight as he admits, "Not everything that goes around / Comes back around." After an album of dark vibes and measured dread, it feels like a moment of hard-fought relief from a man forced to realize how little he can truly control, and how rewarding the relinquishing of control can be.

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