Along with slippery addictive fellow countrypeople At The Drive-In, Queens Of The Stone Age could be accused of bringing a new intelligence to all that is weighty and ferrous. Formed from the ashes of stoner rock ensemble Kyuss, their eponymous debut album garnered them a number of high profile fans, including Madonna, but "Rated R" has seen their star go supernova. Finally released on vinyl as what the cover sticker refers to as an X rated version (presumably a reference to the preponderance of borderline pornography that lurks within the gatefold sleeve) and blessed with an extra track ("Ode To Clarissa", which, curiously is none of the extra tracks on the simultaneously reissued double CD version), those of us who covet the black stuff (as in the format, rather than the music) are finally granted an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.
They are Queens, and they are chunky, to paraphrase The Artist. Certainly "Rated R" seems to have the same built, stacked sound that I remember from American AOR bands such as Boston (in my youth, Father William), albeit stripped of all chromium plated frippery and doused liberally in attitude. They also remind of the latest model Red Hot Chilli Peppers at times, chiefly in their ear for the kind of tune that still makes sense when cranked up to stadium-strangling levels. And then there's the maverick experimentation: "I Think I Lost My Headache" culminates in a brass-blaring finale that's almost pure systems music (predating Radiohead's "The National Anthem" by a season or two, incidentally), whilst a sneaky reprise of big single "Feel Good Hit Of The Summer" pops up behind "In The Fade". There are even former members of Dinosaur Jr and Screaming Trees on hand to lend a little college rock cred - as if Queens Of The Stone Age need the assistance!
There's lots that is great about "Rated R": it does interesting, fresh things with rock music, and it undoubtedly deserves the welter of praise with which it has been showered. But for me it's merely a very fine album: it doesn't itch its way into your consciousness like the last At The Drive-In platter does. I like it, but I can live without it. Nevertheless, respect due.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE Queens Of The Stone Age (Roadrunner)
Half a world away from the shiny pop choruses and testosterone-crazed experimentation of "Rated R", their 1998 debut album takes you back to the bloodied roots of the Queens Of The Stone Age experience. Low on traditional assets such as hummable tunes and memorable lyrics, the band instead deliver a slow-motion dusty bludgeoning that brings to mind a much heavier Built To Spill. And, not exactly being the kind of album to meet the listener halfway, "Queens Of The Stone Age" requires serious acclimatisation before you begin to appreciate that there might actually be something great going on amidst the rigorous riffing. Since all eleven tracks are essentially cut from very similar cloth it's difficult to pick highlights, but the inner turmoil of "Mexicola" and the early-Zep-on-downers that is "You Can't Quit Me Baby" are especially fine. This is brutal, uncompromising and almost perversely original music, as close to "Rated R" as "Bleach" is to "Nevermind", and none the worse for it.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE/KING ADORA/GOATSNAKE Newport Centre 7 June 2001
Having scooped the NME's album of the year award for the rather fine "Rated R", Queens Of The Stone Age's penchant for addling mighty riffs with rampant experimentation seems to have established them as the band most likely to bridge the gulf between Kerrang reader and indie kid. So, with some lingering background guilt at never having got to an At The Drive-In gig before their implosion at the height of their critical and commercial success, this I had to see.
Goatsnake are unreconstructed metal merchants of the old school - guitarists with straggly long hair, a shirtless drummer intent on bashing several shades out of his kit, a shaven-headed singer and a stack of tunes that harken back to the forging of rock, blues, Satanism and swagger. And, to a non-believer like myself, they are very good, not the sort of thing I'd listen to at home but eminently capable of getting a bored, disinterested crowd of early-arrivals on their side. Their singer, possibly not sponsored by the Welsh Tourist Board, recommends Twmbarlwm as the ideal venue to smoke a joint and get naked, bravely ventures into the area between stage and moshpit and blows a mean harmonica, a la Ozzy, when required. Goatsnake's tunes have enough tempo changes to keep them interesting without collapsing into echt-prog twiddliness, and on the rare occasions when you can actually decipher the lyrics they seem to be about "going down that dusty road", which might not be poetry but it will do. And most importantly they seem to have utter conviction in their music and themselves, which, in a graveyard slot like this, is enough to make even a cynical old soak like myself go slack-jawed in admiration.
King Adora, on the other hand, I have heard of: their tune "The Law" has pounded into my subconscious via its residency on my MP3 jukebox at work, and a tolerably enjoyable two minutes it is too. And had they played it tonight it might have lifted their rather one-dimensional, unenthralling set. As they strolled onstage - drummer decked out in LP-high spiked hair - the image of what Supergrass might have looked like had they formed in 1977 entered my mind, and as they bashed out 30 minutes' worth of bubblegum-punk-pop weighed down with slacker attitude it failed to leave. Maybe I'm just getting old.
So, it gets to around 9:30 (tellingly, "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" has been burbling through the PA) and "We are Queens Of The Stone Age", and as if there could be any doubt to the accuracy of that statement they thunder into "Feel Good Hit Of The Summer", kicking up the kind of white noise storm that makes my spinal cord dissolve and makes me think that I really should go to gigs more often. They proceeded to essay virtually all of "Rated R" - "I Think I Lost My Headache" is only mildly depleted by the loss of its squawking, Sally Army-plays-Philip Glass brass ending, "Tension Head" is a squalling, unexpected highlight - as well as vast tracts of their difficult, brutal, eponymous debut album. Former Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan (who, from the bleachers, looks like Kevin Bacon's evil twin) steps up to the mic to perform vocal duties on a smattering of tunes, including, surprisingly (although maybe not given both band's devotion to furthering the cause of beard-based excess in rock) ZZ Top's "Precious And Grace", and Brendon MacNichol amazingly manages to throw some shapes whilst playing pedal steel and keyboards. Extra points too for hurling a couple of obscurities into the pot, the Lanegan-sung "You're So Vague" ("you probably think this song is about you", as if you couldn't guess) which appeared on the reissued 2 CD version of "Rated R", and the ripped-up rock 'n' roll of "Ode To Clarissa" - prefaced by a Josh Homme comment that, roughly paraphrased, went "To everybody who thinks we have no tunes, or our songs aren't about anything, that ends here" - found only as an extra track on the belated vinyl pressing of that album.
Which is all fine entertainment. You might quibble with a light show that regarded blinding the audience with white light at the end of each song as the pinnacle of pyrotechnic achievement, you could tap your watch in disappointment at a performance that barely scraped through 75 minutes' duration (including one of the least faux-spontaneous or even requested encores I've seen in all my years of gig-going - the band just wandered off and then sort of wandered back on again!), you might be slightly miffed that they found no way to include blistering oldies such as "Mexicola" and "You Can't Quit Me Baby" in the setlist. Perhaps you could even suggest that the evening's most obvious flaw was that nothing, musically at least, really happened onstage that you couldn't get from listening to the albums, most songs straying as little from the original versions as the constraints of live performance would allow. But for all this, Queens Of The Stone Age still provided a thrilling, altered kind of night out, littered with throwaway moments that remind you just how effective and infectious very loud rock music can be when done properly.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE Songs For The Deaf (Interscope)
Styled as a journey through the farthest reaches of American border radio (kind of "The Who Sell Out" relocated to the Californian desert) "Songs For The Deaf" might just be Queens Of The Stone Age's most accomplished album yet. Most of its 14 songs are short, sharp and brutal, combining melody, harmony, power and channelled aggression in the kind of perfect alchemical proportions that make state of the art rock music. The suggestion of a band at the peak of their powers and the top of their game draws favourable comparisons with Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti", although Queens Of The Stone Age's music is leaner, darker and more focussed, refracted through a dim narcotic haze.
Nothing presented here is less than good, but the moments where they subtly, almost imperceptibly, tinker with the formula are worthy of mention. First single "No One Knows" is polka metal, decorated with temporary member Dave Grohl's volcanic drum flourishes. Even amidst the battering of "First It Giveth" there are shards of Spanish guitar, whilst "Song For The Dead" and "Song For The Deaf" both reach for, and easily attain, epic status, the former collapsing amidst a welter of false endings, the latter closing with a cackling, offhand burst of "Feel Good Hit Of The Summer". "The Sky Is Fallin'" flicks effortlessly between Eastern drones and bludgeoning riffs, whilst the album's highlight, "Hangin' Tree", makes a welcome return from the last volume of the "Desert Sessions" side project, its demonic "Four Sticks"-isms happily intact. The needle and spoon imagery that punctuates "Gonna Leave You" suggests it probably isn't a love song, or at least not a love song directed at another person, and if "Another Love Song" is a love song then it's one of the slashing, vicious, vindictive kind. "Do It Again", on the other hand, models the kind of prefabricated glam rock stomp unheard since people last bought Gary Glitter and Slade singles in any quantity. Proceedings close with "Mosquito Song", somewhat disingenuously listed on the cover as a 'Hidden Track' (not very well hidden, then!), as fine as anything on the album proper but distanced from it by both its bizarre instrumentation (acoustic guitar, piano, accordion, violin, timpani, sleighbells, brass) and folky feel.
If "Songs For The Deaf" proves anything incontrovertibly it's that Queens Of The Stone Age own rock 'n' roll as completely as Led Zeppelin did in 1975. And whether or not that means there's a punk apocalypse around the corner just itching to topple them, for the time being this album is as visceral, thrilling and accomplished as heavy rock gets.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE The Great Hall, Cardiff University Students Union 19 October 2002
It has taken me two decades of concertgoing to finally and completely realise that the time indicated on the ticket is when I should be planning to leave home rather than arrive at the venue expecting entertainment, and consequently I arrived at The Great Hall to find the unnamed support band already plunged deep into their set. Unfortunately, it would appear, since they were impressively entertaining, with a singer/guitarist who did a surprisingly accurate impression of Gilbert O'Sullivan auditioning for At The Drive-In, big but supple modern rock songs and a variety of squealing, distressed keyboard sounds that resurrected the long-cold corpse of skunk rock (Earl Brutus, Regular Fries, Campag Velocet et al). Their final song even stole its slithery bassline from Public Image Ltd's "Careering", demonstrating impeccable taste in their thievery, whoever they may have been.
After a sticky interlude of Ramones classics and the precarious assemblage of some crude circular projection screens above the stage, bearded, tattooed, shaven-headed stripped-to-the-waist gonzo bassist Nick Oliveri declares "We are Queens Of The Stone Age!", and so it proves to be. There's something about this band - admittedly compared to the indie shamble and fifty- or sixty-something veterans I usually find myself seeing in concert - that marks them as the hard-living, fire-breathing embodiment of rock and roll; they asserted it within seconds of possessing the stage when the "Rated R" tour docked at Newport last year, and exactly the same happens tonight, like some power station of a life-force has entered the building. How do they do it? Does it have something, or even everything, to do with Oliveri and fellow Kyuss refugee, guitarist Josh Homme, the only two constants in the opening assault group on both these occasions? Maybe the music is almost of secondary importance as they crank out a blistering "You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire"; what really counts, that by which they ultimately stand or fall, is the attitude, something they possess by the coachload.
So, what else happens tonight? As before, the songs are played reasonably faithfully, with no marked embellishments compared to the recorded versions, although the instrumental section of "Better Living Through Chemistry" reaches almost Sonic Youth plateaux of distended, drifting six-string abuse. Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan (now appearing disarmingly like Bruce Dickinson) assumes the position at the empty centre-stage microphone for a handful of songs mid-set, including the ever-awesome "Led Zeppelin III"-isms of "Hangin' Tree", returning towards the end for a burn through "Song For The Deaf". The availability of an extra album's worth of material to sift through saw much of their eponymous Sabbath-on-speed debut bounced from the setlist, unfortunately, but provision was at least made for the brutal simplicity of "You Would Know" and an encore-bound "Avon". Imminent single "No One Knows" was a surprising candidate for the 'lighter moment', Homme holding his aloft and confiding "I know you like to fucking smoke as much as I do!". "Feel Good Hit Of The Summer" was as brilliantly dumb and dumbly brilliant as you could expect of a song whose entire lyrics read "Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol c-c-c-c-c-cocaine!". Once again they play, brilliantly, but to almost universal puzzlement, "Ode To Clarissa", which to my knowledge has only surfaced on the limited edition vinyl pressing of "Rated R". And once again the highlight of the show is "Tension Head", its new end-of-set position summoning heroic displays of endurance from a band who had conspicuously failed to slacken up over the preceding 90 minutes. (Apparently their new drummer was recruited on the basis that he could hit things harder than the temping Dave Grohl who played on the "Songs For The Deaf" album, a claim fully justified tonight.)
They did it again, then, and with such consistency and, well, panache isn't quite the right word for what they demonstrate on stage, but it'll serve, that you're forced to wonder if Queens Of The Stone Age are acquainted with the concept of an off-night. Quite simply, they rock, quite simply.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE Lullabies To Paralyze (Interscope)
If the fabulous Songs For The Deaf could be characterised as gloss black, Lullabies To Paralyze, the fourth Queens Of The Stone Age album and first to be recorded following the ejection of charismatic founder member and bassist Nick Oliveri, is matt, very matt. Its a restless, scampering work that thunders from station to station, suggesting a fragmented patchwork of ideas more than a coherent, finished, polished product. Dense and dark, its certainly their most challenging work since they went pop (relatively speaking) on Rated R.
The twisted trip begins with This Lullaby, a hoarse, poisoned Greensleeves sung by Mark Lanegan, a fleeting, ghostly presence on this album. Medication is more traditional QOTSA, whatever that means: short, sharp and spooked, its surprising its taken them so long to write a song with this title. The wailing lap steel of Everyone Knows That You Are Insane echoes Sabbaths Wheels Of Confusion, initially at least, and Tangled Up In Plaid alludes lyrically to The Velvet Undergrounds Heroin. Billy Gibbons guest stars on the otherwise unremarkable Burn The Witch, its impact further diminished by following directly after the melodically similar Tangled Up In Plaid the chosen track sequencing is not the materials best friend.
In My Head and Little Sister sound like the work of a riven, stricken band operating at less than full strength, stereotypical rehashes of former glories. The finger-clicking, delicious doom of I Never Came is instantly different, and the intro to Someones In The Wolf sounds like muzak beamed from the wrong side of the Berlin wall. Such moments only reinforce the impression that this is less an album than a cluster of ideas, some brilliant, many banal, banished from the nest before theyve had time to reach maturity. Youve Got A Killer Scene There, Man is a great title shackled to a dead end of a song, on which Josh Homme sounds somewhere between bored and hypnotised. Like A Drug finds Homme, somewhat incongruously, playing the 1960s torch balladeer, an Orbison or a Walker. Banished to the end of the album as an extra track, its nevertheless one of the more creative moments on display.
The problem with Lullabies To Paralyze is that it all seems so, well, underwhelming, which is about the last adjective Id expect to have to hang on a Queens Of The Stone Age album. The cover stickers Spin magazine quote reads, This is one of the most accomplished, powerful and entertaining hard rock bands ever, all of which is true. Its just that, for most if not all of this album, Queens Of The Stone Age are, sadly, none of those things.