Lullabies To Paralyze

As lead guitarist and singer for one of hard rock's remaining bastions of old-fashioned chops, Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme had his work cut out for him on Lullabies to Paralyze. The previous Queens album, 2002's Songs for the Deaf, brought Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl back to the drum pedestal he had abandoned post-Nirvana and elevated the Queens to the platinum mainstream with the breakout radio/MTV hits "No One Knows" and "Go With the Flow."

Grohl's departure was predestined, but few could've predicted Homme's firing of founding bassist Nick Oliveri, a wildman whose telepathic musical connection to Homme defined the band's fury. Lullabies to Paralyze, the Queens' fourth album, suffers from Oliveri's departure and Grohl's absence. Drummer Joey Castillo lacks Grohl's wallop, and stopgap bassists can't replace Oliveri's melodic dexterity or his ingrained ability to dart around Homme's rigid riffs.

Ever since he first distanced himself from his teenage beginnings as the guitarist for early-Nineties stoner-metal band Kyuss, Homme has been caught between opposing aesthetics: He loves an extended jam (the first QOTSA album, all those Desert Session discs) as well as an extended joke (the fake radio announcements that interrupt Songs for the Deaf; his drumming on the garage-pop side project Eagles of Death Metal). He also admires extreme discipline, whether it's a taut, Teutonic-rock groove, a minimal but devastating guitar riff or a barely disguised pop tune. It's the tension between Homme's conflicting impulses that pressurizes Lullabies to Paralyze's highest points and accounts for its lows.>[?

You've probably already heard "Little Sister," the first great rock single to hit radio in 2005. More like Foo Fighters than anything QOTSA created with Grohl, this compressed wonder — all buzzing guitar lines, plus an explosive singalong chorus — announces a further move away from traditional hard rock and toward the art punk of the Strokes and other modern popsters. Homme gets even more wired on "Medication," which streamlines QOTSA's blare to a combustive hum: The band hovers on one chord for most of its two minutes, then abruptly veers in jagged angles to heighten the drama.

A likely kiss-off to Oliveri, "Everybody Knows That You're Insane," winds even tighter. Beginning with a slow-burning slide guitar that soars like Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" layered over the final moments of the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," the skyrocketing intro creates a false sense of serenity before jump-cutting into a nasty blitzkrieg chorus thrash. Stereo guitars drive the song's tense verses as Homme and mates evoke the Buzzcocks with far more finesse than bands like Green Day ever do.

Lullabies falters when Homme returns to the protracted riffage of his past. Its back-to-back monster jams "Someone's in the Wolf" and "The Blood Is Love" occupy nearly fourteen droning minutes that unravel the breathless momentum of the previous eight tracks. Subsequent cuts like the piano-pounding "Broken Box" and the pensive "Long Slow Goodbye" rally somewhat but fail to match the first half's immediate intensity.

A cameo by returning QOTSA contributor Mark Lanegan lacks the spark of previous appearances, and Garbage's Shirley Manson and the Distillers' Brody Dalle are barely audible on the slinky "You Got a Killer Scene." The only outsider who adds something Homme couldn't have played or sung himself is ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, who lends his Texas guitar spice to the White Stripes-ish "Burn the Witch." Now that Homme is calling all the shots, he lacks both a manic foil to his confident cool as well as someone to rein in his inevitable deviations from what he does best: dark-chocolate rock with a soft, gooey center.