The California desert: home of hot-rod proving grounds, heat hallucinations, alien abductions. It was the home, too, of Kyuss, a quartet started in the late Eighties by the teenage Josh Homme, a burnout visionary for what became a viable music subcategory by the late Nineties: stoner rock.
What stoner rock delivers, slowed down and magnified, is the riff, the persistent legacy of Mississippi blues. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were the first to make a monolith of it; Soundgarden were its standard-bearers during the Nineties. Now, Queens of the Stone Age — the resulting sludge from the drained oil pit of Kyuss — are settling in as kings of the rock riff at the beginning of the new century.
Rated R is the latest depository of those crunching, low-guitar-string riffs. But it's not just that. It's a strange, category-evading rock record, a mystery disc of gravity and low humor, of punk aggression and love-bead contentment; when you try to nail down the band's personality, it won't stay still.
Perhaps that's because they're not really a band. When Kyuss broke up in 1995, Homme went on to play with Seattle's Screaming Trees before founding the Queens of the Stone Age with Kyuss bassist Nick Oliveri. Originally the band recorded and Toured as a trio; now it has no solid lineup. Instead, for Rated R Homme and Oliveri wrote their songs in a Joshua Tree, California, bungalow, then went communal, using eight different drop-in studio guests, including Judas Priest's Rob Halford, Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan and Earthlings' Pete Stahl. Amazingly, the record is not a mess at all — one of these space cases is the high-functioning type.
On its debut album, Queens of the Stone Age, the band used repetition as a form of result-oriented, studied minimalism rather than as a perverse limitation — unlike other stoner-rock bands, the riffs weren't the products of a "nobody's gonna tell me to stop playing this chord cycle" defiance. The record made a useful connection between American meat-and-potatoes macho rock of the early 1970s, like Blue Cheer and Grand Funk Railroad, and the precision-timing drones in German rock of the same period.
The second album improves on the strengths of the first, and it also shoots out into areas that you just wouldn't expect from guys who like to record the sound of bong hits. The music on Rated R is taut and episodic, always traveling somewhere, even when wallowing in full-spectrum multitrack technology, like the cross-fades between sighed vocal choruses, the vibraphone chords and the thick sprays of fuzzed guitar on "Better Living Through Chemistry." The band uses instrumentation — electric piano, steel drums, vibraphones, steel guitar — as texture to flesh out the music. These songs actually have arrangements; most stoner rock just settles on the floor in a puddle.
Homme is no lyricist. His most memorable lines on Rated R — "You've got a monster in your parasol"; "You're a head case with a smile"; "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol"; "I seen some things I thought I never saw, covered in hair" — don't even make a stab at artifice; they're afterthoughts that rhyme. Still, his lyrics aren't the fanzine-reference stuff sung by so many other hard-rock bands; they don't make music a quickly perishable Seventies-nostalgia stunt by including lines about souped-up vans. Another thing that sets the Queens apart from other stoner-rock bands is their rhythm section. Homme knows what he wants out of a drummer. The two drummers on Rated R, Gene Troutman and Nicky Lucero, keep simple, beautiful time even at sixteen-rpm tempo, and they do it imperiously.
With the help of producer Chris Goss, Homme has learned how to make an album. The styles on Rated R keep changing — "Quick and to the Pointless" sounds a bit like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a rave-up with a chorus of clapping "yeah-yeah" backup singers and overdriven vocals; "Auto Pilot" and "In the Fade" stagger mellowly; "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" could be unreleased Nirvana.
Hard-rock bands tend to overcompensate these days, lunging for validation in a hip-hop age. They're either monumentally pretentious or insufferably vain, or they want terribly to enrage parents, spitting out calculated-to-offend outsider fantasies. But twenty-five years ago, these bands were cool-headed. They didn't have a damn thing to prove; a new record by a popular band sat like an elephant on your stereo and did whatever it wanted. The cool-headed weirdos behind Rated R have figured out how to make that record once again.