Queens of the Stone Age

     Queens of the Stone Age (Loosegroove, 1998)
     Rated R (Interscope, 2000)
     Songs for the Deaf (Interscope, 2002)
     Lullabies to Paralyze (Interscope, 2005)
   Over the Years and Through the Woods (Interscope, 2005)
     Era Vulgaris (Interscope, 2007)

Josh Homme—who, with his golf shirts and altar-boy haircut, couldn't look less like a metal-guitar hero—had a great idea: Strip down the menacing, Cali-desert-fried rumble made mildly famous by his former band Kyuss (pronounced "stoner rock") and blend it with krautrock's circular rhythmic chug. Voila: minimalist hard rock as hypnotic as it is meaty.

After a few formative (now out-of-print) EPs, the desert storm Queens of the Stone Age appeared in 1998. Guitars and bass churn in near loops, like a tank engine turning over. Vocals are kept to a minimum, embracing traditional metal sentiments such as "I wish we'd get away/Drink wine and screw." QOTSA is that rare bird, an aesthetically innovative hard-rock debut.

Rated R is slicker and more diverse. Arrangements are more precise, vocals are more prominent, and on "Feel Good Hit of the Summer," Judas Priest's Rob Halford helps sing: "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol/C-c-c-c-c-cocaine!!!" "In the Fade" is a ballad, and polyrhythms abound. It's not quite as promising as the debut, but it's still miles apart from anything else on the mainstream-metal landscape.

They've had fine drummers in the past, but Queens can't help but benefit from Dave Grohl's guest pounding on Songs for the Deaf. "Millionaire," "Song for the Dead," and the seasick title track are tough, high-desert scorchers, while "Mosquito Song" is an acoustic-horns-strings ode to the little bloodsuckers. After Songs for the Deaf, Grohl got back to work with the Foo Fighters and Homme fired founding bassist Nick Oliveri. Lullabies to Paralyze suffers as a result of the line-up changes: New drummer Joey Castillo can't match Grohl's tight, arena-ready wallop and most of the tracks lack QOTSA's talent for mixing crunchy stoner-metal riffs with pop-savvy melodies, although "Little Sister" comes close to matching the coiled force of "No One Knows."

Perhaps inspired by his joke-y side-project Eagles of Death Metal, Homme sounds revitalized on Era Vulgaris. He and his crew kick out their best and most diverse collection of tunes yet: swampy industrial noise ("Turnin on the Screw"), vertiginous uptempo rockers ("Sick, Sick, Sick"), sleazy cock-rock jams ("3's and 7's), Sonic Youth-style skronk ("Run, Pig, Run") and bleary-eyed blues ("Make It Wit Chu"). (Pick up the live CD Over The Years…, recorded during two U.K. shows in 2005, to hear an early version of "Make It.") Homme's lyrics have also improved a notch. While he still plays up the role of a depraved misanthrope, he also throws some stinging jabs at American pop culture. "The thing that's real for us is fortune and fame/ All the rest feels like work" nicely sums up the explosion of reality-show losers that'd lard up TV for the rest of the decade.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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