Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Queens of the Stone Age.
Josh Homme didn’t subvert hard rock exactly. What he subverted was AOR radio. There isn’t an album in the Queens of the Stone Age oeuvre that wouldn’t please your average Motörhead fan; they’re all squealing powder kegs of flat-drive riffage, even as the gestures towards songwriting have wound down over time. But Homme found a sweet spot: he combined the humor of Foo Fighters videos with the unwavering meat-and-potatoes Hungry Man dinners of Foo Fighters albums, threw a bit of Jack White’s detuned swing in there, and Tenacious D’s acid-casualty absurdity, too.
Unlike Dave Grohl, Homme’s desire to never be serious isn’t self-conscious. He has no ultra-earnest tracks to cover; this is a guy whose breakthrough song was a list of doable drugs. His pretensions are almost always riding side by side with Beavis and Butthead bait; lest a knucklehead get bored at the end of Era Vulgaris, there’s a B-side called “The Fun Machine Took a Shit and Died” just up ahead. And despite the will-he-or-won’t-he side drama with former bandmate Nick Oliveri, the bassist isn’t officially getting back into QOTSA anytime soon. Homme just likes being cool and popular too much to take chances with his highly uncompromised outfit, and from that perspective, he’s right, no matter how much this author misses “Tension Head”.
This isn’t a band with a score of great albums by any means, but the weaker ones groove more than you remember. Every QOTSA album is listenable, if plenty dissonant and often tuneless, which makes Homme one of the most discordant staples you’re likely to encounter on a hard-rock station unless they’ve still got “Kool Thing” or some of those third-album Alice in Chains dirges in rotation.
Then there are the myths. Yes, Homme claims feminist, which is a big deal when his Eagles of Death Metal bandmate Jesse Hughes went full-on paranoid Ted Nugent after the traumatic terrorist massacre of 90 fans that he lived through at the Bataclan. And Queens of the Stone Age were named as such to piss off homophobic hard-rock fans, who no doubt were just as baited by the black woman on their 1998 eponymous debut’s cover. They’re not saving the world with all this testosterone — the lone female vocals on a Queens release are the “yeah yeah yeahs” backing up Oliveri on Rated R’s “Quick and to the Pointless”, despite a ton of lineup changes and revolving singers — and they haven’t sent an opaque political message in long enough that homophobic hard-rock fans have mostly advanced into the “you’re so gay you love Coldplay” sort.
Still, one only need to sample the complete works of 3 Doors Down, Three Days Grace, and Nickelback to understand the numbskulls they’ve had to share airspace with for their nearly 20-year career. At their best, Queens of the Stone Age are inventive, sarcastic rock nirvana who’ve done a lot more to keep the actual Nirvana’s spirit alive (the ones that wore dresses) than Grohl’s proper outfit. Who needs songs when you’ve got riffs like these? And sometimes they even have songs.
07. Lullabies to Paralyze (2005)
Go with the Flow (The Gist): Contrary to its title, QOTSA’s most nondescript album is their least likely to stop you in your tracks. As with Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Josh Homme’s cool-guy minimalism keeps him from ever putting himself out there too much to truly fall on his face, so he commits the most low-key sin of all: unmemorable songs (second half is lost in the swamp) and weaker retreads of sounds he already did better (“In My Head” sure sounds a lot like the previous album’s hit “Go with the Flow”). The first Queens of the Stone Age album truly lacking in variety, Paralyze never really recovers from the obvious loss of Nick Oliveri and Dave Grohl after the previous success of Songs for the Deaf.
Song for the Deaf (Zone-Out Moment): Take your pick from the interminable second half, which is where you realize, “Wait, wouldn’t lullabies to paralyze just be regular lullabies?” But you know, a seven-minute ender called “Long Slow Goodbye” delivers the robo-ballad it promises. Which can mean “robot” or “Robotussin”, your pick.
Covered in Hair (Trippiest Tune): The demented wooze of “Tangled Up in Plaid” sounds like a Satanic rendition of the pink elephants song from Dumbo. On Queens’ most creatively barren album, this is a major plus.
Turnin’ on the Screw (Sexiest Moment): Only Josh Homme could breathily intone “I hate rock’n’roll” on the codeine-paced “You Got a Killer Scene There, Man” and make it sound like the most rock’n’roll thing. It’s followed one of hard rock’s most convincing falsettos.
Feel Good Hit of the Summer (Reluctant Pop Song): With its barrel-house piano and handclaps giving it a New York Dolls-cum-Phantom Planet air, “Broken Box” was kind of lost in the shuffle as a late-breaking shot of glam espresso on a sleepy record.
Lightning Song : Starting with a trippy, Layne Staley-esque jam before bruising everyone in sight with its chorus, “Everybody Knows That You’re Insane” was a furious swipe at the departed Nick Oliveri and one of Paralyze’s only truly essential tracks.
06. …Like Clockwork (2013)
Go with the Flow: By any measure, …Like Clockwork is a huge success for Queens of the Stone Age, who didn’t exactly blow up the moon with Era Vulgaris in 2007, yet six years later reached the summit on the Billboard 200 with this Matador-released(!) comeback because people really missed them. And the album was their most polished since 2002, just 10 songs in 45 minutes. And yet rather than being a return to roots or a new pop frontier, it’s just plain. It feels downbeat, nondescript, as long as any other Queens album because it just has so little to truly care about.
Song for the Deaf: “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” wins a raspberry for, at track three, being the earliest dull moment on any Queens of the Stone Age album to date. It’s not that Josh Homme seems incapable of an arresting piano lament, it’s that this one feels so by the numbers.
Covered in Hair: Ballads are never Josh Homme’s strength, and yet they dominate …Like Clockwork, so something’s bound to stand out, and that would be the closing title tune, which plays out like Harry Nilsson’s “One” on peyote. The guitar break’s one of this band’s most beautiful for sure.
Turnin’ on the Screw: Usually Josh Homme can be sexy when he’s stuck in a dirge he can’t get out of, but for all the slowed-down pacing of his sixth album, it rarely comes near his usual reluctant lubriciousness. So even more lubricious is the strange allure of the tango-influenced single “My God Is the Sun”, one of the more attractive tunes here.
Feel Good Hit of the Summer: “I Sat by the Ocean” sounds like the Cars’ “Good Times Roll”, which must’ve been an inevitability with two of the most robotic bands to ever go platinum.
Lightning Song: “Fairweather Friends” toys with Middle Eastern scales within classic-rock bounds, and it jams like nothing else on …Like Clockwork, despite being the shortest thing on the record. Probably a sign, no?
05. Era Vulgaris (2007)
Go with the Flow: After Lullabies to Paralyze was one of the most jogging-in-place follow-ups to a breakthrough album in recent rock vintage, Josh Homme’s next move was to stick a bunch of needles in the formula. Era Vulgaris is the most dissonant Queens record, full of seasick, twisted melodies and strange harmonies, with the one-note stuff coming as more brutish and battering than robotic. Just compare Paralyze’s propulsive “Medication” with Vulgaris’ downright punishing “Sick, Sick, Sick”, both tracks occupying the same spot and function in their respective track listings. The intentionally soured tone of many of the tunes is matched in turn by some of the prettiest, most layered vocals Homme has ever put in one place. Their most underrated album, and its B-sides — including Elliott Smith’s “Christian Brothers”, Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”, and Tom Waits’ “Goin’ Out West” — may be even better.
Song for the Deaf: “Suture Up Your Future” is just more proof that Homme’s croon is rarely attached to a memorable ballad, no matter how well he tracked his harmonies here. To his credit, the master of “robot rock” couldn’t be further from his signature motorik drone when the tune in question resembles Pink Floyd this closely.
Covered in Hair: The paint-peeling scrapes of “I’m Designer” may be the most discordant math-noise this band’s ever attempted. Give it time, however, and it’s a prime example of why the band’s hardest-to-take record becomes their biggest grower.
Turnin’ on the Screw: Remove all distortion pedals from “River in the Road”, so all that’s left is Homme’s Mobius-strip singing, creeping orchestration, and the intense build of the drums — sounds kind of like Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, doesn’t it? No, seriously!
Feel Good Hit of the Summer: “3’s & 7’s” was one of the only obvious singles from this battery-acid-soaked opus (one song’s actually called “Battery Acid”), and the push-pull of the squealing riffs actually sounds like Homme’s dueling impulses towards chaos and hit-single disciplines duking it out in real time.
Lightning Song: The bendy screech of stomping opener “Turnin’ on the Screw” writes checks the rest of Era Vulgaris can’t quite cash, and Homme’s resemblance to Alice in Chains’ chief hook machine Jerry Cantrell on the chorus is almost as welcome as the loop of a Vespa-revving riff that lasts from approximately 3:30 to 4:30.
04. Queens of the Stone Age (1998)
Go with the Flow: The debut of Josh Homme’s life project lays out the basics as well as you’d hope from a low-stakes debut. As touted by his adoring press that soon became an enduring audience, yes, this is the Neu!-meets-Motörhead fusion of dreams. The songwriting got both better and worse from here; Queens’ eponymous debut sits almost too perfectly between their better albums and their weaker ones as some kind of Switzerland. A handful of its songs deserved a longer shelf life, but its mastery of a rounded, warmly fuzzy, yet squealing guitar tone that would become Homme’s signature is forever.
Song for the Deaf: The spooky, six-minute instrumental march “Spiders and Vinegaroons” is actually good, so you’ll zone out in the best way, preferably with your mind-altering substance of choice and a comfy piece of furniture nearby. It was these guys’ intro to space-rock on an album that otherwise made a point of showing how lean and tight it was. Then, four minutes in, comes the clavinet. Not your father’s Hawkwind, indeed.
Covered in Hair: The Zappa-goes-Can craziness of (yet another instrumental! Who were these guys, Tortoise?) “These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For” actually dabbles in something jazzy, with strange scales and time-signature fuckery that highly rebukes the one-chord repetition that would become the dominant signature of Queens songs.
Turnin’ on the Screw: The opening, machine-like stitching of “Regular John” sets the tone for Homme’s contrasting vocal and guitar attack for the next two decades: ceaselessly hammering at one chord juxtaposed with a jolting softness over top. Pairs perfectly with his leather get-ups.
Feel Good Hit of the Summer: With its punishing breakdowns and sudden key changes, “Avon” is a strange pick for the debut’s poppiest tune, but those verses have the most painless melody here; you can even hum along with the guitar solo. And how about those “do-do-dos?”
Lightning Song: Homme found his haunted, highly un-macho voice by gliding effortlessly over the squall of an atom bomb like “How to Handle a Rope” — like hard rock’s always been this neat and tidy.
03. Villains (2017)
Go with the Flow: Fans loved …Like Clockwork, but for Josh Homme, the renewed interest signaled a vested interest in doing something different, maybe because it featured neither his best tunes nor his best riffs. So Villains, the band’s first album in four years, markedly aims for both and comes closer to succeeding than anything else he’s done since Songs for the Deaf. It also attempts something new at the same time: danceable tunes, inspired by producer Mark Ronson.
Song for the Deaf: What kind of Queens of the Stone Age album would this be without a nearly seven-minute theatrical jam like “Un-Reborn Again?” Except this time it’s played on synths.
Covered in Hair: If the close-miked, sun-fried backwards-then-forwards riffing of “The Evil Has Landed” doesn’t break your brain, you may already be part vegetable.
Turnin’ on the Screw: Six-minute closer “Villains of Circumstance” may have been kicking around for years, but we finally get to hear this unusually brooding shuffle in all its rippling, Tears for Fears-aping glory on Villains. Homme’s tempered vocal sounds positively vampiric, yet it’s hard to break the spell.
Feel Good Hit of the Summer: Well, it sure ain’t reluctant at this point, but with guitars processed so unrecognizably they squelch like synths and with handclaps practically begging for David Lee Roth, first single “The Way You Used to Do” bounces quickly into view and stays there. And here you thought “No One Knows” was a fluke.
Lightning Song: It’s hard to deny the sheer kinetic force of opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me”, whose chords jump up and down like fucking Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” or something. Queens have claimed to groove for years, but this is something else: an anti-gravity stampede. It ushers in the true comeback album that …Like Clockwork only lived up to on paper.
02. Songs for the Deaf (2002)
Go with the Flow: For most fans, this is the classic. It’s got the hits (“No One Knows”, “Go with the Flow”), the videos (same songs), the conceptual through-line (those faux radio DJ interstitials), and most importantly, a revolving chamber of bandleaders besides Homme to do the heavy lifting he’s attempted at his peril for the last 15 years; Nick Oliveri and Mark Lanegan handle two of the absolute best tracks, as they did on Rated R. But it still folds inward from the previous album, reducing the promise of a far more interesting and eclectic band to a handful of killer choruses (“Do It Again”, “The Sky Is Falling”), riffs (“No One Knows”, “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire”), and an epic or three (“Song for the Deaf”, “Mosquito Song”). They’re checking off boxes rather than creating new ones, and just because most every song is good doesn’t mean more than a handful are great. And then they even stopped checking boxes.
Song for the Deaf: Six minutes of “God Is on the Radio”, per usual with this band’s six-minute odysseys, is too many, even if the Zeppelin-esque blues riff here grounds it and hypnotizes you for at least half its runtime. But it’s indicative of the slight decline in this album’s overshooting.
Covered in Hair: The lovely closer, “Mosquito Song”, gives a whole new generation its “Planet Caravan” and adds folksy accordion to boot.
Turnin’ on the Screw: Surprisingly, the Gary Glitter stomp of “Do It Again” gives way to one of Josh Homme’s sliest deliveries. The chorus is even more seductive, and wow, is that a great bridge, too? The man’s got a hell of a falsetto when he wants to use it.
Feel Good Hit of the Summer: Everyone knows this one, and it deserved every dollar of its MTV and rock radio reign in 2002. “No One Knows” is a tight, forcefully chugging classic driven as much by its unexpected guitar fills as Dave Grohl’s virtuoso pounding. It’s not hard to see why this tune alone drove people to call Songs for the Deaf the masterpiece it isn’t quite.
Lightning Song: While Deaf’s got plenty of strong moments, it never really improves on that opening one-two of Nick Oliveri’s planet-incinerating “Millionaire” and Homme’s baby, “No One Knows”. The Mark Lanegan-sung laser beam that is “Hangin’ Tree” is one of its more unsung high points, though.
01. Rated R (2000)
Go with the Flow: Josh Homme isn’t a genius, but he nailed a sound and market share coveted by many, and unlike similarly positioned heroes like Muse or the Black Keys, he actually did have one magnum opus in him. Rated R is one of the best rock albums of the 2000s and one of the most excellently produced ever. It’s shrewdly edited, boldly written, funny as fuck, and (take note, everything that’s come since) every single track feels completely different. Homme went to great lengths for this multi-faceted monolith, and it helps that it’s not all his baby. Nick Oliveri carries just as much of the artistic burden on his bracing contributions, which even include a great ballad that for some reason was never released as a single (“Auto Pilot”). There isn’t a wasted second on Rated R, and that’s saying a lot for two stoners from the desert who’d yet to show anything resembling discipline.
Song for the Deaf: Every song on Rated R is a marvel, even the two-minute tantrum (“Quick and to the Pointless”) and the two-minute instrumental respite (“Lightning Song”), but it’s the circus-like closer, “I Think I Lost My Headache”, that will stone you immaculate, particularly as the rock band winds down into a swamp of confused brass, who blow on until the record ends.
Covered in Hair: “Monsters in the Parasol” is the reason this category exists, a montage of paranoid visions delivered with the wryness of Primus and the sure-footed drive of the Ramones. “I seen some things I thought I’d never saw/ Covered in hair,” goes one of Josh Homme’s most memorable lines ever, and you wonder why he never entered this psychedelic-comedy mode ever again, aside from some smirking song titles.
Turnin’ on the Screw: You try not having a down-low tryst with Homme after he debuted his ghostly high range on minor hit “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret” over that palm-muted crunch and those chilly vibraphones.
Feel Good Hit of the Summer: This band’s downright loveliest song by a gigantic margin is the near-uncategorizable “In the Fade”, which is almost a funk-lite R&B song, sung by Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan of all people. None of the people involved ever made a song this poppy ever again, which is a shame, though it’s not hard to see why they might have felt they could never repeat it. Skeptics of this band should proceed directly to this song, if only to hear what they had the potential to do more of. But “In the Fade” is a left-field classic and deserves every bit of the praise heaped on “No One Knows”.
Lightning Song: Nirvana had “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the Ramones had “Blitzkrieg Bop”, and Queens of the Stone Age managed to come up with a theme song shorter than the latter and with fewer chords than the former, while impressively having markedly fewer brain cells than both. No one else could’ve come up with “Feel Good Hit of the Summer”, the greatest seven words Josh Homme, Nick Oliveri, and Rob Halford will ever recite. The skull-melting mini-solo in the middle, the piano plinking, the Rocky Horror-esque backup choir, and that very first joyfully deadening B chord, all in the service of “Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol / C-c-c-c-c-cocaine.” It’s a sight to behold, for the ears. It’s rock’n’roll in its filthiest and funniest form.