Sunday, December 8, 2013

album review: ' clockwork' by queens of the stone age (RETRO REVIEW)

For the longest time this year, I ignored Queens of the Stone Age and their newest album entirely.

And really, that was a big mistake, mostly linked to the fact that I had a few major misconceptions about the band that I only really knew from the few singles I heard from Era Vulgaris six years ago. As I've said a number of times, I skipped over most rock throughout the 2000s and jumped straight into metal, and Queens of the Stone Age were one of those bands I just ignored because I assumed they were just another post-grunge or hard rock band that somehow managed to get rave reviews. 

As I said, big mistake, and I've spent the past three weeks listening through the band's discography and realizing the major errors in my thinking. For one, Queens of the Stone Age are one of those acts that really defies genre classification: they've done hard rock, they've flirted with psychedelia and alternative metal, and while they've worked with Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, I wouldn't call them a post-grunge act by any stretch. Also, they're awesome, as in one of the best rock/metal acts of the decade. I stand by my opinion that Era Vulgaris is their worst album, but it's by no means bad (it mostly suffers from the same listlessness that Tonight... Franz Ferdinand had when they made a 'nightlife' album). As to my favourite Queens of the Stone Age record, I'm honestly going to go with Lullabies To Paralyze, simply because the nightmarish fairy tales that Josh Homme wrote about added a lot of twisted flavour to the songwriting, and the album had simply phenomenal grooves and melodies that I really loved.

And thus, having completed my heel-face turn on Queens of the Stone Age, I was psyched to listen through their newest album ...Like Clockwork - albeit six months too late. And I'd be remiss not to mention the importance of this record, or the troubled production process that preceded it. Long-time Queens of the Stone Age drummer Joey Castillo was fired about a third of the way into the recording and replaced by Dave Grohl, and Josh Homme recruited singers like Trent Reznor, Alex Turner, Jake Shears, Elton John, and even former Queens of the Stone Age bassist Nick Oliveri for backing vocals. And this was their first album in six years - did ...Like Clockwork manage to work?

Well, duh, of course it did! This album has been critically acclaimed all year, and it deserves it, because ...Like Clockwork is a great album and one of the band's best (although I don't think it's my personal favourite). And since we've reached the time when critics publish their personal year end lists, ...Like Clockwork is either in the top ten or the comments sections are overloaded with people angry about its exclusion. But since I'm doing this review six months late, there's honestly not a lot I can say that hasn't already been written by dozens of other critics, which means I'd have plenty of cause to just say 'it's awesome' and walk away. But considering how great this album is, I feel obliged to give it my due diligence.

Let's start with the instrumentation and production - and really, if we're looking for an album that could soar on that basis alone, ...Like Clockwork would fill the mold. The greatest strength I've always found with Queens of the Stone Age are the fact they never compromise their melody lines in favour of heavy grooves or breakdowns, although they definitely deliver the former. And since Josh Homme has always had a strong pop sensibility (like his friend Trent Reznor), the moments where these melodies get center stage are where this album really roars to life, with songs like 'If I Had A Tail', 'Fairweather Friends', 'My God Is The Sun', and 'I Sat By The Ocean' rising up with the band's best. I do have some niggling criticisms here - I wish the bass production on a few tracks was a little heavier, there are a couple melody choices that don't quite gel (the end of 'Kalopsia' springs to mind), and the album does take a little time to get going (the opening track 'Keep Your Eyes Peeled' does drag slightly), but those are fairly minor points on an album that has this much swaggering power and the confidence to carry it.

And all of that is carried by Josh Homme's delivery. His voice has only gotten richer with age, and his wide range does wonders for the variety and texture of the album.  The man has always had a lot of charisma and he's smart enough to play things quieter to draw in more attention. One thing is definitely for certain, though: this is Homme's project, and that list of backing players I mentioned earlier can be tough to distinguish in the mix. On the one hand, this makes sense when it comes to the album's theme and progression (more on this in a bit), but on the other hand, it strikes me slightly as a misuse of the talent, and I would have liked to have seen more of them in the mix, or more dynamics between the various singers.

But as I said, this is Homme's baby, and nowhere is that more apparent than in lyrics and themes, both of which are entirely focused on the concept of moving on from the past and the passage of time.  We get flashes of Homme's punk sensibilities with songs like 'If I Had A Tail', viciously satirizing the concept of selling out through comparison with regression to bestiality, but the focus is much tighter on the album as a whole, which pays big dividends in the album's progression from fearful hesitation to confidence and acceptance of change, with the turning point coming at the bleak desert rock-inspired 'My God Is The Sun'. And once that switch is flipped, the change rockets forward and the album breezes through the next four tracks, as Homme deposits needless links to the past in 'Kalopsia' and 'Fairweather Friends'. 

But even then, Homme maintains the fantastic wry nuance that has always characterized his work, with the reflective track 'I Appear Missing' discussing how his acts of moving on can affects those he cares about in his life - even if they don't care initially that he was gone at all. And then it all comes together with '...Like Clockwork', ending with typical Queens of the Stone Age melancholy with some of the best lyrics in Josh Homme's career. And this track does one thing that ultimately elevate it and the album as a whole into something special: it shades the pessimism of 'it's all downhill from here' with richer context, showing that change will be difficult for someone, even if it's not for the one who is changing. And yet, that change is inevitable, and holding on will only make things worse, whether it be for relationships that should have expired long ago or a band changing directions for a new album. In a way, ...Like Clockwork ends up becoming a meta-textual critique of the band's own creative process, and has enough richer nuance to earn its dramatic payoff.

So, in short, I love this album. ...Like Clockwork going to make my year-end list of the best albums of the year, and it'll deserve its high position on that list. Between the phenomenal melodies and grooves, the tone that balances confident acceptance of change with wry observations of its effects and aftermath, and Josh Homme delivering an emotionally compelling performance to seal the deal, this album easily deserves its 9/10. If you haven't listened to ...Like Clockwork by Queens of the Stone Age yet, you're doing yourself a serious disservice, because they aren't just back, they're better than ever. 

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