Queens of the Stone Age … Like Clockwork

Queens_of_the_Stone_Age_-_…Like_ClockworkFor the sake of this discussion, let’s just say that there is a particular approach to writing and recording Rock music that began with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Both bands started in ’68, one in London, one in Birmingham, so I’m not going to attempt to split hairs with which came first. For our purposes here we’re more concerned with the arc of their careers anyway, so for the time being, in spite of how we might regularly weigh in, let’s just consider both bands as equals, it will make everything easier. And of course with that being said there is one more little caveat to address before we go any further.

Let’s set the record straight – in opening this review with the kind of contemplations of rock’s history as you see above it must be said that I am quite obviously abbreviating things in order to get to a particular point. I do not mean to infer that if there was a method by which we could actually trace the genome of music to its source that bands like the Beatles and even the Beach Boys wouldn’t pre-date this conversation’s building-block bands in a cataloguing of Rock and Roll’s DNA. But even as the Zep/Sabbath paradigm is a ripple that emanates out from those earlier, ground-breaking groups, historically speaking we must at the very least concede to the idea that those groups did not do for Rock music what Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin did.  The Beatles and the Beach Boys certainly did not adhere to classic song structure for all of their career, but they also did not eschew it in quite the same way that Sabbath and Zeppelin did. Thus, I propose that one could say there is an entire pantheon of Rock music that has been specifically influenced by these two powerhouse groups. Epic songs; longer, more-inventive structures. The idea that you can make a song something more than a song; you can make it literature. Alice in Chains and Soundgarden are both great examples of the evolution of this Zep/Sabbath literature paradigm. Queens of the Stone Age  is also one of those bands. And nowhere is that “Literary” heritage more evident than on Queen’s new record …Like Clockwork. I’m not saying it’s my favorite QOTSA record – Rated R has held that spot since the first time I heard it and Era Vulgaris has been a close second since its release in 2007. I’m not sure where this one falls in the hierarchy just yet, but favorite or not, it’s quite possibly the best.

First of all, I was not prepared for the extremely revealing vocals Josh Homme does here. There has always been a sly skepticist’s removal to his vocals that are often replaced with what could almost be considered heartfelt pleas and genuflections on this new record. That’s not to say there’s not a good time going on here – Smooth Sailing is as much Revolting Cocks as it is ZZ Top, and how could anything befitting that admittedly oblique comparison not be the soundtrack to the kinkiest, most drug-infested party in town. And lead single My God is the Sun slams in the tradition of The Sky is Falling from 2002’s Songs for the Deaf. However, on …Like Clockwork the good times and rowdy debauchery are flawlessly juxtaposed with tracks like The Vampire of Time and Memory, I Appear Missing and the title track, all of which operate on a very acute and personal level of heartfelt human emotion. And yes, obviously a lot of music operates on that level, but here those emotions pertain to a specific connection that myself and many of the bands’ fans may be able to relate to.

Middle age. Not necessarily your typical topic for a Rock and Roll record, but then as I hope to show, this isn’t so much a record as a work of literature.

This metaphor I’m selling really settles into play in the way that the band relates the ten chapters, or songs if you will, on …Like Clockwork. Take for example track six, Kalopsia. All of the parts of the song work together in a way that creates a very definitive space within the listener’s head – not just to get your toe tapping or your head bobbing, but to construct a scene. Like a transitory chapter in a novel, the verses of Kalopsia lilt away from us like a voyage along a lazy river, suddenly interrupted by choruses that rise from that romantically serene extrapolation to big, noisy cacophony. The ying and yang of a great song or a great narrative. And yet it’s the little production accents, like the literary flourishes of a prosaic master such as John Irving or David Foster Wallace, that really add the dimensions that bring us back around to that Zeppelin/Sabbath paradigm – the raw, jagged way in which those big, distorted chorus guitars come in, the subtle reflections of the reverb on Homme’s vocals or even the anticipatory heartbeat that throbs through the song that really transmute this track into something more than a song – into a story. A story that, like the other nine stories on …Like Clockwork, works as a chapter in an overall whole. Zeppelin perfected this kind of thing on their later albums In Through the Out Door and Presence. Sabbath most especially on Sabotage. And Queens nails it here on …Like Clockwork.

The day of the record’s release Josh Homme was on KROQ’s Kevin and Bean show, where  he talked about how the doctors “lost him” for two minutes during knee surgery. I was startled by this, most especially by the way in which I didn’t get a real sense of reaction from Homme on such a massive life event.

You get that reaction and the stoic contemplation it causes it on this record. It’s life approaching death. It’s youth sliding into age. It’s, as Homme says on the eponymous album closer, “all downhill from here.” Maybe life is, but the art created as a result of that sentiment?

Astounding.

My review has been a lot of allusion and metaphor. That’s what we do, those of us moved to try and transmute our experiences with others’ art into something tangible for others to regard and hopefully relate to. But there is a dark, listless uncertainty that hangs in all of …Like Clockwork‘s corners and obscures the borders of how our uppity rock vernacular will be able to define this record – and that’s good. With …Like Clockwork Queens have once again created a masterpiece, only this one comes in at a hefty David Foster Wallace-esque 780 pages – a lot of thought-provoking prose that on previous efforts would perhaps have been delivered in more Chuck Palahniuk-like, staccato rhythms. But it’s been six years, a project with John Paul Jones and a death-experience – Homme has had a lot of time and life experience to dig in and really write his novel – and friends, it’s one hell of a great read.

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

4 Responses to Queens of the Stone Age … Like Clockwork
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