Alt-metal, desert rock, stoner metal….the Queens of the Stone Age wear many shoes and they all manage to fit.
In light of the recent release of their latest LP Villains, I’m going to take a look at the career of the Queens, which IMO has 3 distinct phases – first 3 albums, some wandering in the wilderness for a couple albums, and a rebirth as a band over the past 4 years. However, I am not going to touch on the various precursors and offshoots, since I’m attempting to keep the length here at something shorter than a novel….suffice it to say, that while there’s a lot of grist for the mill with just the Queens’ seven albums as a band, there’s a whole lot of other shit where one member or another was stirring the soup.
Well, I lied, as the initial lineup of the Queens was composed of 3 former members of desert rock/grunge legends Kyuss – main man Josh Homme, bassist/sometime vocalist/lunatic-in-chief Nick Oliveri, and drummer Alfredo Hernandez. Their debut album continues in a somewhat similar vein to that of Kyuss, with the band chasing down THAT GROOVE MAN. I once saw someone say that all music is tension and release; and while I don’t know that I agree with that 100%, it’s interesting to look at songs and see how many do adhere to that template, and boy did early Queens ever….just a droning, propulsive groove on most songs, so that when they changed things up in the chorus or bridge, it hit you like a sock full of quarters. There were even some accusations that the album showed a krautrock influence! (note – I dig on krautrock)
The band has always been Homme’s baby, but while the debut album was written and recorded by Homme with Alfredo Garcia on drum, Oliveri joined and toured to support it and was in the house for the follow-up, Rated R, as was former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan. Here is where the Queens began to coalesce as a band, with both Oliveri and Lanegan contributing songwriting and vocals.
Rated R has a looser, trippier feel – it’s still an album straddling the rock/metal divide, but there’s more instrumental variation and a mellower vibe…well, on some tracks at least, like my 2nd all-time favourite Queens track, “In the Fade”
….though Nick Oliveri, primarily, was still willing to get naked (arrested in Australia for performing sans culottes) and scream:
And in one of those “then, it all came together” instances, Homme, Oliveri, and Lanegan were joined by Dave Grohl and a cast of thousands (Homme has been the only constant in the Queens; a hallmark is the rotating cast of contributors, although the list of official band members has been mostly stable) to record their creative and commercial high point (so far, at least), Songs for the Deaf.
SftD spawned actual hits(!) in “No One Knows” and “Go with the Flow”
Post-recording, drummer Joey Castillo replaced Grohl (who had some other stuff going on, I forget exactly what), and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen (he’s the 3rd guy in the truck bed in the “Go With the Flow” video), musician Alain Johannes and keyboardist Natascha Schneider (who were in their own band, Eleven, who are cool and you should check them out) became Queens.
….but Nick Oliveri was fired from the band. And thus began…
While some question Oliveri’s actual contributions to the Queens, as he hasn’t exactly torn up the music world since he was set loose on his own in ’04, I think he brought a certain edge and energy to the band. While post-Oliveri Queens will never be confused with The Carpenters, there is a certain je nais sais qua on the first 3 albums (the first of which was recorded w/o Oliveri, but don’t distract me with your “facts”) there was a definite metallic edge. Realising that many people would conclude that the Queens would be watered down, Homme rolled with it and opened Lullabyes to Paralyze with a Leonard Cohen-esque track, “This Lullabye”
Even with songwriting from Van Leeuwen and Castillo, Lullabyes and Era Vulgaris feel less like a band and more like “The Josh Homme Project.”
The Queens even had a guest appearance from noted cowbell enthusiast Gene Frenkel
I really like Lullabyes but Era Vulgaris is regarded in my circles as the Queens’ “least good” album – like many lesser albums by great bands, it’s perfectly fine and when it pops up on my playlist, it’s an “oh, hey, cool!” moment, but it’s nothing I feel the need to consciously revisit; or when I do, it’s “maybe I’m underrating this” and then I listen and go “nah, properly rated.”
Still, it kept the Queens’ immaculate record of “fvcking AWESOME track 1s!” intact
Following the tour for Era, the band more or less went on hiatus. Johannes and Schneider had left prior to touring to be replaced by Michael Shuman and Dean Fertita, and everyone took part in side projects, most notable Fertita in The Dead Weather and Homme in Them Crooked Vultures. Natascha Schneider passed away. Josh Homme suffered complications during knee surgery and was brought back from death on the operating table. Some of this was known at the time, some wasn’t, but it all came out in the end that Josh Homme had lost his passion for the band, but after struggling with a long recovery and depression, the Queens were ready to enter
On both the lauded …Like Clockwork and the recent Villains, they feel to me like a band again – a collection of people striving towards a common goal, even though the band is still driven by Josh Homme.
On …Like Clockwork, as usual, there were scads of guest stars; Castillo had officially left the band prior to recording, but he, Dave Grohl, and new drummer split the workload on the skins; Trent Reznor, Elton John, and Jake Shears also dropped by to lend a hand. Old pals Mark Lanegan, Alain Johannes, and Nick Oliveri appeared on a few tracks. Although not a personal favourite of mine, the difficulty lies with me as the general critical reaction was “BEST THING EVER.”
Much the same as the reaction to Villains….I’m still letting it stew; current ranking among QotSA albums is tied for 3rd, behind SftD and Rated R, neck and neck with Lullabyes. But, as the Queens usually do, they open the record like fvcking bosses with the band channeling Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot” in the best way possible
If anyone has read all/most of my Artist Spotlights, there’s probably a deep abiding love of Cheap Trick that comes through; and while the Queens don’t sound like Cheap Trick, aside from playing crunchy, hooky, guitar based rock, they are both what I would think of as “intersectional” bands – instead of being easily classified as “genre X” both are a satisfying gumbo of all sorts of genres. Josh Homme is a great-looking guy with a sexy swagger and Elvis croon, but the band isn’t necessarily built on sex appeal; they definitely appeal to metalheads but they make eminently danceable music. They can be commercial without making you feel like they’re selling out. The music is hard and heavy yet soulful, and their albums are littered with great lyrical tidbits.
Basically, I think if you don’t like the Queens, you don’t like rock.