After more than a decade of robotically calling Appetite for Destruction the “best album ever!!” I was jonesing for something fresh. A friend turned me on to Queens of the Stone Age in the Y2K era and to this day, I’m glad he did.
While QOTSA’s “cocaine pop,” “stoner metal,”, “doom metal” and “desert metal,” (oh – let’s not forget, a “poppier” Soundgarden(!)) labels intrigued me, what really piqued my interest was the band’s rock pedigree. Front man Josh Homme’s former association with early 90s’ sludge-metal monolith, Kyuss, probably my all-time favorite musical act, set my expectations at an almost impossible level. I expected Rated R to wow me and it did. But not at first and not in the way I anticipated.
Expecting to hear down-tuned Sabbath-like riffs on every track, I was surprised by Rated R’s dearth of saturnine molten guitar chords that were Kyuss’s signature.
It took about six full listens to truly appreciate Rated R musical depth and reach. The album defies pithy categorization, with nearly each song demonstrating a different genre.
There’s the punkish/garage-band jams “Feel Good Hit of the Summer”- an ode to recreational pharmaceuticals – and “Quick and to the Pointless” – a Ballroom Blitz-type number complete with electro handclaps and a “yeah yeah yeah” cheerleader chorus.
The album also offers pseudo-psychedelic offerings “Auto Pilot”and “Better Living Through Chemistry” – a trippy track with aural fits and starts that’s suffused with fuzz guitar and meandering bass lines. “Better Living”‘s polished and timeless percussion stands out, too.
There’s the Top-40 pop confection “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret.” It’s the one you’d likely karaoke to and, to me, evokes Disraeli Gears-era Cream; what with it’s fat guitar chords and a catchy chorus.
“In the Fade” is an atonal, darkly-tinged track sung hauntingly by the haunting Mark Lanegan (he of Screaming Trees fame). ” Leg of Lamb” features a quirky guitar hook that serves as counter-point to the song’s hypnotic vocals and disturbing lyrics.
“Monsters in the Parasol,” often QOTSA’s live opener, plays as a straight-forward rocker complete with non-sequitur lyrics that are apropos of the song’s acid trip aesthetic. (“Paul’s dead, he’s warped and bubbly; oh well.”)
After choking down the acoustic filler “Lightning Song,” I settled in for what I now know is the album’s crowning moments.
When the UK rock magazine NME called Tension Head one of the greatest rock songs ever “realised,” I dismissed it as across-the-pond hyperbole. But it’s actually not. ‘Tension’ starts with a biting, down-tuned guitar intro (think accelerated “Into the Void”) then morphs into all-out death-metal cochlear assault overlaid by bassist Nick Oliveri’s guttural howls. The song’s searing fretwork and frenzied bass runs make this Rated R‘s high point.
I Think I Lost My Headache the final track, is the record’s second shining moment. The track begins with a clean, haunting riff reminiscent of early Soundgarden/late Sabbath and features brilliant use of steel drums. ‘Headache’ also features flawless off-note percussion (think A-game Neil Peart), a crunchy guitar hook and Josh Homme’s signature falsetto.
It’s a pity “Headache”‘s final moments are hijacked by a monotonous horn section playing on a continuous loop. This questionable recording studio gambit detracts from a song that has all the makings of a (pre-horns) magnum opus. By my count, Rated R features eleven songs with about as many musical styles. It lives up to the hype that precedes it and showcases the band’s varied talents and influences.
While QOTSA isn’t Kyuss (a sui generis band imho), Rated R stakes out some unique territory in rock ecosystem. Josh Homme and crew clearly cement their status as top-level rock architects.