There seems to be a definite hunger among rock fans/listeners for reference points and comparisons when one seeks to capture the sound (and feel) of a given band.
Before even hearing Queens of the Stone Age, I culled, from divergent sources, the following musical comparisons: Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, The Cult, Danzig, Cream, Soundgarden, Motorhead, Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Radio Head, The Stooges, Ozzy, Kyuss, Fu Manchu, Monster Magnet, Corrosion of Conformity, Marilyn Manson.
Their music was alternately labelled “cocaine pop”, “stoner metal”, “stoner rock”, “doom metal” and “desert metal.” No doubt these labels tailed the band because of QOTSA bandleader Josh Homme’s former association with Kyuss, an early 90s sludge rock (still another label) icon, known for, among other things, playing extended jams in the California desert fueled only by the generator’s power and light.
Given the breadth of these descriptions of the QOTSA sound and genre, and the fact I love many of the aforementioned bands, I was intrigued and expected Rated R to wow me.
That’s not to say I wasn’t taken aback at first. Expecting to hear saturnine Iommiesque guitar riffs on every track, Rated R’s dearth of (but not entire lack of) of those proto-metal, mammoth guitar chords took some getting used to.
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 trippy, psychedelic offerings “Auto Pilot”and “Better Living Through Chemistry” – an aurally fragmented track with lots of fits and starts that’s awash in fuzz guitar and meandering bass lines. “Better Living”‘s polished and timeless percussion stands out, too. Charlie Watts (or, more accurately, Bill Ward) would be proud.
“The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret” is pretty close to a Top-40 pop confection. Which isn’t to say it’s not good. It definitely is.
The song evokes Disraeli Gears-era Cream in tenor and aesthetic, complete with fat guitar chords and a catchy chorus.
“In the Fade” is an excellent track featuring the Screaming Trees (remember “I Nearly Lost You” from the Singles soundtrack?) frontman Mark Lanegan’s baritone haunting the vocals.
Rated R’s “Leg of Lamb” features an atonal, quirky guitar hook and hypnotic vocals (“You’re a head case with a smile”) that mesh well.
“Monsters in the Parasol,” often QOTSA’s live opener, plays as a straight-forward rocker about hallucinations with non-sequitur lyrics that are apropos to the songs acid trip aesthetic. (“Paul’s dead, he’s warped and bubbly; oh well.”
After choking down the acoustic filler “Lightning Song,” the listener should strap in and mentally prepare himself for the album’s penultimate track and heavy (in every sense of the word) aural artillery.
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.
It’s definitely not. A true cochlear assault, the song begins with a biting, down-tuned electric guitar intro (think accelerated “Into the Void”) before morphing into an all-out speed metal assault in which some of the band’s unsavory habits are alternately broadcast and hinted at in a breakneck time signature.
“Tension Head”‘s searing fretwork can (and probably has) cut glass. The song’s megawatt guitar work and frenzied bass runs, complete with Kyuss alum Nick Olivierie’s desperate howls make this the album’s high point and, for my money, should propel “Tension Head” rapidly to Metal God status (if there is such a thing).
Rated R’s final track “I Think I Lost My Headache” is the album’s second most shining moment (after “Tension Head” of course). 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 somgs with about as many musical styles. It lives up to the hype that precedes it and showcases the band’s varied talents and influences.
QOTSA isn’t Kyuss – the band’s inimitable desert rock ancestor. But no one is. Kyuss, or should I say The Mighty Kyuss, is sui generis.
Still, Rated R stakes out its own unique territory in the Y2K rock landscape as Josh Homme and crew clearly cement their status as top-level rock architects.