Queens of the Stone Age isn’t one of those bands with a long, tidy, unbroken history. The lineup has shifted myriad times since Josh Homme founded the California rock band in 1996. He’s remained its only constant. The band’s core creative force, he has propelled it over six albums with strong songwriting and production chops; a vocal range that can hit falsetto heights or dip to low caressing intones; a cocksure live magnetism that draws attention and gets blood pumping; and a huge backlog of well-qualified support guests to temporarily fill the holes left by departed bandmates. Dave Grohl took on beat-keeping duties in the studio and on the tour for 2002’s Songs of the Deaf, then joined Queens again to lend a hand on sixth and latest full-length, …Like Clockwork, after drummer Joey Castillo exited during recording.
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Bringing …Like Clockwork to fruition was a prolonged endeavor. A touring break followed 2007’s Era Vulgaris, then Homme moonlighted with Grohl and Led Zeppelin legend John Paul Jones in Them Crooked Vultures. The recording process was further held up after Homme flatlined on the operating table during a routine knee surgery in 2010; his brush with death left him bedridden and stewing in bleak thoughts for four months. Queens returned to the road in 2011 behind the re-issue of the band’s 1998 eponymous debut — “just to get back into the groove, get playing, get comfortable, get warm,” bassist Michael Shuman said in a recent interview with CL. Though eventually returning to the studio, the band was faced with a laborious and sometimes tumultuous recording process. “This wasn’t an easy record to make, for anybody, and a lot of times we didn’t know if it was going to get done,” Shuman explained. “It took so long and there were so many obstacles, no one was sure what the outcome would be. I mean, now we’re all looking back with grins on our faces… It was a crazy time, but I’m glad we got it out.”
Guests came and went, providing a respite from grueling 16-hour workdays. “You don’t get to see anybody, you don’t get to play with anyone else,” said Shuman, “so it’s really fun and inspiring to get a friend in there to bring something different to the table.” A few of these guests also provided a much-needed boost during a low point in the album’s creation. “It was right after Joey [Castillo] and us parted ways, we didn’t know if we were going to make it out okay, or what we were going to do. But the next day we got Dave [Grohl] to finish the record with us, which was really gracious of him, and the day after that Elton John was in there. It re-sparked the creative process and feeling happy about playing music and making this record again.”
The essential Queens sound is intact: post-grungy, grinding hard rock with crunchy guitars and relentless rhythmic thrust; shifts into propulsive and densely churning psychedelia; slinky yet assertive stoner grooves with heavy pounding low end. But …Like Clockwork is more restrained and moody than albums past, Homme’s musings on isolation and mortality Homme’s musings on isolation, mortality, the futility of existence and other ominous topics couched in eloquent metaphor: “Holding on too long is just a fear of letting go / Because not everything that goes around comes back around you know / One thing that is clear, it’s all downhill from here” (“Like Clockwork”); “Fates favor the ones / Who help themselves / The rest feel the sting of the lash / As they row... The boat to hell” (“Kalopsia”); “Description: A spitting image of me / Except for the heart-shaped hole where the hope runs out” (“I Appear Missing”).
The album was recognized by critics on numerous Best of 2013 lists (including my own), enjoyed chart-topping success internationally as well as a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200, and earned Queens three Grammy noms, not to mention a slot performing on the 56th annual awards. “Every time I watch it’s a pop and country-driven award show, and rock n’ roll has been kind of left out,” Shuman commented. “I’m really glad that they gave us the opportunity to provide some rock n’ roll for the show. It’s gonna be really special.”
Though Queens didn’t take home any gilded gramophones (defeated in their designated categories by Daft Punk, Led Zeppelin and Imagine Dragons), the quintet did close the Grammys with an aggressive bang, joined by Lindsey Buckingham and fellow nominees Nine Inch Nails (which tour with Queens in Australia this March). Even though it was abruptly cut for commercials, the performance will most assuredly spur renewed interest in Queens, so reserve tickets to the St. Pete date now. It might be the last chance you get to see the band in such an intimate venue.
Show details: Queens of the Stone Age with Chelsea Wolfe, Tues., Feb. 4, 7:30 p.m., Mahaffey Theatre, St. Petersburg, $40.50-$66.50. Purchase tickets here.