The definition of rock and roll has taken some strange twists and turns since the 50s. Nowadays what’s known as “rock” encompasses everything from Radiohead to System of a Down to Green Day. Not surprisingly, this overused categorization is woefully inadequate to describe the music of Queens of the Stone Age.
Since their inception in 1997, the Queens of the Stone Age haven’t made “rock,” they’ve Rocked. Characterized by punchy, driving chords, the Queens’ music is rhythm-driven, toe-tapping, old-fashioned rock and roll. Their latest effort, “Lullabies to Paralyze”, features buzzing, screeching guitars that would surely annoy elderly neighbors. Yet the band’s fourth release, which features an entirely reworked lineup, fails to capture the essential, unbridled energy of the band’s early work.
Cofounder Josh Homme still fronts the band, though little else is left of the original Queens. Founding member and bassist Nick Oliveri was fired, quite infamously, while drummer Dave Grohl (of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame) departed of his own accord. Without Oliveri, Homme is the main creative force behind “Lullabies.” At his best, Homme uses the new freedom to take the band on a relentless tour of musical mayhem, tearing up riffs and gritty bass lines. At the album’s worst, the new lineup sounds out of sync and fragmented.
Homme boldly enters new territory by beginning the album with an uncharacteristically soft acoustic track, “This Lullaby.” Featuring Homme’s solitary guitar and dark croon, a startling contrast to his typically bright vocalizations, the song is a sinister welcome sign.
The foreboding feeling is affirmed in the thunderous second track, “Medication.” A buzzing bass, reinforced by Joey Castillo’s pounding kick drum, provides an electric atmosphere in which Homme’s vision comes to life. The track’s momentum is interrupted by several abrupt diversions before finally crashing to a halt in a little under two minutes.
After a twangy and druggy introduction, the third track, “Everybody Knows That You’re Insane,” picks up where “Medication” left off. In fact, many of the album’s songs have the same fuzzy guitar and bass sounds, which prove in the end to be more of a liability than an asset. But when the omnipresent distortion seeps into the vocals, it allows for a confluence of voices that perfectly suits the Queens’ music.
Homme hits a groove with the sixth track, “In My Head,” slowing the tempo down a bit but without completely losing the fire that powered the earlier tracks. “Head” is a sweet spot on the album, mixing the rocking intensity the band is known for — thanks especially to “No One Knows,” a thumping hit from 2002’s “Songs for the Deaf” — with a pacing that doesn’t trip over its own feet. The album’s first single, “Little Sister,” follows in a similar vein, though not quite as successfully. Featuring a pogoing chorus and a melody doubled by bass and guitar, the song gets uncomfortable towards the end, as the percussion rushes ahead of the rest of the band.
The rest of the album backs off from driving tempos, and Homme turns to more complex, expanded songwriting. Unfortunately, the depressed style awkwardly combines with the heavily distorted instruments, which doesn’t allow for the type of expression Homme tries to achieve. The lackluster “You’ve Got a Killer Scene There, Man” and “The Blood is Love” tend to drag, overstaying their welcomes. “Skin on Skin” is a mess of tortured vocals and plodding, fuzzed-up bass lines that drowns in its own excess. The Queens are at their best when playing tunes filled with manic energy, but when they abandon this style their weaknesses are exposed.
The obvious absence of Oliveri is lamentable, and his agile bass lines are sorely missed. His inventiveness defined many of the band’s songs, “No One Knows” included, and without his contributions to Homme’s songwriting many of the tracks fall flat. Also noticeable is drummer Dave Grohl’s departure; Castillo lacks Grohl’s skill and ingenuity, and he often resorts to recycling beats in order to keep up with Homme’s furious pace. The Queens’ frontman has a lot of ideas, and more than enough talent, but one man’s efforts, however heroic, can’t make up for the sub-par performances turned in by his backers.
And though some of the songs on “Lullabies” are clean and tight, others sound as if none of the musicians know what the others are doing. Sometimes tempos don’t line up — it’s as if the band needed more time to get to know each other’s styles before recording. It is an admirable effort for an essentially brand-new band, but substandard musicianship and dissonant styles prevent Homme from realizing another rock and roll dream.