Rock titans Queens of the Stone Age have always touted superb musicianship, continually led by songwriter and guitarist Josh Homme since their 1998 self-titled debut. Homme’s propensity for melodically clean distortion has been present ever since he fronted stoner-rock favorites Kyuss in the ‘80s, and throughout the years with Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures. He has developed an engaging incorporation of sustained power chords and punchy swipes. The result is a darkly empowering sound, yet one also rich with melody and clarity despite its fuzzy distortion. On their sixth LP, their first in six years, Queens of the Stone Age’s album title echoes the band’s workmanlike consistency – Like Clockwork. With Dave Grohl playing drums on six of the ten tracks, a solid percussive backbone presents no issues, nor does the songwriting throughout, which represents some of the most engrossing of Homme’s storied career.
Part of what makes Like Clockwork such a successful and striking release is the use of contrasts all over. Homme juxtaposes light and dark in a truly melodic sense, and this is even apparent from the first three tracks. Opener “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” is an apt opener for the group’s return, their chugging bass featuring alongside dark guitar murmurs and wispy one-noted accompaniments, one of many enjoyable contrasts throughout the album. When “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” seems as if it’s about to explode, squeals of guitar coincide with increased anxiety present in the vocals of Homme and Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, who share a surprising resemblance here. Reverting to a more possessed vocal tone, and then to an enjoyably high-pitched pop air marked by words like “blue sky” and “daydream”, shows the all-over-the-map approach that “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” successfully takes; some vocal and guitar sections are in stark contrast to the preceding and subsequent sections of “Keep Your Eyes Peeled”, but there isn’t a faulty decision to be found.
The next effort, “I Sat by the Ocean”, trades the dark aggressive push of “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” for instantly melodic satisfaction. The verses here are remarkably simplistic, but realizing their primary purpose requires knowledge of the ensuing chorus. As this jumpy verse shifts to a climatic raiser of distorted glee, listeners are treated to one of the most instantly infectious moments on the album. What takes more time to get going is the piano-led quaintness of “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”, and the warbly synths that jolt inward around the one-minute mark. Despite the entry of these uncharacteristic tones, they don’t feel out of place at all – especially when the rhythmic backbone kicks in to help establish a droopy, psych-friendly soundscape, a gorgeous sound echoed later in the equally stunning yet livelier “I Appear Missing”. The restraint in these two psych-oriented tracks is marvelously accomplished, and what Queens of the Stone Age do with the first three efforts is show listeners that they should approach Like Clockwork like a clean slate; throughout the album the group touches on all the edges, light and dark, while maintaining their ferocious trademarks.
Featuring collaborations as diverse as Elton John and Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, there was some initial skepticism that Like Clockwork would sound scattered. That’s not the case at all, though. “Fairweather Friends” and its super-group arsenal show this. John, Mark Lanegan, and Trent Reznor all make vocal appearances, John aptly entering as the keys become more prominent and Lanegan toward the end with his trademark nonchalance. The guitars here are some of the liveliest and most fluctuating on the album, its ear-piercing flexibility akin to early alternative-rock. When this raucous rocker ends abruptly with an “I don’t give a shit about them anyhow,” it reminds of the seemingly effortless nature these musicians have in producing audible energy. Even as the next effort “Smooth Sailing” underwhelms with its straightforward blues-infused fixings, the unbridled energy never seems to stop on the exhilarating Like Clockwork. An uncharacteristically high number of collaborators, at least for Queens of the Stone Age’s standards, does nothing to halt it.
Like Clockwork is a very impressive return for Queens of Stone Age, plain and simple. Its variety is a virtue. Homme touches on borders of psychedelia, with the quaint “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” and mesmerizing “I Appear Missing” stealing the show at points. More prominently and consistently, the eclectic tones and characteristics of Like Clockwork works astoundingly, from radio-ready winner “I Sat By the Ocean” to the highly developmental “Kalopsia”, whose final two minutes of lush trickles and distorted blasts contains more variety and character than most bands’ albums. Although some moments tread on too long, there are no missteps on Like Clockwork. For a band whose sound is clearly defined at this point, Queens of the Stone Age do a marvelous job of extracting every relevant niche for their idiosyncratic alternative-rock sound.