In the upside-down dream of stoner rock, everyone is, well, pretty stoned, man. In this hallucination, a guitar band of enormous heaviness plays furiously for fans in the California desert, jams hauled out, once again, in the tradition of ’60s and ’70s headbangers. Old hot rods and vans are parked in the sand. Alcohol and drugs seize the air. Total abandon.
That’s the goal; there are few if any plans. Stoner rockers naturally disdain them, like the smooth sounds radio hits use, because plans seem connected to the scheming world of money and propriety and SUVs that this gnarly congregation longs to evade or ignore or reform. Unalloyed grimness doesn’t entirely rule: The Orange County band Fu Manchu recently made an entire album about vans, a project that couldn’t suppress a grin or two. And the New Jersey crew Monster Magnet has rolled the stoner rock sensibility into something approximating hits, offering—like grunge, stoner rock’s ultimately better-heeled yet more purely miserable predecessor—a distorted pop smoke.
Josh Homme is the high legend of the genre. As a teenager, the singer-guitarist ran Kyuss, whose albums succeeded in appearing to just be, in satisfyingly dramatic and arresting ways, stoner rock. This was doubtless because, when Homme did Kyuss, he and his other guys were a whacked-out summation, content merely to exist sonically: a harsher-minded, blissed-out Hawkwind for the no-worries generation.
Things changed on Queens of the Stone Age, the memorable 1998 album Homme made after Kyuss broke up, and they have changed again with R (or Rated R, as the band’s press bio calls it), Queens of the Stone Age’s follow-up. Like the debut but with added authority, R shows off a gift for sonic arrest and formal restlessness rare any time, any place. It indicates that Homme may well end up a high legend beyond stoner rock. There are times on R that you think you’re in the presence of the most transporting arty guitar music since My Bloody Valentine; at a minimum this is rock production to rival the dark sophistication of Soundgarden’s Superunknown.
Plans? Homme hardly dismisses them on this album. The first thing you hear on “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” R‘s opener, is an unapologetic arrangement. While a burly guitar bites into a more sharply toned Ramonesy rhythmic drive, Homme repeatedly chants, for unspecified reasons that nonetheless seem drastically clear, “Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol.” You wonder, as some guy named Craig told me, which lyric radio or MTV will delete to render the track programmable. Will nicotine live and Valium die? Alcohol stay and ecstasy get bleeped? But that, at any rate, as Homme’s guitars stutter and stop and slide into flared solos, is the tune; call it a celebration of his buddies’ refreshments, or a parody of the breadth of his field’s presumed subject matter, whatever. Either way, it works, because the music is so rich and alive. Minimal, but also enormous—like, of all people, the late-’70s English art-punk band Wire.
On “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret” and “Leg of Lamb,” Homme—who, with bassist Nick Oliveri and a few guests like ex-Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, is, on this album, Queens of the Stone Age—also keeps a tight leash on weirdly resonant things. “Secret,” which bops along on a guitar line that threatens to go finely superpop, asks someone to make sure something remains unsaid; “Leg of Lamb,” which opens with the observation “You’re a head case with a smile,” sketches out a guy-girl situation “so strange,” as Homme deadpans, “it’s a TV show.” The chorus almost jangles.
A lot of the music on R almost does things but, in the end, doesn’t. “Auto Pilot” almost leaps headlong into a ’70s Southern rock vibe. But Homme subtly steers this meditation on flying—somewhere . . .with someone . . .—away from any particular style. It’s just a groove set loose, complete with choral harmonies that show up out of nowhere, sounding offhandedly divine. Even “Monsters in the Parasol,” where Homme ascends right into rock-and-roll heaven, cataloging a lot of stuff he’s seen and thought that is “covered in hair,” talking about the alien family of some guy named Paul, stops its ur-groovy verses cold, pulling them back and forth, bouncing them in and out of choruses all crisscrossed and angular. As Homme sings in the tune: Oh well.
One more thing. Though R is almost a stoner rock album with enough unique touch and architecture to impress a Massive Attack fan, its largely instrumental last third does something else. It follows up more seriously on the compositional ideas that, more casually deployed, animated Queens of the Stone Age’s debut. “I Think I Lost My Headache” even ends—climaxes the album, in fact—on a longish stretch of Art Ensemble of Chicago-style avian brass. This pushes, without a doubt, the upside-down dream of stoner rock—so hard, in fact, that an Ohio record seller tells me that the style’s faithful find R distressing. But then, pushing hard is exactly what Josh Homme does so fucking brilliantly throughout the whole album, man.
Queens of the Stone Age play the Bowery Ballroom July 15.