Alternotunes - ...Like Clockwork
Patrick Shumack / 30 May 2013
Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
I’ll be completely honest. This is a review I was really excited to write, for quite a while. I just couldn’t wait to tear apart the long awaited return of the Queens of the Goddamn Stone Age. And, alas, when it finally arrived, and I finally heard it, the last thing I wanted to do was analyse it critically. I was quite afraid of making a decision. And so, before I wrote this review, I made sure that I had let the album sink in as much as I could. Well, of course, as with any Queens of the Stone Age album, just when you think you have it all figured out…you find another little trick; another little morsel of musical intrigue to keep you guessing, so it could only sink so far.
The long awaited …Like Clockwork is, thankfully, no different. This is an album as deep, dark, dense and twisted as you can imagine. It is both an ending and a beginning, and it somehow manages to both encapsulate everything that Queens have been about since their inception, yet also creates an entirely new musical experience for listeners. Let there be no doubts, this album is a bizarre, horrid masterpiece.
…Like Clockwork, fittingly, begins with “Keep Your Eyes Peeled”; a series of bumps and crashes which lead us into the opening riff - bass heavy, and ominous as hell, as frontman Joshua Homme warns us, “don’t look, just keep your eyes peeled”. This track is as dark and cold as you can imagine, sparse and smoky, until it erupts into a frantic mess of screams, killer basslines, and smooth vocal harmonies. It leads seamlessly into undoubtedly Queens’ next big radio hit, “I Sat By The Ocean”, an easygoing rock song with a hooky, funky slide guitar riff, and crooning falsettos from Homme.
It’s the first track on the album that really hints at the depth and maturity of the songwriting of …Like Clockwork; the chorus hook, “Closer/And closer/We’re passing ships in the night”, a sleek but deep line that gives away so little, but hints at so much. The opening trio finishes with the first taste of one of the albums’ slower ballads, “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”. This track is as dreamy and dark as you can imagine; a classic rock nightmare with capes and bloodied fangs. This song also marks the first appearance behind the drumkit from Dave Grohl, who turns in a restrained-yet-exact performance, with smooth fills that wouldn’t sound out of place on a T-Rex LP.
Three songs in, and we’ve had a brief taste of the musical palette of …Like Clockwork. The short breather we’re given here is a testament to the beauty in the sequencing of this album. The album is built into three blocks - the opening trio, the second trio, and the closing quartet. They flow similarly to acts in a theatre production, allowing us a brief moment to take stock of what we’ve heard before being violently thrust into another beautiful, dark sonic portrait.
The second trio begins with the dark-rock of “If I Had A Tail”, another funky track, driven by hollow drums, disco bass, and a heavy chorus guitar riff. A brief whisper from Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner (one of many guests on …Like Clockwork) is audible as the song closes, and is then shut out by the maracas of “My God Is The Sun”. I won’t say too much for this one, as we’ve covered it previously, but I will say that it’s position in the context of the album gives it an entirely new consistency and thickness.
To close the second trio is “Kalopsia”, a surprising number that I can state, quite confidently, is one of the most surprising and satisfying tracks on the album. Surprising, because it’s like a sweet cover version of a mid-90s track from the Smashing Pumpkins. Satisfying because of its fantastic and explosive chorus, featuring vocals from Joshua Homme’s industrial metal cousin, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.
The closing quartet quite obviously comprises four tracks: “Fairweather Friends”, “Smooth Sailing”, “I Appear Missing”, and “…Like Clockwork”, the title track. It’s a struggle to call this album back-ended, because the opening six tracks are great, but the closing four are incredibly close to perfection.
“Fairweather Friends” begins with a thick but shrill harmony, which is followed by a dirty, fuzzy guitar riff. Homme then asks, “Is there anyone out there, or am I walking alone?” Answering him is the full-chorus reply of not only his band and the huge drumming of Dave Grohl, but also the harmonies and keys of Elton Freakin’ John. This track goes by at a surprising pace, written with odd little pentatonic moments that sound curiously fitting. This is a bizarre piece, which leads just perfectly into “Smooth Sailing”, a song so ballsy and swaggering that it makes you instantly queasy. It’s also got a few of the most hilarious lines that Queens may ever record, such as: “Got my own theme music, plays wherever I are”, and “I blow my load over the status quo”.
The track unravels into one of Homme’s most ferocious and blistering solos on the album, which is sure to melt faces and wet pants around the globe. The outright arrogance and sanctimoniousness of “Smooth Sailing”, is, of course, just a façade; a sardonic self-portrait in the style of John Lennon. In broad strokes it paints the picture of an arrogant rock musician, who is obsessed with his own fame. It’s no secret that Joshua Homme came very close to death a few years ago after a routine surgery went drastically wrong. The album dances around that experience right up until this point, and in the penultimate track, and the spiritual climax of the album, “I Appear Missing”, Homme deals directly with his own personal grief associated with his death.
“Calling all comas, prisoner on the loose, description: a spitting image of me, except for a heart shaped hole, where the love runs out”. These chilling lyrics open “I Appear Missing”, a dense, twisted track, which waxes and wanes almost endlessly, which builds to a close several times, but continues to fall back in on itself. At one stage, it appears the song is about to end, and then the listener is assaulted by a furious drum groove from Grohl, with sharp plucks of guitar strings in the background. The main pattern then returns rather violently, before one final cry of the chorus calls of “Shock me awake, tear me apart”, and just as it seems the song is about to end, a powerful guitar solo kicks in, with Homme desperately proclaiming over the top, “I’ve never loved anything until I loved you”.
The song clocks in at six minutes, and is incredibly exhausting and heavy. This is probably the best song that Homme has ever written, and is, without a doubt, the most personal track on the album.
Rather simply, the album closes with the title track, “…Like Clockwork”, one final ballad that opens with Homme’s vulnerable falsetto and a robotic piano ostinato. I like to think of this song as something of an explanation, affirming that the album is, indeed, about Homme himself: “Most of what you see, my dear, is purely for show, because not everything that goes around comes back around, you know”. New drummer Jon Theodore appears on this track only, which probably means that it was one of the last to be recorded.
This is rather fitting, as it feels like a wonderful ending not only to the album, but also to what seemed to be an extremely tumultuous recording experience. As the track builds to a sharp crescendo, it gently falls again, with the beautifully smooth bass of Michael Shuman taking over briefly. The album closes, rather sadly, with a final statement from Homme, “One thing that is clear: it’s all downhill from here.”
This album is an addictive, yet completely exhausting experience. Not only is it the best Queens of the Stone Age album ever recorded, but it’s also the most difficult to listen to. The usual over-the-top confidence of Homme has all but disappeared, and in its place is a newfound vulnerability, which is evidenced by his devastating falsettos. There are so many high points to the album that it’s almost impossible to mention them all, but I’ll attempt, briefly: the album uses empty spaces expertly to occasionally pause the action and allow the listener to react, showing incredible restraint; the bass work of Michael Shuman is top notch on his first proper recording with the band; the increased vocal range of not only Homme, but also the other band members singing harmony creates a huge amount of opportunities; the obvious influences that are downplayed wonderfully; the understated guest appearances, that add colour and interest; the incredibly dense layers of guitars, keyboards, vocals and atmospheres.
It’s incredibly difficult to call any album perfect, and I am certainly not enough of a critic to claim that this album is, but it is still incredibly hard to fault. Not only does it sound fantastic, but it also tells a heartbreaking and dark story. I suppose, for the Queens of the Stone Age, it’s all downhill from here.
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