Queens of The Stone Age’s “…Like Clockwork” (2013)

It’s been six years since Queens of The Stone Age released “Era Vulgaris” back in 2007. Now they’re back, and it’s awesome. I last “heard” front-man Josh Homme back in 2009, on Arctic Monkeys’ “Humbug” which he produced. Coincidentally, Queens of the Stone Age are touring Australia and New Zealand this coming March with another band I last heard in 2009, Nine Inch Nails.

Q: In a year of comeback albums; where does Queens of the Stone Age’s “…Like Clockwork” (2013) fall?
A: Somewhere near the top.

The concise ten-track album sounds different than Queens of the Stone Age’s past material, in a good way though, in the way that a band should experiment, change, and improve over the course of six years. The band has always had a broken-machine-like quality to their sound; something about the heavily distorted guitars staying on such impeccable timing sounded like machinery, but in deviating from the timing, finding funky, catchy rhythms, and dissonant sounds, that’s where Queens of the Stone Age finds their appeal. Not unlike the robotic duo Daft Punk that happened to find their humanity in 2013, Queens of The Stone Age sounds more alive than ever here on “…Like Clockwork.”

“Kalopsia”  starts off the second half of the album with the pulse of a breathing machine. And perhaps Josh Homme’s time with Arctic Monkeys was a learning experience as well as a mentoring of sorts, as the peaceful piano and harp-like heavenly guitars paired with the prettier notes of Homme’s voice seem more out of Arctic Monkeys’ playbook than Queens of The Stone Age’s. Of course, everything beautiful falls apart, and the album’s thematic battle between hope and despair wages on, with the band’s old dark sounds (slightly-off guitars, distortion, unrelenting noise) clashing with the new sounds (pianos, falsettos, acoustics, orchestra).

From the album’s third track: “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”
“I’m alive – hooray! / You’re wrong again / ‘Cause I feel no love”

“My God Is The Sun” the fifth track on the album is a personal highlight for me. Outside of the thematic elements of the album, the song is catchy, has a really nice rolling bass, an energy you can really feel, drum breaks; the kind of track that I can see myself playing intensely along with on guitar in the privacy of my own bedroom. I spent so much time playing along with tracks from “Era Vulgaris” (2007) and “Songs for the Deaf” (2002), and I’m glad to hear that “…Like Clockwork” will give me the same emotion-venting satisfaction.  “Smooth Sailing” finds a funky rhythm after a malfunctioning electronic introduction, and “Fairweather Friends” determines that gossip, drugs, and snakes are the friends that get us back into bed.

Title song “…Like Clockwork” hits you with the heavy emotions and really shows off all of the good things that Queens of The Stone Age have have learned to do over the years. Josh Homme almost sounds like Damon Albarn, in the album’s conclusion, and the song just encapsulates the feeling of surrender so well. It really captures the theme I was getting at earlier, that I think you can find through the album, everything beautiful and quiet about the beginning gets sledge-hammered by the familiar sounds of the band’s past music, and when the song returns to the beautiful, it’s not without the ominous march of the noise behind it. The friends that have told me that “…Like Clockwork” might be the best Queens of The Stone Age album might just be right, though I’m not going to start ranking things, I have to say – it’s a damn fine album.

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Arctic Monkeys’ “AM” (2013)

I’ve listened to Arctic Monkeys roughly since 2005 or 2006. A lot was happening in that time: I got my an iPod Video, and made a lot of dumb purchases on iTunes. I made lots of one-off single purchases of songs I don’t think I have stored on any devices anymore, I bought South Park Season 10 digitally so that I could watch the Cartoon Wars episodes, I bought the Season Two finale of Lost. I started telling people that I liked “Alternative music,” whatever that means. I listened to and bought a lot of Bloc Party and Arctic Monkeys, I started surrounding myself with anything that iTunes labeled as “Alternative” and came from the U.K. It was a great time to be a fan of Arctic Monkeys because it felt like they were releasing a Single or an EP every few months, though that meant I had no reason to buy their first album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” (2006) which featured most of the songs I already owned. Wisely “Leave Before The Lights Come On” (2006) didn’t feature any tracks that spoiled that surprise that was “Favourite Worst Nightmare” (2007) which I enjoyed. But in the time between 2007’s “Nightmare” and 2009’s “Humbug” my love for Arctic Monkeys cooled. In the midst of developing my love for artists like Beck, and They Might Be Giants, my music tastes shifted in such a way that the pure energy of the early Arctic Monkey’s catalog wasn’t my thing anymore. Arctic Monkeys’ “Humbug” (2009) reflected this shift in my musical taste, by showing that the band had the capacity to show down, and get dark, with the help of Queens of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme. I neglected to listen to the band’s fourth release, “Suck It And See” (2011), but now that 2013 is coming to a close, I thought I’d give the band’s latest and commercially greatest album had to offer. After this lengthy pretext, and without further adieu, this is what I thought about “AM” (2013).

It’s hard to say how much the band has changed in the last four years, since I’m missing an entire fourth album, but roughly speaking, “AM” sounds a lot like “Humbug,” and I still don’t know what to make of that observation. On one hand; I think it’s cool that after going years without listening to the band that they still sound familiar to me, on the other hand I was expecting something more after all of these years, and after all of the noise about “AM” being the band’s greatest commercial and critical success.

Sonically the album explores places the band’s been before; guitars in the fat of the fuzz and thick bass lines, but the band reaches uncharted territory by including pianos, organs, octave pedals, and a Blood Orange-like amount of plucky, reverb guitar parts. “One For The Road” stands out vocally, as Josh Homme’s backing vocals are chilling underneath the fast tongue of Alex Turner. Thematically, the first half of “AM” feels largely on edge, creepy, cool, dark, that sort of thing. I was getting tired of it by track five, “I Want It All” and it just so happens that track six is where my opinion of the album starts to turn around.

Arctic Monkeys have always done beautiful well, and “No. 1 Party Anthem” is no exception. Their brand of sleepy guitars, with Turner’s rocking crib of a voice, have always been amazing – but they’re the reason to come to “AM,” the highlight, the thing that Arctic Monkeys have taken to the next level. “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Mad Sounds” following it, pierce the dark rain clouds floating above “AM” with hope, and light.

“They make you get up and dance, yeah they make you get up, out of nowhere somebody comes and hits you with an, Ooh la la la la”

This mid-album burst of energy is put to good use, launching into the funky number “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and the return of Homme in “Knee Socks” before tying the knot of the album, thematically. Arctic Monkeys started by asking “Do I Wanna Know?” (a catchy opening song) and followed up with “R U Mine?” (and although it looks like a twelve-year old’s text, the song broached the dark and mature). By “Knee Socks” we were in the midst of assumptions, break-ups, asking what could have been, and so to close the album on “I Wanna Be Yours” feels right, like the last step of the album’s arc – starting with the desire to possess, and ending with the desire to be possessed.

I’m glad Arctic Monkeys are still around and making music. “AM” was a good listen; it reminded me of what I loved about the band, and showcased how they were developing their strengths. But without knowing what “Suck It And See” sounds like, it’s hard to say whether the band is stuck in gear, or whether this fifth album was just a return to style and themes of old.