Queens of the Stone Age plays out like a wrung-out version of Tago Mago.
Okay Josh, I know you don’t like the term “stoner rock,” but have you, like, listened to your music?
Rising from the hashish of Kyuss, young Joshua Homme was a guitarist without a band and ready to take the mic for the first time. While Kyuss explored the sludgy glory extolled by fellow Sabbath disciples Sleep, Homme always secretly had an affinity for (gasp!) pop music. Queens of the Stone Age was made on a lark, Homme playing everything but the drums on their debut, focusing on droney rock music you could shake your hips to. He wasn’t aware of Can or Neu! at the time, so call it delayed convergent evolution, but Queens of the Stone Age plays out like a wrung-out version of Tago Mago.
But Homme’s dislike of the druggy facade may have come from how sinister and smirking the whole record was. Perhaps his sardonic distaste for the “stoner” label came from how many other wondrous trips he could take. It would only be a few years on that he would be cheekily extolling the benefits of “nicotine, valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, alcohol and C-c-c-c-ocaine.” “Mexicola,” “How To Handle A Rope (A Lesson In The Lariat)” and “I Was a Teenage Hand Model” are all finely tarnished with bong water, but brief interludes of madness nudge any drifting space cadet into the abyss. Ignoring the unsettling jaunts “These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For” and “Hispanic Impressions” even the poppiest moments have slabs of bad times imbedded.
Queens would get weirder (Rated R), heavier (Songs for the Deaf) and more experimental (Era Vulgaris) and their self-titled foretold it all. QOTSA might have served as a perfect stepping stone to the drugged-out comedy of Rated R, but it also predicted every strange turn the collective would eventually take. “If Only” was a brief peak at the radio-pop-rock they’d eventually dole out on the regular, perfect fodder for a long drive through the desert with your best friend with benefits. The groaning weight of “Mexicola”’s titanic slink was the prototype for all of …Like Clockwork’s more debaucherous moments and the slamming “Give the Mule What He Wants” was the blues swagger of Lullabies to Paralyze before that was even a twinkle in Homme’s eyes.
In celebrating 20 years of Queens of the Stone Age, it’s easy to see their debut as a showing of promise, rather than a standalone album, but that would be a great disservice. Queens, had it not been for the startling evolution the band soon took on, would be comfortably placed in the pantheon of rock strut. While other bands were literally naming themselves after mustaches (lookin’ at you Fu Man Chu), Homme and his rotating cast cleverly subverted rock’s boring machismo. “Regular John” was a desperate tale of prostitution told from a dispassionate, omniscient narrator, tossing in apathetic descriptions next to the atonal guitar riff. “You Can’t Quit Me Baby” was as pathetic as it was creepy, following a stalker’s descent into insanity and tracing his weakness. “You’re solid gold, I’ll see you in hell,” cooed Homme as his guitar carried him to the seven circles.
Queens would eventually move on to more polished sounds and grandiose scopes, but the sand-blasted, lo-fi sound of their debut remains irreplaceably strange. Homme’s last statement on the album was “The butcher’s got a fork in your face/ I’m standing in line.” “I Was a Teenage Hand Model,” lyrically, was QOTSA’s “Paranoid Android,” watching the washed up, cocained up freaks pleading for attention. But, Homme, being Homme, was less horrified, and more amused by their suffering. “I’m standing in line” wasn’t just a shot at those pigs, but also the legions of hyper-masculine, dumb as rocks metal bands around him, burning out fast with no spectacular flame. Homme, by day one, had cemented himself as the as the joker of rock, ready to laugh as the rest fell around him. So sure, bring out the bong, smoke to your heart’s content, just know Homme was, and is, ready for you, and ready to lead you to a confounding void, all while he cackles.