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The old crack about chivalry says that it isn’t deadonly the people who practice it are. If you believe the hype, the opposite is supposed to be true of hard rock: There are plenty of people out there going through the motions, but hard ‘n’ heavy is D.O.A. when hiphop is the music that matters and teenypop is the rock that rules.
Try telling that to Queens of the Stone Age, who are headlining at the 9:30 Club, fresh off Ozzfest and touring behind the best-reviewed metal-if-you-want-to-call-it-that album in ages. Released in June, Rated R, the band’s sophomore long-player, is a rarity: an indulgent, experimental, special-guest-studded studio extravaganza that actually cohereseven though no two of the disc’s 11 tracks share the same lineup.
The live outfit is a quartet built around the core of guitarist-singer Joshua Homme, who looks rather preppy, like a slumming tennis pro, and bassist-shrieker Nick Oliveri, who shaves his head and boasts chin growth that would do Billy Gibbons proudand who sometimes performs nude, although not tonight. Looking like one of the Orgy guys in street drag, Dave Catching contributes guitar, keyboards, and absolutely twisted lap steel. The drummer seems to be either Gene Trautmann or Nick Lucero (they trade off, apparently), and tonight I think it’s…you know, there’s a lot of fog.
QOTSA kick off with “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” Rated R’s lead cut. The rhythm section pounds in jerky, mathematical unison, and Homme’s guitar swoons like Kurt Cobain’s circa Bleach. Homme pays tribute to what the kids who worshipped him as the mastermind behind early-’90s stoner-rock paragon Kyuss will recognize as the eternal verities: “Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy, and alcohol.” He cranks through the list a few more times. Then former Kyussmate Oliveri leaps in: “C-c-c-c-c-co-caine!” The song’s lyrics never stray from the pharmaceutical. The idea is to dispense with the stoner mystique straight away. And to subordinate word to sound, something QOTSA do better than any other heavies.
For all its righteous sludginess, Kyuss was hobbled by vocalist John Garcia. His phony, preachy, cock-strutting swagger would have bolstered a lesser group, but for the Palm Desert, Calif., foursome it was the deal-breaker. Kyuss split in 1995, citing the usual reasons. Right. For “artistic differences” read: “We’ve gotta ditch this guy.” Homme went on to join Screaming Trees as a tour guitarist (head Tree Mark Lanegan dropped in on the recording of Rated R, taking the lead vox on “In the Fade”), then returned to the desert to head up the round-robin studio tourneys preserved on the six-volume, three-CD Desert Sessions. He then started QOTSA with Alfredo Hernandez, Kyuss’ last drummer, ultimately luring Oliveri back from his stint with the Dwarves.
QOTSA elevate the riff, shucking all the incidentals that have always made metal fandom an adulterated pleasure. There’s no angst, no posturing, no self-pity, no self-aggrandizement, no pandering stage patter, no smarmy showmanshippretty much nothing that doesn’t arise from the music itself. There’s a guest spot (Wool’s Pete Stahl takes the mike) but not a distracting one (Stahl’s former Scream bandmate Dave Grohl stays in the crowd).
Behind the thunder, there’s singingand screamingbut the words are practically unintelligible. You’d have to work hard to dredge up unnecessary verbiage from QOTSA’s murk, and this music isn’t about work; it’s about submission. You give yourself over to the mesmeric noise, letting the rhythm shape your trance. Rated R may embrace genres as unmetallic as dub and out-jazz, but tonight’s stripped-down QOTSA look back to the minimalism of their self-titled 1998 Loosegroove debut. They hit the high points of that record (“Regular John,” “If Only”), then keep channeling its rush.
After the pounding “Tension Head,” Homme flatly declares, “That one was for the boys. Now this one’s for the girls,” mocking the patronizing metal convention of using power ballads to cozy up to the Top 40 in the name of catering to the ladies. To judge from tonight’s evidence, they require no such appeasement. “Autopilot” is as pretty as the proceedings get, however, with Oliveri taking the low line on the Alice in Chains-style vocal harmonies.
Groove ascetics that they are, QOTSA are masters of intensifying pleasure by delaying the payoff. The one time things get ragged and jammy, it’s by design. During the sole encore, Homme pulls the band way back, until it’s nearly inaudible. We all know what’s coming, but we don’t know when. He keeps Oliveri nervously teetering. Eventually, the bassist starts laughinglonger, longerthen…wham.
The walk-off music is “It’s Over” by Roy Orbison, reportedly one of Oliveri’s favorites. Harking back to the music-vs.-language gag of “Feel Good Hit,” the song’s title hook announces the obvious, then deflects attention to soaring sound and the almighty beat. The grateful crowd has gotten what it came for. Throughout the night, people I don’t know have come up to me to tell me how great the show is. I know it; they know it. They aren’t trying to push around the guy with the pen; it’s just that there are precious few truths that can be spoken in the face of the rock monolith. But one is this: We don’t want stupidity, we don’t want poetrywe just want something to melt our heads. CP