Sound — 9
In June 2011, Josh Homme insisted a new Queens of the Stone Age album would be complete by the end of the year. It had already been five years since their last album "Era Vulgaris," but Homme assured fans not to worry; most of the new songs had been written, they just needed a short break to get in a studio and hit the record button. "We're at a weird moment where we really don't feel like we have anything to prove," he said at the time. And then we waited.
With every passing year, perhaps Homme found he really did have something to prove. Everyone knew he was off schedule, and that's before you count the pressure from legal woes with his former bandmates in Kyuss, or the birth of his second child with Brody Dalle.
Now we're in 2013, and "...Like Clockwork" is officially the most anticipated album of the year. Can Homme defeat these pressures and deliver the album of his career?
You've probably seen the lineup of musicians Homme drafted in for the new record, presumably to inspire progress in the studio. We've got Dave Grohl on drums (though he shares duties with ex-drummer Joey Castillo and a new recruitment fresh from The Mars Volta, Jon Theodore), Nine Inch Nail's Trent Reznor, Arctic Monkey's Alex Turner, vocalist Mark Lanegan, ex-QOTSA bassist Nick Oliveri, and even Elton John and Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears. You might expect them to be ushered onto the metaphorical stage for a moment in the spotlight, so it's a relief that they're not wheeled out in this way which would ultimately cheapen the album (save for Reznor's vocal appearance on "Kalopsia" - a jarring moment which sounds out of place). Still, you'd have to reach for the liner notes to know where most of these collaborators really feature.
Album highlights include the opening track "Keep Your Eyes Peeled," a deep cut which you'd normally expect to be buried later in a track list. Instead, QOTSA pull the genius move of setting the scene with this grim, dry song at the opening which warns that you're about to walk deep into the valley of death. Later, you'll be delighted by "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" and its dulcet tones inspired by '70s recordings. You've never heard a snare like this on a QOTSA track, draped here in brilliant brassy synth parts. Next, "If I Had a Tail" has one of the biggest album hooks in its chorus - listen out for the roaring title line and it'll root itself in your head for a week. Towards the end of the LP, Homme's desperate vocal performance in "I Appear Missing" is a triumph, though the 6-minute album version sounds indulgent compared to the snappy 3-minute video edit.
Lyrics — 8
There's little to say about Homme's clear high vocal style which you won't already be familiar with. He's the catchy centrepiece to every song, save for the energetic ballad "Fairweather Friends" which does the rare job of overpowering his with frantic piano and a high-energy rock jamming.
Elsewhere, Homme's songwriting is more introspective than ever; "Does anyone ever get this right? I feel no love," he sings on "The Vampyre of Time and Memory." On "Keep Your Eyes Peeled," the line "If life is but a dream, wake me," dares you to pull the headphones away before diving into the bleak terrain that you're heading towards. And yet, you continue.
QOTSA purists might miss the sheer hedonism of their early records, save for "If I Had a Tail" and its sleazy lyrical exploits (and lines like "Tears of pleasure, tears of pain, they trickle down your face the same" where Homme sounds most at home.) If you're wondering what prompted the shift away from this style, look to "I Appear Missing" for hints that the frontman could be going through changes as a family man: "Prisoner on the Lose. Description: spitting image of me, except for the heart-shaped hole where the hope runs out ... Pieces were stolen from me, but dare I say, given away." The armour on rock's iron giant has finally cracked.
Overall Impression — 9
Fans of the intense, fast-pacing driving riffs of the past should schedule time for a few listens before they pass judgement on "...Like Clockwork." There's little to hint at their stoner rock past on this album, but it never claims to be.
The variety of tone and pace is both this album's strength and weakness; there's not a dull moment as on every other QOTSA albums (and let's be honest, we're often keen to hit skip to get straight to the proper foot-stamping hits), but neither does it offer a storytelling arc that carries you through Homme's personal struggles. It's almost incongruent that they didn't make a full concept album with it.
This brings us back to our opening question: can Josh Homme defeat external pressures and write the album of his career?
The short answer: no. Instead, he's channeled the resulting energy into something more productive. The result is a near-flawless album which will probably remain the defining rock record of the year. Ultimately, "...Like Clockwork" is just the cocoon that Homme will leave behind after changing from rock's ultimate alpha male into the mature, emotionally intelligent songwriter that has waited years blossom.
QOTSA's best work is yet to come. And until then, we'll have "...Like Clockwork" as a reminder to dust ourselves down when we fall off the horse - even when we fall into the shadows.