Much like the retroactively canonized KYUSS (who, lest we forget, broke up in abject misery and neglect!), QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE started out as a well-kept secret amongst in-the-know fans of heavy underground music: the latest incarnation of guitarist Josh Homme's "Desert Sessions", it seemed, and nothing more.
Like Frank Zappa used to put it, they appeared to have "no commercial potential."
But then a strange thing happened: the fledgling group's sophomore album, "Rated R", unexpectedly struck a chord with mainstream indie rock listeners based on the undeniable catchiness and sheer novelty of singles like "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" and "Better Living Through Chemistry" (not to mention the considerable promotional muscle of Interscope Records).
The ensuing half-decade saw QOTSA walking that fine line between cult respect and commercial success with great agility, until 2007's patchy "Era Vulgaris" and the hiatus imposed by Homme's supergroup dalliance, THEM CROOKED VULTURES, brought them crashing down to earth.
So as the band (currently featuring Homme, guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, keyboardist Dean Fertita, bassist Michael Shuman, plus Dave Grohl and others sharing the drum stool) finally unveils its first album in six years, can fans be blamed for not knowing how they even feel about the QUEENS - never mind if they still care?
Well, they'll probably have to devote several listens before getting reliable answers to either of those questions as "...Like Clockwork" first stumbles into view on the lecher zombie legs of opener "Keep Your Eyes Peeled" (a mutant slow blues dredged up from the high desert sands), then gathers momentum on the lopsided surf rock of "I Sat by the Ocean", only to squander it in the languid lounge band curio, "The Vampyre of Time and Memory", which comes complete with frail crooning by Homme.
Next in line, "If I had a Tail" (the first of two songs boasting cameos from former band members Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri) steps up the urgency with its faux-new wave stomp, but it's the ensuing "My God is the Sun" that finally gets the blood boiling and hones in on that focused, eerie power of QOTSA's best days - proof positive that the band's still got that dangerous swagger to them, when they want to show it.
But "...Like Clockwork" refuses to rest on past laurels, for good and ill, and thus "Kalopsia" (guest vocalist Trent Reznor) alternates between Spartan synthetic beats and full-on guitar crunch; "Fairweather Friends" (intro piano courtesy of Elton John!) wraps some of Homme's most emotionally strapped vocals around a baroque guitar riff; "Smooth Sailing" is basically funk and soul distorted through the cracked QOTSA kaleidoscope; "I Appear Missing" a lush operetta with nasty intentions; and the concluding title cut a soothing waltz, arranged with strings and cooed by Homme in his childlike falsetto.
In the end, having properly processed the evidence at hand, one is almost surprised to admit that "...Like Clockwork" winds up succeeding at its novel sonic experiments much better than at first anticipated.
And while it really can't compete with those first few, groundbreaking QOTSA classics, the album does restore the natural order of the band's evolutionary creative arc as though it, and not the aforementioned "Era Vulgaris", should be viewed as the rightful and more worthy successor to 2005's "Lullabies to Paralyze".
And for that we should be grateful.