- by Warwick Stubbs Rating:10 Release Date:2000-06-06 Label: Interscope
It was 2000, August, I was driving to work, I heard a song, a funky shuffle type of guitar groove, descending chromatic chords. I knew this sound. And then there was the voice, the rock tenor, a bit sly, kind of sleazy but without the repulsiveness. It was the first single from Queens of the Stone Age’s second album Rated R. Those were the days when you could hear a single on the radio for the first time without any knowledge of it’s impending arrival – so unlike the world of the internet today. And I loved it. It was sassy, ballsy, dirty – it was ROCK! (It was ‘The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret’.)
Rated R hit the world in 2000 in what, in retrospect, seems like perfect timing. Rock was almost dead. The grunge explosion of the early 90s was lost to history already, R&B and hip-hop were merging, crossing over, and becoming the mainstream stalwarts that they are even now (in one form or another), Metallica were getting lost down the Napster trap, and by October of the same year, Rage Against the Machine – one of rock’s most important and potent bands – had fallen apart; all rock music seemed to be on the way out, or turning into a caricature of what Alternative Rock had started. But rock was born from the underground and continued to strive regardless. When Josh Homme’s band Kyuss broke up in 1996 his near-music-quitting moment was resolved through touring with The Screaming Trees on second guitar and then going on to record some demos under the moniker ‘Queens of the Stone Age’. The momentum was continued with the début album “Q.O.T.S.A.” The band, for the most part, were still underground, or, you could say, just cruising casually along the surface. The début album Homme would refer to as ‘Robot Rock’ saying “I just wanted to start a band that within three seconds of listening, people knew what band it was.”1 These songs lean heavy on repetition, but grooves, riffs, and power chords are all out front.
Rated R took this formula and began adding various substances to it. The opening song ‘Feel Good Hit of the Summer’ is almost a metaphor for the music to follow: “Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol …” It’s the old-school of rock and roll: The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin combined with the raw attitude of Black Flag, and The Stooges. One chord thunders over a pounding beat while second guitar and vocals dive in like a jackhammer of nervous tension. Prior to this album, Homme’s guitar was either hard or heavy; on Rated R Homme’s love of groove shines with less distortion and more staccato mutes: ‘The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret’ bounces through chromatic verses, ‘Leg of Lamb’ laughs drunkenly through a wonky gait, and ‘Auto Pilot’ brazenly accents snare beats while strumming a clean guitar underneath and lead bends to the right. The first half ends with the tripped-out ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’ and nicks the chorus line from Björk’s ‘Crying’ before taking you down a guitar and bass infused journey of scattered thoughts, and then, miraculously, brings the listener back to the start. It’s The Beatles, but more rock, and more focussed.
The second half takes us back to the rock of yore. ‘Monsters in the Parasol’ almost comes across as The Kinks playing Black Sabbath. It’s ... sort of ... heavy, but it’s also extremely trippy, and impossible to not bop your head to. It was later revealed that the vocal track on the straightforward punk-rocker ‘Quick and to the Pointless’ was meant to be just a “scratch-track” to be re-recorded, but Oliveri’s performance was so intense and unique as it was that they kept it. It’s short, punchy, punk rock, and leads perfectly into the album’s one “sad song”.
‘In the Fade’ is the downer. A moment of nihilism for a broken relationship: “But hey, don’t worry – you live ‘till you die. I know . . .” I can imagine so many bassists choosing to play this song straight, following the simple movement of chords, but Oliveri’s bass is a bubbling dialogue of anxiousness and frustration, giving an edge to the plaintive sighs of Mark Lanegan’s crushed vocals and Homme’s high falsetto backings. But hey, don’t worry, there’s always nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol to bring you back out of that slump. ‘Tension Head’ contains the big heavy riff and harsh vocals screaming "I feel so fucking sick / On the bathroom floor / Gotta get out and get right" before ‘Lightning Song’ brings the album nearer its end with balanced acoustic guitars against understated percussion and piano touches.
The least memorable song is relegated to closer track. However, it is still memorable, still enjoyable, and still maintains it’s own balance of quirkiness combined with catchiness. ‘I Think I Lost My Headache’ sits behind a thick glass wall, standoffish, with everyone peering at it, like being stuck in a hangover with no relief: "It’s all my head I know / So they tell me so / Until my head explodes" Homme sings. "Burn like a match house, medicate just to make you soft." The song ends with trumpets blaring out mindlessly across an interminably numbing outro in a 15/8 time signature (2 x 6/8 + 3/8), the abrupt end comes like suddenly waking from a chaotic dream with only the silence of morning surrounding you.
One of the enduring beauties of this album is the many guest musicians that appear. The debut was (for the most part) just Homme on guitars, bass, and vocals, and Alfredo Hernández supplying excellent drumming on all tracks. On Rated R two drummers Nick Lucero and Dave Catching come and go with their own styles adding a vastly different rhythmical feel to songs, previous Kyuss bassist Nick Oliveri stamps his presence with both bass and vocals all over the album, The Screaming Trees Mark Lanegan contributes wounded vocals, and a range of other artists, including Judas Priest’s Rob Halford on the opener, add a bevvy of instruments from lap steel to steel drums to flugelhorns.
The production on the album sounds natural – amps sound like amps, not digitised impersonations. You get the feeling that all you are hearing is one or two mics getting the full sound of the amp itself and another getting room ambience. It’s the way rock should be recorded and goes back to the punk ethic that has always informed Homme’s musical direction. Mixing lends to perfect separation allowing instruments never being buried, 'Auto Pilot' segues into the bongos of 'Better Living Through Chemistry' brilliantly – this latter song using stereo panning to excellent effect during the middle section solo. Hard panning throughout means that this album has to be listened to in stereo to experience the music at its best.
Next year this album turns 20. It still doesn’t feel old. It feels just as new and refreshing as when it first flashed it’s headlights to the world in preparation for what was coming. Perhaps the follow-up Songs for the Deaf is more popular, has bigger hits, sold more copies – “exploded the band” – but Rated R is the more varied and interesting classic from a still young but hugely confident Queens of the Stone Age, drawing inspiration from wide sources such as The Kinks, The Stooges, and Björk, and rebirthing rock music for everyone, everywhere, all the time.