REVIEW: Queens of the Stone Age – In Times New Roman

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There was a time, 20 years ago or so, when QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE was hailed as the epitome of stoner rock and, perhaps, there was more than a good ounce of truth in these claims. After all, the first three studio albums in their back catalog still stand out as straight-up masterpieces of stoner-flavored alt.rock. Yeah, I’ve always had an issue with labeling them as a downright stoner outfit. If I go with the label, I would like to assert that this bunch has always been more of the indica variety rather than the doom-tempo, sludge-infested, and sativa-flavored kind. From day one, their music has been inherently energizing rather than phlegmatizing, to the extent of having enough mainstream appeal to score a good few hits along the way. With seven albums under their belt, QOTSA is about to release their 8th outing, entitled “In Times New Roman” on June 16th, 2023, via Matador Records. If I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this bunch. In a way, the spin-off outfits, THEM CROOKED VULTURES and EAGLES OF DEATH METAL, have packed more punch than the latest QOTSA efforts. So, hoping for the best and fearing for the worst, I dug into the album – and here’s what I found out…

Obscenery” sets things in motion with a fuzz-infested riffathon that would fit a WHITE STRIPES album like nothing to it. The arrangement is rather sparse, which brings the funky slapback surf-rock bassline nicely to the forefront. The oriental-sounding string motif resonates with the air of LED ZEPPELIN‘s “Kashmir” and when the chorus kicks in, frosted with Josh Homme‘s signature falsetto, the song indeed sets things in motion with a good footing. I wouldn’t rank the opener among the band’s catchiest bangers – “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” “Go With the Flow,” and “No One Knows” – but it’s not by far the worst on offer either. Besides, with the band being such old dogs at this craft (formed in 1996), I couldn’t avoid thinking they would probably place the biggest banger as the third or fourth track, as per the vinyl-era honorary code of conduct.

Next up, “Paper Machete” almost instantly comes off as a slowed-down reworking of the band’s banger, “Little Sister,” from their 2005 outing, “Lullabies to Paralyze.” There’s a good deal of similarity in the main riff. The tempo has dropped down a notch with the weight of the years, I reckon. The song is by no means bad but I cannot avoid reminiscing on the older iteration of this particular riff – and, if truth be told, the 2005 version packs a good deal more punch. There’s a certain amount of catchy pop sensibility in the melodies, so I don’t think QOTSA will be joining the pantheon of those lethargic stoner outfits just yet – vintage grunge, more likely.

Speaking of which, the downtempo-ish streak continues in “Negative Space” but with Homme‘s vocal phrasing bearing an intriguing resemblance to Chris Cornell‘s most grunge-worthy contributions to SOUNDGARDEN and AUDIOSLAVE. Then again, if my memory serves me right, QOTSA originated from Seattle too. Maybe I’m a sucker for this sort of aesthetic but this particular track got me reaching for the repeat button absolutely the most during the first spin. That’s why it took me a good while before I exposed my ears to the follow-up track, “Time & Place,” only to find out it is also among the few rough diamonds in this new selection. The charm of the song derives from the way Homme‘s laconic singing and those delicious, oriental motifs alternate, building momentum layer by layer upon the staccato stomp of the bassline. There’s something inexplicably hypnotic about the song.

Made to Parade” offers more of the same but somehow in a tad less impressive and hypnotic fashion, so I’m afraid I would deem it album fodder – these guys could have done better. “Carnavoyeur,” in turn, conjures up some mixed feelings; the melody and vocal harmonies deliver up to specs with flying colors but the arrangement comes off a little restless, what with the filtered bassline going completely bonkers on occasion and the guitar being so drenched in distortion it sounds as though belonging to a different song altogether. Then again, I have a feeling that this is exactly the kind of song that will prove a grower over time – it sounds a tad obscene, which sometimes happens to be exactly what the song requires.

What the Peephole Say” is one of few uptempo riffathons on the album, but it somehow lacks the catchiness of the band’s best bangers and ends up being just a routine exercise in garage-rock riffing. I mean, in the case of some other band, it would probably have made a more significant impression, but this is QOTSA, for goodness’ sake, so I was expecting a bit more. “Sicily,” however, brings those delicious oriental-sounding strings and LED ZEPPELIN vibes back for another round. The members of QOTSA have collaborated with the elderly statesman of heavy metal, John Paul Jones, over the years, so I guess the ZEP vibes might have rubbed off from there.

And speaking of collaborations, these guys have also participated in a joint venture or two with one James Newell Osterbeg Jr., which might explain the subtle Iggy Pop vibes in “Emotion Sickness.” The song is pretty okay, although it certainly lacks the instant ear-worm quality of, say, “Lust for Life.”

The album closes with “Straight Jacket Fitting,” which is quite an intriguing track, especially in terms of being a closer; after doodling away for ages with a somewhat basic garage riff, the song takes off on a zany tangent and chills out for the remainder of its playtime with some psychedelic campfire hippie folk. I don’t know… the coda is actually the real beef of the song, but I would rather have listened to a tad more banging riffing for the first 6 minutes in order to get there.

In conclusion, the new QOTSA offering didn’t exactly blow my mind after the first couple of spins. There are a few genuine diamonds and, regarding that esoteric tradition from the olden days when bands used to put the best track as the third on side A, “Negative Space” with its robust grunge vibes, indeed, is the absolute standout track on the album – and, as it happens, it is the third track on the outing (and the next best comes right after…)! All things considered, I get the feeling that this time around, these stoner ruffians have cut themselves perhaps a little too much slack; they used to sound a bit tighter back in the day. A good few songs come and go sounding okay but still do not leave much of a lasting impression. It’s a shame, really, given the track record of this bunch. Then again, stoner albums rarely come off as instant killers, not even those album classics from the buccaneer days of yore – they have a habit of crawling upon you like the buzz of the third day of a 7-day binge, to paraphrase the song title from Marilyn Manson. So, with any luck, this album might prove a real grower over time. We’ll see about that.

Written by Jani Lehtinen

Tracklist

  1. Obscenery
  2. Paper Machete
  3. Negative Space
  4. Time & Place
  5. Made to Parade
  6. Carnavoyeur
  7. What the Peephole Say
  8. Sicily
  9. Emotion Sickness
  10. Straight Jacket Fitting

Lineup

Josh Homme – vocals, guitars

Troy Van Leeuwen – guitars

Michael Shuman – bass

Dean Fertita – guitars, keyboards

Jon Theodore – drums

Label

Matador Records

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