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The Dark Ages

Queens Of The Stone Age deliver flat, dark music for a flat, dark time.

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Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri, the two permanent and founding members of Queens Of The Stone Age, are absolutely correct when they condemn the easy categorization of their music as "stoner rock." Their mode of attack is too focused for the chemically altered mind. QOTSA love to do things over and over -- as much as they love the awkward rhythm, the distorted crunch of the guitar and bass, the faux-operatic vocals soaring over and diving under the constant, changeless din, they are wedded for life to the old-time rock game of tension-and-release.

True stoners would have a lot of trouble with this kind of steadiness. They are usually too forgetful and impatient to do anything more than once without losing their train of thought, so Phish-y improvisation or Pink Floyd gloss are much more pleasurable and comforting. And although QOTSA have their arty side, they do not improvise much. They are perfect road-trip rock in their combination of miles of static punctuated by startling diversions, and their pleasures are as tried-and-true as a classic Harley-Davidson chopper. This is a band that should definitely see if Lemmy Kilmister has some free time to jam.

So why do they find such joy in repetition -- even more, it seems, than most of their hard-rock peers? And why has it proven such a successful commercial formula for them? Part of the answer to these questions is that the band came along right around the messy rebirth of commercial metal and was different enough to attract a less pained and cartoonish following. And part of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time. They may not last, but the band sounds necessary now because its flat, dark music reflects a flat, dark moral and economic climate. It's been done before: The embrace of repetition as a reaction against industrial and ethical ennui is also found in the works of Ozzy-era Black Sabbath and the first two Stooges albums. Both of those bands came from working-class wastelands, and both were adept at playing stupid -- Sabbath's drummer couldn't hit more than one drum in his kit at one time, and two songs in a row on the Stooges' near-perfect testament Fun House are exactly the same but at slightly different speeds. Yet their howling, inchoate pessimism has aged better than many of their contemporaries, from MC5 to the mighty Led Zeppelin.

It may seem strange to pin this kind of worldview on a superficially arty-smarty band that takes pride in patching little tiny touches of Spanish guitar, organ, and xylophone in among sky-high guitar fissures. What unites all three bands is their rage against the sameness and blandness of it all. For the Stooges, life was no fun. For Sabbath, tomorrow's dream never became reality. For Queens Of The Stone Age, well, radio emptiness may or may not strike them as a larger symptom of cultural decay. The years may yet burn off the ambiguity and reveal the targets of their hoarse howling.

Then again, maybe not. Their last hit single, "No One Knows," is either a druggy paean to the secret thrills of sleeping pills or a lovelorn lament, but the two-step, tick-tock lurch and the exploding chorus keep the single fresh and surprising after a hundred listens. The same was true of Rated R's "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" with its mantra of low-budget drugs, and "Monsters in the Parasol"'s stalker riff and dizzy-spell bridge. There is nothing exactly inviting about this kind of music, though there also isn't any of the posturing and misery-drenched contortions typical of so many heavy rock bands of the moment. In fact, QOTSA's restraint and unwillingness to dive into self-loathing or rise to coherence lend their work a class not shared by alternative-metal peers. They sound pissed, and maybe they are pissed because they have nothing to say. No one knows, but whatever they are saying, they continue to say it again and again.

Which isn't to say the band hasn't evolved with each fresh lineup. However, evolution is too strong and dangerous a word for a hard-rock band that prizes set patterns. As a collective, QOTSA don't evolve their sound as much as their sound mutates from album to album. Their eponymous debut recalls a faster, gloomier Screaming Trees and a penchant for irritating noise, but it also has ready-made classics like "If Only" and "Regular John." The follow-up, 2000's Rated R, might be the best record they've released so far, downplaying the pummeling rock with some gorgeous ballads that evoke a simpler, less gangly Meat Puppets. Last fall's Songs for the Deaf is a partial concept album about bad radio whose high points are the lead-off "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire," an absolutely lethal Dave Grohl drum solo on "Song for the Dead," a follow up to Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole" that we've been waiting for for 30 years ("Hanging Tree"), and a florid orchestral ode to the common mosquito. Its charms still unfold, though the loused-up production grates.

And even though all-world drummer Grohl is no longer keeping time, the best reason to see them live is to hear the best tracks from Songs for the Deaf freed from the flat production of the album, which seems to mash everything into a tiny little monochromatic ball no matter how much the stereo is turned up. With the brakes off, the show should prove whether this band's noise is heavy or hollow.

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