The release of a new Queens Of The Stone Age record is a major event for lovers of guitar music the world over. Over the course of 14 years Josh Homme has established himself as one of this generation’s great guitar icons. As the creative fulcrum of QOTSA he’s managed to walk the knife-edge creating a sound that is both tough and masculine, and slight and psychedelic. He makes music for bros and intellectuals, which continually defies expectation, and refuses to be defined down (even if the flame haired frontman admits most of his songs are about “fucking”).
2013 is set to be the band’s biggest year to date. The leader of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has rejoined the band. He last lent his services on 2002’s Songs For The Deaf (one of QOSTA’s two truly great albums), and his arrival coincided with the band’s move towards a deeper, heavier, more hit orientated sound. Long-term fans and casual admirers are already licking their lips, and the deal only got sweeter when Oscar winning Nine Inch Nails star Trent Reznor announced he would be contributing at least one track to the band’s as yet untitled new album. It has all the makings of a pivotal release for a superstar who has made a career of playing the bridesmaid, and never the bride, at the world’s biggest festivals.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves – all that excitement is yet to come. In the here and now it’s time for a refresher course in all things Queens Of The Stone Age. Josh Homme is a riff machine. He’s mastered rock’s most essential art: using a simple sequence of notes to burrow into his audience’s collective subconscious, altering moods in an instant as he imbeds his unnervingly seductive anthems. Along with fellow guitar icon Jack White, Homme has helped to remind the guitar fraternity that sometimes you achieve the most, when you do the least. So to celebrate Queens Of The Stone Age’s impending return, Guitar Planet picks out Josh Homme’s 10 Greatest Riffs.
Josh Homme earned industry kudos as the lead guitarist of Kyuss, but in 1998 he stepped into the limelight by introducing the world to the Queens Of The Stone Age. “Regular John” was the band’s initial gambit, and it set out Homme’s stall perfectly. The riff is thick, sticky, and fuzzed out. It tunnels and grinds – pulsating relentlessly, its thrusting persistence provides a sublime contrast to Homme’s winding vocal sighs. This contrast between bruising almost mechanical power and Homme’s glossy eyed enticements would form the foundation of the QOSTA’s sound. It’s all there, on the very first track, from their very first album.
Queens Of The Stone Age peaked early with Rated R, a desert rock masterpiece built on squirming vocal hooks and psychotropic drugs. “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” explicitly laid out all the drugs that no doubt fuelled the album’s creation, but the extended jam “Better Living Through Chemistry” showed their perception altering after effects. It’s opening riff is glorious, a melting masterpiece worthy of Salvador Dali that ushers in a track that is both QOSTA’s “Kashmir” and their “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Live it has taken on a life of its own, mutating and migrating in a thousand different directions, but it’s constructed around two brilliant riffs: one that lures you in with crooked fingers, and another that incites dark depravity.
The idea of a “great riff” has been defined down over the years. The remit has narrowed to the point where the discussion starts and ends with how many drunken voices an artist can encourage to bellow it back. The “Iron Mans” and “No Satisfactions” of this world are brilliant, and rightly celebrated, but there’s more to riffage than mere catchiness. Hence the inclusion of “Turnin’ On The Screw”. The oppressive monotony of the core riff serves as a focal point around which sanity is drained as the accompanying instruments whirl and revolve about Homme. The humble progression proves both reassuring and foreboding, like the eye of the storm, it provides security and guarantees brutality.
Inspiring fans to punch the air in unison the world over, “Burn The Witch” creates a hypnotic marching rhythm by tying Homme’s guitar to a pounding drumbeat. Reflecting its three-syllable title, the track punches swiftly and in military time; creating an image of maniacal single-mindedness in the verse (a crafty contrast to the black magic of the chorus). It’s a straightforward concept; order plays disorder in this undeniably creepy death march.
This is about as close as Queens Of The Stone Age will ever get to sounding like Mastodon. The creeping, and eventually stampeding bass riff from “Song For The Deaf” employs the kind of thick groove that has become a staple of progressive metal, but Queens take the track in an entirely different direction when Josh adds his devilishly wiry counterpoint. The lead guitar riff feels Eastern, and manages to lighten the tone of the track as it becomes more about acceptance and resolution than mere gloom.
On paper The Strokes nonplussed frontman Julian Casablancas hardly seemed like a natural fit alongside QOSTA’s brazen powerhouse rock, but the indie star’s forlorn drone gifted the demented “Sick, Sick, Sick” its fearsome crescendo. Usually designed to entice, it’ll be a long time before any band releases a lead single as unnerving as “Sick, Sick, Sick”. Featuring a beautifully directed cannibalistic video, the track assaults the listener with sliding off kilter guitars and screeching synths. The pièce de résistance comes in the form of a simple one-chord riff. There is no technical complexity, only precise timing, Homme bludgeons, ensuring the track never settles, and the eerie intensity does not dissipate. It’s not rocket science, but it’s damn effective.
“Monsters In The Parasol” isn’t built on one great riff. Instead, it is formed of three simple sequences that combine to create a darkly psychedelic mood fit for a track that opens: “The walls are closing in again, oh well”. Serving as a microcosm for the Homme sound, “Monsters…” brings together the principle elements on which QOSTA’s success would be based: the rock’n’roll grind, the snaking groove, and the nagging stab. All in all, it’s a needling combination, one that would set the band apart: too macabre for indie, but too fragile and fearful for metal.
Narrowly beating out “I Think I Lost My Headache’s” crunching mid-track monstrosity and snatching a spot on GP’s Top 10 is the escalating riff from “Everybody Knows That You’re Insane”. This is a rhythmic pattern that evolves during the track’s breakneck conclusion. It starts with two guitars counterpointing each other, but as the pace quickens one guitar part comes to the fore as the rhythm madly races down a spiral staircase. It’s a sneaky riff, a small but essential part of a greater whole (Queens Of The Stone Age’s greatest slow build in fact).
The “3’s and 7’s” is Homme’s most conspicuous attempt at a “Smells Like Teen Spirit”/”More Than A Feeling” sized riff. Rather than being a straight tyrannical onslaught “3’s and 7’s” possesses a wonderful slippery quality. The entire track feels like it’s on ice, sliding across your speakers until it builds to its imposing bridge and blistering final solo. Sadly, the single’s release was fluffed, and “3’s and 7’s” ultimately played second fiddle to “Sick, Sick, Sick”, numbing the effects of what should have been an impeccable live anthem.
Remember when we said there’s more to riff writing than getting a bunch of sweaty lads to bounce and bellow it back to you at the top of their lungs? Well, it might not be of paramount importance, but it’s still pretty damn pivotal. Certain riffs take on a life of their own, like “Seven Nation Army” or “Take Me Out” they exist beyond the artist’s remit, and are dutifully handed over to the public consciousness. “No One Knows” is one such riff, it’s incestuous and buoyant, like a demented sea shanty for the damned (or chronically stoned), but you knew that already.
Hampered by ill health, but never ones to retire shyly, The Who continue celebrating their 50th anniversary as they contemplate retirement.
Guitar Planet grades the creative comebacks from three iconic artists who are attempting to give 2015 a much-needed injection of impetus.
Guitar Planet takes on new albums by southern stars Blackberry Smoke, nu-metal icons Papa Roach and the legendary Venom.
The music industry’s glamorous state of the union address was delivered this weekend, but what did the Grammys have to say about guitar music?
Enter Shikari renew their archly political assault while expanding their sonic horizons on The Mindsweep.