The Devil’s in There

The raucous lovechild is definitely the sum of its parts

Josh Homme and Dave Grohl took the supergourp premise one further by enlisting John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. {{name}}
01 January, 2010

BACK IN THE 90S, there used to be this band called Kyuss—a dirty little four-piece bent on channeling early Black Sabbath grooves into the fuzz pedal generation. They had a decent cult following and a so-so singer, but that guitarist,Josh Homme,  played like a circus strongman heaving on an iron rod.

So when Kyuss broke up and Homme’s new band came to play Call The Office, a bar in my college town in southern Ontario, I wasn’t going to let that circus leave town without seeing it.

The bar was a dingy, badly lit place with a sticky floor. Admission was ten dollars and there were maybe twenty-five people there.  I was one of a few savvy to whom they were coming to see and very excited about it.  “It’s the guitar player from Kyuss!” I’d say to people who had come in from the Canadian January to get warm, have a pint and see whatever live music was on that night.  “Who?” most replied, furrowed and still rubbing their numb hands together.

As I waited for the bartender to pour my beer, the six-foot plus Homme came and stood next to me at the bar and downed three shots of Jack Daniel’s from little plastic cups in quick succession. It was all my inner fan-boy could do to keep my mutterings to “Hey, Josh. Have a good show, man.”

He said thanks and lumbered away, ducking his head under a brick archway en route to the stage barely big enough for the band members and their gear. By the end of that ear-bleeder of a set, no one present would need to be reminded who this band was again, and on my way out, I stopped at the merch table and parted with another ten dollars for the band’s CD, their self-titled debut: Queens of the Stone Age.

At the turn of the millennium, the piglets were still suckling at Nirvana’s success, and Kurt Cobain would have killed himself all over again if he could have seen what was being done to rock music in his name.  Nirvana bassist Kris Novoselic had all but disappeared from the scene, and Dave Grohl had given up the drums and started over as guitarist and frontman for a new band, the Foo Fighters. The Foo’s were radio-friendly and found an audience, but it was bands like Queens of the Stone Age that shot the post-Seattle grunge zombie between the eyes and got rock n roll’s blood flowing again.

Within eight months of seeing what Josh Homme could do fronting his own band, Queens had sold out one of Toronto’s biggest rock venues, tickets weren’t ten bucks anymore, and Josh certainly wasn’t able to saunter up to the bar unscathed. The show was more than impressive. Homme’s ability to support power chords with sporadic xylophones, keys and horn sections separated Queens from their less experimental peer group.  I haven’t seen the band since either, their shows always sold out too fast.  Now you can listen to copycat Queens of the Stone Age bands as much as you used to hear Nirvana drones. Such flattery of imitation made it official: Mr. Homme was playing with the big boys.

Exactly a decade has passed since that Call The Office gig, and Josh Homme once again finds himself saddled with the responsibility of musical paramedic, six-string defibrillator in hand.

His status has afforded him some clout—he even got Dave Grohl back behind the drum kit on Queens’ third album, Songs for the Deaf—but his new band still has another genre to bust: the ‘supergroup.’

Supergroup. Not many dubbed as such have ever lived up to the name. The last co-mingling of alternative rock pioneers, Audioslave, which put Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell out front of a Zach de la Rocha-less Rage Against The Machine, suffered a kind of ‘Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates’ typecasting even before their first album was released. After two lackluster follow-ups trying to meld a style that didn’t just sound like an over the hill Rage with the singer from Soundgarden, Audioslave disbanded.


So pressure’s on for Josh Homme and Dave Grohl, together again on their new project, Them Crooked Vultures. These two have taken the supergourp premise one further by enlisting John Paul Jones, former bassist of the band that aside from Black Sabbath, started this whole rock thing rolling in the first place. Led Zeppelin.

Them Crooked Vultures—those sneaky buggers—kept the project a secret for a gestative nine months while they jammed 13 tracks together to be born as their debut album.  This raucous lovechild is definitely the sum of its parts—equally guitar-driven and balls-out as old Queens tracks like Regular john and Go with the Flow, as rhythmically pounding as anything Nirvana ever did, and if Scumbag blues is reminiscent of the riffage that made Led Zeppelin legendary, so then does Reptiles sound like an outtake from Houses of the holy.

Where Audioslave failed, Them Crooked Vultures manages to make it work: the three distinct and immediately recognizable personalities of the band members, so well known as individuals, distinctly reference their familiar styles, but Homme, Grohl and Jones ooze into, around and all over each other; each track a tasteful give and take between friends that in the end, congeals into something uniquely ‘Vulturesque.’

If there’s anything negative to be said about this teenage male wet dream of a band, it’s that some devices Homme had used on Queens records before haven’t benefited from usage here. The phrasings of Mind eraser, no chaser and Spinning in daffodils reprised immediately at song’s end, some in moog keys, mini-horn sections or even oompah style, can be more distracting than cohesive or clever (unlike the lead-out track of Queens’ second album Rated R, I think I lost my headache).

Homme’s lyrics, while clearly never the focal point of any composition, remain obtuse and abstract, laden, as usual with malapropisms that just don’t seem so prescient anymore. Titles like Caligulove and lines like ‘on the good ship lollygag’ don’t incite the wink-winking of older Queens song titles that pun Bob Dylan—Tangled up in plaid—or elbow the ribs of an old Willie Dixon Blues standard (later recorded by Led Zeppelin) by calling a song on the first Queens record You can’t quit me Baby; a number which would also introduce one of Homme’s leitmotifs—a repetitive hook slowly sped up over a series of bars until anyone nodding their head along would have to stop at the brink of whiplash. On Vultures, instead of cranking one riff towards breakneck 32nd notes at the end of a song, here, the metronome is pulled towards the bottom of the stick (schtick?) in a long bridge section of the nearly eight minute track, Warsaw or the first breath you take after you give up, where Grohl shows he’s as at ease with syncopated jazz beats on the ride cymbal as he is smashing the double crash through a chorus.

The stray appearance of a xylophone or horns is typical  Homme, but the addition of John Paul Jones’ 70s sounding keyboards (and even a mandolin reminiscent of the Zeppelin classic Gallow’s pole at one point) give the album a familiar, comforting dimension, recalling a more glorious time in rock n roll, something bands like Black Mountain have also exploited recently.

But let’s face it, ultimately, you’re not going to buy Them Crooked Vultures to muse over Jones’ background sections that harken a time where rock was king and Zeppelin ruled the world, to get teary eyed over what Grohl pounded out with Nirvana, or to analyse Homme’s creative use of the pentatonic scale in his solos. You’re going to buy this album because you want your guitars fuzzy and your drums loud. You want what blares from your headphones to turn your walk down the sidewalk into a swagger.

As such, Them Crooked Vultures, and perhaps the genre that I’d say time may determine Josh Homme and this album helped save—again—is summed up in the penultimate track, Gunman; not only for it’s contagious wah-wah riff, Homme’s dissonant chorus, Jones’ noodly bass or Grohl’s approximation of a disco/new wave backbeat. This song, like the band, like this whole bent genre, is simply the kind of stuff that makes you want to writhe around a room smashing things. And this desire will never go out of style or need reviving.