As the desert rock scene reached its fever pitch in the 90s’ final moments, from the ashes of the genre’s pioneering force, Kyuss, rose Queens of the Stone Age, led by lead guitarist Josh Homme, with a debut album branching the roaring distortion of his previous band to a keen melody owing more toward alternative and hard rock.
While that album remains a classic for stoner rock, and a cracking listen to this day, what they followed it up with blew the whole thing wide open. In 2000, Queens of the Stone Age released Rated R, their sophomore album, labelled on the cover as “Restricted to everyone, everywhere, all the time”. With the eerie The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret and Feel Good Hit Of The Summer‘s devilish ode to narcotics preceding it, it was hard to argue with that disclaimer. What the album contained launched QOTSA to mainstream attention, kickstarting a career as one of the best rock bands in the world. 20 years later, however, Rated R remains an album undeniably worthy of revisiting — shall we do that right now? Yes, that what this is.
Kicking the album off in throttling fashion is the aforementioned Feel Good Hit Of The Summer, a song that is as simple as it is brazenly debauched. Inspired by Homme trying to recollect what he had taken on a particularly lively New Year’s Eve, the laundry list of illicit substances in the verses is capped off by a choral chant of “c-c-c-c-c-cocaine!“, so it really tells you everything you need to know about the group up to this point. Much like its lyrical content, the repetitive structure of the track makes it endlessly addictive, helped of course by a degenerate solo in the mid-point.
Left with a smattering of charred bones from the last track, The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret is quick to let you know that Rated R is not an album of 2-minute fireballs, but also one that packs genuine masterstrokes of songwriting too. For many, QOTSA’s debut into the public image, it’s hard to think of a better introduction than those relentlessly chugging guitars giving way to Homme’s ghostly falsetto on the hook. The rhythm section is driving and paced, lending itself to the “sleep with one eye open” feel of the song, mirrored in the paranoid, distrusting lyrics. Fun fact, too, we’ve got none other than Judas Priest’s Rob Halford on the backing vocals for this one — because fuckin’ why not?
The first non-single to grace the tracklist, Leg Of Lamb is immediately ear-grabbing with its stop-start percussion, pitched, entwined guitars and noodling bassline. There’s something about this one, be it the constant triplets of dulling tambourine, Homme’s surreal, slightly violent lyrics, or the twitchy solo (one of the guitarist’s best to this day), that feels like being indoctrinated into some kind of desert cult — not that I’d need much convincing if this was what they were pounding out.
Auto Pilot follows this, a Nick Oliveri-helmed cut that, despite its far-fetched lyrical content, feels wearily grounded — like being in a K-hole at 5am, as the sun begins to rise and the ruins of the sesh are illuminated before your bloodshot eyes. The moaning guitar leads on this one, especially as they begin to ascend at the song’s close, really heighten the potency of what is, generally, a subdued, spun-out affair, showing the emotional range this album successfully pulls off.
Clocking in at almost 6 minutes, Better Living Through Chemistry, one of the album’s longest tracks, is a sunstricken traveller of a song. The tribal drums in the intro, backing an ethereal, fuzzy guitar lead, give it an otherworldly feel, distinctly separating it from the crushingly heavy mid-point. A dizzying riff and busy drumline spike here, with Homme’s echoed backed vocals once again lending a nigh-on spiritual aura to the rocking. The whole thing comes together like being greeted by the ghost of Jimi Hendrix while lost in the desert.
One of the many enduring tunes from Rated R, Monsters In The Parasol, written about a rather bad trip Homme experienced during his first time on acid, is still busted out at live shows presently (well not *right now* because of the whole live music being dead, but you know what I mean), to great effect. And it’s no wonder — with the pounding drums backing up what is undisputedly a hooky, kooky (it doesn’t rhyme they just look the same) banger. The driving verses and choruses being punctuated by frights of jagged guitars. Moreover, this song also houses perhaps the greatest transitional bit in QOTSA history, with the refrains of “She won’t grow/She won’t grow/She won’t grow” being instrumentally backed by these twisty arpeggios devolving into near-neanderthalic strikes on a killer chord progression — it’s good stuff.
Following that is one of two Oliveri-led ragers in the track, with Quick And To The Pointless; a song that barely scrapes a minute-and-a-half and brings back the reckless energy of the opening song and then some. Oliveri wails like a decrepit, perverted meth-head over an instrumental matched in both menace and violence. What brings it full-circle, however, is the schoolgirl backing vocals and handclaps that litter the background like a playground full of junkies.
In the most sobering moment of the LP, Mark Lanegan puts in the first of many lead vocals for the band with In the Fade. Lyrically about the crushing dependency that these drugs — the same ones that Feel Good Hit were shooting with glee (only fitting that it is concluded with a reprise of that very song) — can inflict. The delayed guitar lead on this one is beautiful in its understatement, while the rhythm section, particularly the bass, adds a surprising groove to the ordeal. As we hit the chorus, a smothering weight drowns the atmosphere in tension, like a wave of fear and doubt. It remains both an untouchable high point for Rated R and one of my personal favourite QOTSA songs to date.
Of course, then we have the second slice of bread in Nick’s nightmare sandwich, lovingly made with pure hate. With a staggering guitar lead and rustling percussion, Tension Head, once again defined by the bassist’s banshee-esque screams of vitriol, is a class in how to be utterly nasty and effortlessly cool at the same time. It’s a track that truly takes no prisoners which, being about heroin, is probably an apt description.
Preceded by the spacey Lightning Song, an instrumental with an inherently psychedelic, exotic flair, we then have I Think I Lost My Headache, the album’s closer. An eight-and-a-half-minute beast of a track, the song is primarily instrumental, with small sections of vocals where they can find the space in the chokingly-dense sonic landscape. The drums crash and thump throughout, with the fuzz-laden riffs landing one mammoth blow after an another; it’s not for the faint of heart. Also not for the faint of heart is the album’s closing minute-or-so, which consists of a looping passage of the accelerating main riff accompanied by punishingly abrasive trumpets, of all things. The album ends on a torturously abstract horn section devolving into a series of toots — what a treat.
Overall, Rated R is rightly, if not without stern competition, heralded as one of Queens of the Stone Age’s greatest releases; a thematic, cohesive temptress of a hard rock album, with a conceptual aptitude almost a strong as the thunderous riffs that make up the majority. The songwriting here is deftly varied, with moods ranging from Super Hans on his stag-do to lying face down in the beating-hot desert, erring on the side of hallucination. While QOTSA today are undeniably a different band from the one that released this, it goes to show that, even just six months into the decade, Joshy & Co were able to produce one of the 2000’s defining rock albums, not to mention one of the best.
best tracks: In The Fade, The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret, Monsters In The Parasol, Quick And To The Pointless, Auto Pilot, Leg Of Lamb, Tension Head, Feel Good Hit Of The Summer