Lullabies to Paralyze

What happened next is that both the music and tabloid press were bestowed with a godsend when bass player Nick Oliveri, a.k.a. Tension Head, got ousted from the band by the same man he’d been playing with since the late 80s. Allegedly, Oliveri’s confrontational behavior (a euphemism for the innumerable examples of on- and off-stage ruckus, as well as a barely controllable drug dependence – “Meth, I hear You Callin’,” indeed) became too much for even the Queens, who used to be more than willing to live up to their image of the hardest partying rock band from the big league. It felt like editing the character of Paulie Walnuts from the Sopranos for the exaggerated use of the f-word. Say what? Anyway, the man soon found other outlets to keep himself occupied, such as touring with former cohorts Brant Bjork and Mark Lanegan as well as his own band Mondo Generator, from which he – ironically – would also be temporarily excluded for a while, after having beaten up a technician during a concert. Most definitely a good thing on a diplomatic level, but what about the consequences for the Queens? The band had never really relied on a steady line-up, with members appearing and disappearing again, becoming more and less present, etc. but all the while, the goateed nut’s erratic behavior and renegade status proved to be the perfect sidekick to the more balanced control freak Homme is. It’s a bit like Public Enemy’s Chuck D. and Flavor Flav. As the thinker, leader and conceptualist behind the band, D. doesn’t really need a clown for a partner, but that silly persona ensured there was always some fun to be had, some cheap shots to be received, some gossip to be picked up, some humor to be heard. The manic energy Oliveri brought to the band ensured they never appeared to be resting on their laurels, despite their occasionally ventures into crunching, corpulent monotony. Songs for the Deaf, for instance, is – because of the nature of the songs and the production – almost so homogenous it becomes one huge, bland song, but those occasional melodic ditties (“Another Love Song”) and punk bursts (“Millionaire”, “Six Shooter”) offered a break of pace and turned the album’s relentless surge of riffs a bit more vivid. Therefore, with Oliveri out of the picture, two questions need to be answered: can Homme indeed pull it off by himself and will Nicky be missed if he does?

The answer to these two questions are inevitably linked to each other. Of course Homme can do it all by himself – throughout the past decade and a half, he has created and refined a wholly personal and immediately recognizable style, a juxtaposition of suave vocals and melodies on the one hand and a colossal update of no nonsense riff-based hard rock on the other hand. It’s a style that often succeeds in uniting the sun-parched, lumbering grooves of his first band Kyuss with a more concise, even fresh brand of hard rock, characterized by repetitive riffing and massively pounding rhythms. Nothing new under the sun, but over the course of a few albums, the approach has become so perfected, so stylized and tightened that the stiff art design of the album covers has translated into equally well outlined music and this is where the absence of Oliveri comes in. Whereas the previous album managed to avoid boredom because of the silly thematic snippets, maniacal punk songs and 60s styled rev-ups, Lullabies to Paralyze almost collapses under its own homogenous sound and weight. It definitely has its change of pace and stylistic shifts, but the recurring reliance on a bag of tricks, as well as a mechanical vibe that more and more replaced the looseness that could be found on earlier efforts puts the focus on the production stages of the album. In other words: here’s the first album that feels like the product of a job, a process of rehearsing and recording, the first one that sounds as if Homme & Co. (Troy Van Leeuwen, Joey Castillo, Alain Johannes, Lanegan) were aiming for “a QOTSA album” instead of doing whatever the fuck they felt like. As such, the album is tainted by a self-consciousness and lack of spontaneity that also slightly marred Mark Lanegan’s (superior) 2004 album Bubblegum. This isn’t to say the album is a failure, as the majority of the songs are worth checking out and the band still displays amazing chops, offers some blazing songs and the good ol’ cocktail of eros and thanatos (which also included drugs), the sex drive and play with danger and death.

The concept of “album as a bunch of lullabies” is actually one that fits the band extremely well. Like very few other bands, the Queens have always succeeded in keeping their music both powerful and lustful, bursting with sexual metaphors and occasionally macho posturing with a wink. The overwhelming lullaby/nightmare/fairy tale-frame and its old-school obsession with sex, perversion of death provides the perfect form for the band to play with. For a while, this results in a mostly terrific string of songs, as the run up ’til centre-piece “Someone’s in the Wolf” is for the most part as rewarding as their previous albums were. Lanegan’s spooky vocals set the tone for much of the album, as layers of vocals, eerie effects (echoes, clattering knives, creepy child pianos, etc) create an almost carnivalesque ambiance of lunacy that always looms in the background. The first album half is heavy on the energy songs, with “Medication” being the wildest example, a charged rocker that almost comes off like the previous album’s “Millionaire,” except that this one isn’t nearly as lethal. Easily as effective are songs like “Everybody Knows That You Are Insane,” which shares a vague melodic similarity and amount of syllables with the Buzzcocks’ “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” but otherwise explores familiar territory: scorching hard rock with a straightforward drive and a melodic hook you can’t get rid of. Equally accessible in a “hey, this sound like pop music!”-way, are “Little Sister” and “In My Head,” but whereas the former is an infectious winner that shows them at their tightest, the latter (which already appeared on one of the Desert Sessions albums, just like final song “Like a Drug”) feels somewhat underdeveloped, with a rather lame chorus in particular. The results are sometimes better when they’re playing it not as straight, as the gloomy “Tangled up in Plaid” transcends from a creepy strut to a blistering acceleration with a great performance from Castillo and nightmarish violence scenario of “I Never Came” is delivered in an admirably sensual and restrained manner.

It all leads up to the album’s awkward epicenter, the 7 minute “Someone’s in the Wolf,” an angular piece of blues-rock driven by a disjointed, endlessly repeated riff & rhythm, and given a perverse Little Red Riding Hood-treatment. Unfortunately, the song also marks the beginning of the downward spiral, as the remaining songs are often decent, but either short on ideas (the distorto-fest of “Skin On Skin,” the alarmingly directionless “You Got a Killer Scene There, Man…”) or stretched out for way too long, like the 6+ minutes of “The Blood Is Love” and “Long Slow Goodbye.” It is almost as if these songs were tacked to the preceding bunch of songs as an afterthought, as they lack the energy, top quality riffs and fine combination of vibe and power, of sexiness and balls. Like most other albums that run on for an hour, Lullabies to Paralyze would have benefited from a slightly humbler approach, but that’s a piece of advice that’s wasted on folks who have Billy Gibbons over, but only have him play on a so-so song like “Burn the Witch.” Oliveri perhaps wouldn’t have prevented Homme from turning in a modern day version of a mastodon concept album about nothing in particular, but I’m sure he would’ve turned the energy meter up once in a while, as most of this chugs by too lazily and self-satisfied. For its first three albums, the band performed with the eagerness of wild canines and some will believe that Lullabies to Paralyze delivers the same quality, but after way too many listens I can only conclude the band sold its editing machine, lost some of its mojo, had its fangs pulled and had them replaced by a nice pair of harmless dentures.

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