Anyone who went to a Queens of the Stone Age show on their breakthrough UK tour in November 2000 will remember the eardrum-threatening volume. I went to one of their two shows at the London Astoria with my friend Yo and I certainly remember it. I suspect he does, too. I particularly remember the bass guitar signal forming a monstrous standing wave at the back of the hall during the last song that scattered the crowd very quickly, and did funny things to the stomachs of those who tried standing their ground. I’ve never seen My Bloody Valentine or Dinosaur Jr, but Queens were so loud I can’t really imagine anything louder.
Extreme volume is a funny thing, particularly when dealing with the zero-sum world of digital audio. Faced with an absolute ceiling of 0dB, how can a band like Queens – who made the pursuit of volume their rasion d’être – make a truly loud record? One that sounds loud compared to everyone else’s on an iPod, not just when you turn it up on a good stereo? How can you be louder than everyone else when the volume knob doesn’t work any more?
Well, one way would be to call Joe Barresi. And so they did. Barresi, at least back in the nineties, had a way of making very loud records that didn’t seem squashed lifeless, that retained the punch in the drums that is absolutely crucial to good-feeling rock records. Presumably he did this through compressing in stages all the way along, rather than by allowing them to be brickwalled during mastering. Eventually even his work came to seem static and over-compressed, but he was so skilled at the loud game that his work stood up better far longer to the age of shock-and-awe mastering jobs that was in full swing by the time the Queens made Songs for the Deaf in 2002. That record, produced by Josh Homme, Adam Kaspar and Eric Valentine (mixed by Kaspar) is a sonic atrocity, a crying shame given the quality of some of the songs on it.
Mexicola, though, is from Queens’ eponymous debut. This version of QotSA was essentially a two-man crew: Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernandez, both former members of cult stoner/desert rock band Kyuss. From the sludgy bass riff (played by Homme, under the pseudonym Carlo Von Sexron) that opens it and the tiny SM58 vocal sound, to the guitar solo mixed hard right, it’s an immediately identifiable, bone-dry sound with few precedents in mainstream rock (Kyuss producer Chris Goss’s Masters of Reality are the most obvious forebear – Goss and Homme share distinct vocal similarities – but then, MoR were not a mainstream band. Perhaps the acid-drenched psych-grunge of Screaming Trees, with whom Homme toured as a guitarist, were the closest this kind of sound got to a wider audience).
But the social and geographical context of Queens of the Stone Age (the Palm Desert scene) is not to be overlooked here. Their sound had some key components in common with other desert rock mainstays such Fu Manchu. The use of downtuned guitars, shifting the instruments’ centre of tonal gravity downwards, created sonorities that are rarely heard in mainstream rock, where standard tuning makes everything sound, well, rather standard. Heavy use of the crash and ride cymbals in place of the hi-hat, creates a ‘washing’, hazy kind of sound to the drums (often emphasised by the trick of recording the cymbals after the rest of the drums, allowing both elements to be processed separately). The use of (formerly) unfashionable amplifiers and pedals resulted in a distinctive, unscooped heavy guitar sound, that got away from the scooped guitar sounds of metal and the thin gnarly sound of some of the grunge bands. The guitarists in desert rock bands have tended to eschew the Marshalls that are the sine qua non of commercial hard rock and metal, instead using amps by H/H, Hiwatt, Orange, Matamp and the ubiquitous Sunn, plus vintage fuzz pedals. Stuff found in pawn shops. Treble is dispensable and clarity is over-rated; thumping low end and boxy mids are much more deserty. Hi-fidelity guitar sounds are avoided in favour of huge slabs of hyper-distorty gunk-o-fuzz.
So in lots of ways, early Queens were the archetypal desert rock band. But Homme found his way out of this commercial backwater pretty quickly. The basic unit of rock songwriting is the riff, which tends to describe only very simple chord changes, or no chord changes at all, and this can lead to melodic stasis. Homme worked harder than most as a tunesmith, and once Queens began attracting attention in the early noughties critics fell over themselves to claim they’d known about Yawning Man, Fu Manchu and the rest all along. A likely story. When this scene was finding its feet, all eyes were on Seattle. Those that had noticed them dismissed them as purveyors of mere retro skater-rock, as if grunge was Vorticism or something.
Queens of the Stone Age would soon abandon this sound for a poppier and more conventional take on hard rock on their second album, Rated R. But for fans of Josh Homme’s original ‘robot rock’ concept (simple riffs played over and over again; Black Sabbath covering Kraftwerk, if you will) – and for a hardcore minority, it’s the only version of Queens worth bothering with – this is the place to come.