Long before the verb “misgender” entered common currency, there existed Queens of the Stone Age, a rock band whose feminine title belied the fact that close to all of its members were men. Of course the name was intentional — as its founder, vocalist and guitarist Josh Homme, explained, “Rock should be heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls. That way everyone’s happy and it’s more of a party. Kings of the Stone Age is too lopsided.” Homme and his rotating crew of musicians didn’t dress too flamboyantly, but the name was no empty signifier: Years after the rise grunge had consigned the more openly androgynous postures of rock and roll to oblivion, the Queens were determined to channel as much feminine voltage through their instruments as they could handle.
Misgendering was something they invited; confusion regarding genre, however, was rather less welcome. The band is frequently tagged as “stoner rock,” and Homme and company spend more time peeling off the label than they would like; “desert rock” is their preferred category. The love of cannabis is defined by subjective feeling; the desert is an objective fact, a presence in nature. You can bargain with your own perceptions, but the demands of the desert are nonnegotiable. So too with the Queens’ music, which strives and generally succeeds in conveying a sense of the inevitable. Emotions, in their songs, have a peculiarly concrete texture. One listens to them less for feeling, more for impact.
The desert was their literal birthplace. Raised in relative wealth and privilege in inland Southern California, Homme found himself drawn to the area’s thriving rock and metal scene. Bands and audiences would find each other at concerts powered by gasoline generators in the arid wasteland. The stringency of the environment lent itself to furious natural selection: If bands couldn’t make the crowd move, the crowd, baked and impatient, was in no mood to humor them. After the mid-’90s breakup of Kyuss, the stoner-rock outfit in which he played guitar, Homme pieced together the Queens’ first lineup out of the remains. Replacing the low-rider sonics of Kyuss with more intemperate tones, the Queens released one album (Queens of the Stone Age) in 1998 and then a second (Rated R) in 2000. The former was more straightforward and the latter more relaxed; both albums brimmed with power, though concentrating that power and giving it direction remained elusive.
This would change in 2002: Fifteen years and four albums (the most recent, Villains, was released last week), Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf remains their best and most definitive album, mating the punk-like simplicity of their debut with the complex textures of its follow-up, and blessing the union with a ferocious drive entirely its own and never repeated since. The Queens have never made a bad album, but the substantial charms of the predecessors and successors to Songs of the Deaf are predicated on there being a trade-off, however minor, between power and nuance. Songs for the Deaf is the only album that refuses that exchange entirely. Its textures somehow grind and shimmer at the same time; its curiosity doesn’t dissipate its fury, but rather feeds it.
Words had been somewhat incidental to enjoying the self-titled album and Rated R, but they proved crucial in guiding listeners on Songs for the Deaf. As the radio DJ Kip Kasper memorably put it on the opening track, “I need a saga,” and sagas tend to require words. The fictional Kasper, presiding over his program on the equally fictional mainstream rock station KLON (“We play the songs that sound more like everyone else than anyone else”), is the first host of several over the course of the album. The car radio dial serves as a microcosm for Southern California culture; other stations are themed around death metal, Latino music, hip-hop, and Evangelical preaching, and the Queens are positioned, implicitly, as the common thread that runs, or rather drives, through them all. Homme’s meditative, half-moaned lyrics and guitar work keen as broken glass, Nick Oliveri’s deep-rooted bass lines and psychotic howls, Mark Lanegan’s growling threats, and last but anything but least, Dave Grohl’s immaculate percussion fuse seamlessly and with the maximum of kinetic energy.
Though words help to frame the saga, giving it the spirit if not quite the form of a concept album, ultimately Songs for the Deaf stands on a sound whose crystal-hard ferocity precedes and precludes verbal communication. “Outside the frame, is what we’re leaving out: you won’t remember anyway,” Homme croons on the breakneck single “Go With the Flow,” and much like the dry heat of the desert, the experience of the album is unimaginable unless one is actually within it. It took some effort to hear this album properly in New York, where the open road the album cites is absent and the summer climate is too muggy to qualify as desert-like. Songs for the Deaf is a reminder, if one was needed, that there is no such thing as objective quality in music. Environment is vital, and there are no neutral environments: Just as the impact of Songs for the Deaf is blunted by the urban environment, New York albums like Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, which also turned 15 a few weeks ago, would sound more ludicrous on the roads of Homme’s Palm Desert, California, than it does in New York, its place of birth. The mode of transmission counts for a lot, too: Songs for the Deaf is best served through a car stereo, Turn on the Bright Lights through headphones.
Naturally, the Queens conclude the album on a feminine note. “This is WOMB, the womb,” declares an anonymous female host voiced by keyboardist Natasha Shneider (incidentally, the only female Queens associate in the band’s history). “And if you, my pets, learn to listen, I’ll let you crawl back in. Here is something you should drop to your knees for, and worship. But you are too stupid to realize yourselves. A song for the deaf, that is for you.” The conclusion, left tastefully implicit, is that “the deaf” referred to in the album title are none other than men. Gender relations are an even more twisted topic for the band than their name implies. Homme’s lyrics, in particular on the elliptical closer “Mosquito Song,” are charged with a tension between images of implicitly feminine moisture and dependence and images of aridity and renunciation: Seen in this light, the desert, and desert rock, become representative of rock’s relentless masculinity. The lineup responsible for Songs for the Deaf’s greatness was shattered not just by Grohl’s return to duty as Foo Fighters front man, but by Homme’s ejection of Oliveri for beating his girlfriend. The Queens don’t have the answers to the mysteries of gender. (Though, to be fair, and to quote the title of another single, no one knows.) But they managed, in their masterpiece, to phrase the questions in a striking way. By maintaining the genre’s gender-bending potential, they awakened, for a brilliant moment, rock’s dormant power to turn the world’s familiar logic on its head.