"Huh? What?" are the two phrases that kick off the ass-kicking Songs for the Deaf
, and after a week of nearly constant, high volume play in this house, we're all saying a lot of that, too. It's the kind of loud you can listen to all day, the Lexus ride of metal that is so smooth you hardly notice the ringing in your ears as the meter drifts up to 11 ("because it's louder").
This is the all-star version of QOTSA, core members Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri joined by Dave Grohl on drums and Mark Lanegan singing on several tracks. Dean Ween also guests on a couple of cuts ("Six Shooter" and "Mosquito Song").
The big story, though, is Grohl, who after fronting the Foo Fighters, disappears behind the traps again for this album. Let's state the obvious: Grohl is a great drummer, whether pounding out the rapid 4/4 of "First It Giveth" or the more complicated rhythms of "Hanging Tree". He is especially good on the pounding "Song for the Dead", the most Sabbath-like track on the disc. The cut is almost all rhythm. Its floating chorus alternates most of the time between two notes until the blistering guitar solo erupts about midway through. You need mammoth drumming to hold it together -- first slow and powerful, then, when the piece picks up, more complex and faster -- and Grohl delivers. He may be a heartthrob and the new guy, but he can really play, too.
Songs for the Deaf is loosely a concept album, its tracks separated by radio noise, DJ intros and channel flipping. I get the idea -- formats are narrow and arbitrary, not enough people are listening to category-bending acts, radio sucks, etc. -- but it seems a little petulant for the only band I can think of that draws record geeks, metalheads and MTV viewers in equal measure. These guys toured with Ozzy. They're not exactly criminally overlooked. In any case, I found these interludes distracting, and it was not until the album's excellent midsection, where they became rarer, that it really started to take off.
The heart of Songs for the Deaf, for me, begins with the moody, experimental "Hanging Tree". This track was written by Eleven's Alain Johannes for Homme's boundary-pushing Desert Sessions 7-8 project last year, and the first thing you notice is its eccentric time signature -- two sets of triplets, a pair of eighths and a weird stop that you almost pitch forward into. The bass and drums pound out this jerking rhythm, but the feel of the track is serene rather than staccato, thanks to Mark Lanegan's achingly smooth vocals. It's a beautiful song, complex and accessible at the same time.
"Hanging Tree" is followed by the more conventionally 4/4 "Go With the Flow", another track whose powerful metallic engine purrs under dreamy, unforced vocals. To me, this is the sound that defines QOTSA. Sure, they can do that larynx-shredding metal yell -- and they do in "Millionaire" and "Six Shooter" -- but most of the time they combine crushingly hard instrumentals with airily melodic vocals. I've been ransacking my collection of seventies metal to find anything similar, and I have to say, it's not there. By comparison, Sabbath lurched around like a giant in cement boots, knees buckling on the twos and fours. Zep was capable of pretty vocals ("Battle for Evermore" and that song about the Stairway, for instance), but they tended to pair them with acoustic guitar rather than the full metal jacket. I had high hopes for the Meat Puppets, who put laid-back harmonies on top of some fairly heavy sounds, but next to QOTSA, they sound like the fucking Byrds. I hate to use the word unique, but to my view QOTSA owns this melodic metal sound that combines sturm und drang instrumentals with unruffled, moment-of-clarity vocals.
This is one of those albums that tilts downhill, picking up speed and general excellence as it moves toward the finish. "Do It Again", a hard-rhythmed ode to meaningless sex, segues (after another annoying radio interlude) into the smoky, Lanegan-fronted "God Is on the Radio". Then QOTSA veers pop-ward with "Another Love Song" -- the catchiest tune on the disc, but still great stuff. Finally, it's off to the scarily dark tones of "Song for the Deaf", which closes out the main part of the album with a stellar dual between slamming drums, spiralling guitars and arching choruses.
The last track on the album has got to be a joke. For one thing, it's labelled a "hidden track", and that's kind of funny in itself. Second, there's a short interlude before it, where the lyrics are all "ha, ha." Third, if it's not a joke, it's QOTSA's "Beth", which is a little scary. The final cut, "Mosquito Song", is a very pretty acoustic ballad with quiet guitars, accordion and George Winston-style piano; you think it's over about halfway through, then it picks up again with even more instruments -- cello, violin, brass and timpani. It's not exactly bad -- just very strange, especially in the context of the rest of the album.
Still, it's unfair to love a band for changing the rules, then get mad at them for trying something different. The bottom line is that QOTSA turns in another genre-demolishing, hard-as-titanium album in Songs for the Deaf. This is not your father's metal. It's better.