Crafted in the California desert, cutting their teeth playing free impromptu parties beneath the stars, and named after an undead creature from the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, Kyuss have an origin story with all the trappings of legends. While their massively influential run only lasted a brief, volatile five years, their sound was primordial. With a career steeped in instant mythology and carried out in spectacular straits until it suddenly burnt out entirely, it’s only fitting that from their ashes would emerge another monstrous entity of equally engrossing lore.
Kyuss broke up in 1995, and Joshua Homme — the band’s notorious live-wire guitarist — shuffled around a few projects in the immediate aftermath. Among them was Gamma Ray, a group he formed alongside his old outfit’s mainstay producer Chris Goss. A lawsuit from a German band of the same name resulted later in a moniker adjustment to Queens Of The Stone Age, which by then had flipped all of its membership as Homme properly inaugurated the project on a split 7″ that also served to clear out a few recordings from Kyuss’ final studio sessions.
Subsequently, Homme’s first formal album following the breakup of his seminal stoner-rock ensemble proved to be more of a coda to that previous enterprise than it was an introduction to what Queens Of The Stone Age would become, even just one album later on 2000’s creative breakthrough Rated R. Instead, the band’s self-titled debut — which turns 20 tomorrow — presented a stark, snappy reinterpretation of Kyuss’ gasoline-drenched proto-metal: equally greasy, but more gossamer — yet still multiple notches away from the cleaned-up garage pop and then theatrical acid glam of QOTSA’s later catalogue.
The year prior to the release of his new full-time band’s first full-length, Homme had formed a makeshift collective out of a rotating cast of fellow desert musicians casually dropping by Joshua Tree’s famed Rancho De La Luna studio. Those freewheeling sessions comprising dozens of contributors stood in contrast to the uncompromising execution Homme pulled off with Queens Of The Stone Age. QOTSA would go on to embody a similar revolving-door structure with each successive LP, but at the band’s onset it was largely a solo affair. Technically a duo formed with his Kyuss bandmate Alfredo Hernández (in what would be his only time served as a full QOTSA member), the group arrived with an album that featured Homme playing a majority of the instruments outside of the drums, and his distinct songwriting voice — largely honed in and defined here — shines through clearly.
His style is trademarked by a spartan melodicism, getting the basic tools of garage rock to impart a symphonic impression. Homme gained his reputation as an instrumentalist channeling his electric guitar through a bass amp to beef up the sound, indicating an early intuition for how to creatively flesh out skeletal compositions. Across 11 tracks of jerky power-grunge, he stretched those tactics to improbably dynamic lengths, introducing the world to a potent new force in a genre he originally helped shape.
The most effective of those draw their force from the bottom up, leaning on a mud-slinging interplay taking place at the low-end. “Hispanic Impressions,” for example, is something like molten-polka, two-stepping over a pair of thick-rimmed riffs that spend their prolonged runtime entirely burning rubber. There’s soloing underlying much of “Walkin On The Sideways,” but it’s all pressed to the background as the majority of the frame is taken up by brick-smashing cymbal crashes and tremorous bass. The latter instrument is the focal point of a number of additional highlights — from the smooth rattle of “You Can’t Quit Me Baby” to the cavernous ripper “Mexicola” — which lends the band’s diesel throttle an understated groove that defies most natural reference points.
In an interview with Under The Radar for the LP’s 2011 reissue — which integrated previous non-album tracks “Spiders And Vinegaroos,” “The Bronze,” and “These Aren’t The Drones You’re Looking For,” the latter two from a split EP with Beaver that preceded the original album by a month — Homme defined his ethos in embarking on QOTSA by the distinct timbre of the project’s grime: “I just wanted to start a band that within three seconds of listening, people knew what band it was.” Specifically, he wanted to reform his knack for acerbic sludge into something with a little more boogie. “I remember thinking ‘no-one’s playing this trance rock music that you can dance to,’ but that’s primarily because I hadn’t heard bands like Can.”
But Homme’s swaggerized hip-swinging didn’t really pull from the avant-garde funk of that group. The band’s most immediately discernible influence is the muted-yet-volatile rollick of the Stooges, a thread that would come full-circle when Homme recorded and produced Iggy Pop’s most recent studio album Post Pop Depression. But throughout Queens Of The Stone Age, Homme sounds mostly inspired by his own instincts. You can hear the songs climbing over themselves in the way he does both parts of the call and response on the taunting chorus of “Mexicola,” or how he writes his guitar tabs to dot the I’s his basslines initially jot down. Listening to the whole album all at once can start to feel like living inside the frenetic internal dialogue of its songwriter’s head.
Longtime Kyuss engineer Joe Barresi co-produced the LP alongside Homme, and his dry, blithe touch marks the only stylistic signifier that betrays someone besides Homme’s deeper involvement. Of course, even a show explicitly focused on Homme naturally can’t help but impart a certain level of ragtag camaraderie. A few tracks crop up from the songwriter’s other ventures that orient the album around his distinct community, including a rework of the old Gamma Ray song “If Only Everything” (here shortened to “If Only”) and “Avon” from the Desert Sessions.
Neighbors themselves pop by too: Although no longer an official cast member, Goss came in to put down the geomorphic bass and backing vocals for songs “You Would Know” and “Give The Mule What He Wants.” The sole track not recorded at Palm Desert’s Monkey Studios, “I Was A Teenage Hand Model,” features accompaniments from the owners of Rancho De La Luna, Fred Drake and Dave Catching, as well as the on-site sound engineer Patrick Hutchinson. That song closes the album with a distorted answering machine loops from former Kyuss member and soon to be QOTSA bassist Nick Oliveri, who did not play with the band this time around but in his cameo agrees to join on for the next time.
Oliveri’s presence would be one of many factors that shifted the QOTSA model on subsequent releases, where songwriting contributions would come from all varieties of Homme’s alternative rock peers, including Mark Lanegan, Alain Johannes, Dave Grohl, Julian Casablancas, Trent Reznor, Alex Turner, and even Elton John. While none of them have ever up-ended Homme’s unshakeable grip on the flavor of his music, they’ve afforded QOTSA a pliability that was not present at the band’s origins. Latter-day records like Era Vulgaris and …Like Clockwork introduced Homme as a crooner, belter, and balladeer, each approach branching out the range of his aesthetic delivery. But at one point in the band’s run, every song came similarly across like Homme kicking over a bucket of oil while striking a fistful of matches against the grain on his fretboard.
Queens Of The Stone Age is a product of the most transitory period in Homme’s vast discography, and sitting outside of the more collaborative conceits of the remainder of his projects, is the record that most exactingly realizes his vision distilled to its essence. Accordingly, and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, it is both the simplest and most singular product he’s ever put his name to. It’s not a template or prototype, but a concentrate, like an undiluted absinthe in its initial bite and hallucinogenic impact. And like most spirits, the album’s constitutional purity only gets finer with age.