Queens of the Stone Age – Tension Head

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Nowadays, mention Queens of the Stone Age, and Josh Homme will probably be the first things that springs to mind. It is his band, after all, formed post-Kyuss, progressing them from the deserts to cult status to mainstream acclaim/disdain(?) and starring roles at festivals the world over. For my money though, its been a while since their glory days, and by glory days, I’m talking about the Nick Oliveri-era. The era that spawned two fantastic albums, ‘R’ and ‘Songs for the Deaf’. The former the springboard to greater acclaim from the band, the latter the all-conquering, Grohlery, Lanegany, body-grooving, name-taking drive down the devil’s highway that gobbled up awards left right and centre. Then Homme fired Oliveri and all of a sudden…I wasn’t as enthused by what QOTSA were putting out.

Don’t get me wrong. I love songs like ‘3’s and 7’s’, and ‘In My Head’. And ‘Make It Wit Chu’. But they lack an element so common on ‘R’ and ‘Songs for the Deaf’, an element that makes those albums so good.

DANGER

That six-letter word is what makes every rock ‘n’ roll band who’s ever been a) worth a damn and/or b) successful,?actually something. The Rolling Stones have it. The Stooges have it. Alice Cooper has it. Motley Crue have it. Nirvana had it. Motorhead have it. The Wildhearts have it. Queens of the Stone Age had it, til Oliveri got the boot. And now they don’t seem so dangerous.

Of course, ‘Tension Head’ was ‘13 th Floor’ by Mondo Generator in a previous life, but its on ‘R’ where it really feels unhinged. ‘13th Floor’ wasn’t bad, but it feels like its missing the spark which ignites this rerecording. The riff that signals the song’s beginning and its subsequent unsteady descent into chaos is the invite into Oliveri’s world of trouble. ‘Every day I wake up feeling this way’. Get in the car. ‘I take it downtown, with all the action goin’ down’. The screw is loose. Before you know it, its rolling around somewhere in the footwell. Then you understand what this is all about: ‘(high life) I feel so sick/(low life) I feel so fucking sick…on the bathroom floor’. The central theme has now been established, with the tension head in question burning the candle at both ends, living life to both extremes – the euphoric high of letting hell loose across the town, high on drugs, with reckless disregard for health and dignity, the lack of which brings said character down to earth as he wretches in the restroom, barely able to raise his head up to view himself in the mirror in the ultimate downer.

Queens of the Stone Age – Tension Head (Rock Am Ring 2003)

It’s violent intensity is for me what sets this apart from ‘13th Floor’. Its all around heavier, more off-the-rails, with one hell of a vocal performance from Oliveri, who really sounds like he’s losing his rag in the second verse with his roars of ‘no more/no mooooooorrrrrre!/no mooooooooooooooooooooooooooooorrrrre! (I’m done having fun!)’ Not on any other Queens song does Oliveri sound more intense – the only time he sounds arguably more maniacal is ‘Six Shooter’ from ‘Songs from the Deaf’, but its not foot to the floor, edge of the seat stuff like ‘Tension Head’ is.

It’s obvious what this songs about. Having an addiction and trying to kick it. Oliveri’s character in this song is deranged and somewhat paranoid, an effect of whatever concotion he’s on. Given some of his misdemeandours (both real and alleged), one or two might call it semi-autobiographical, in light of the recent plea bargain he struck after being arrested over domestic violence in July 2011.

Now you may be wondering why I chose to feature a song from ‘R’, one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the previous decade, in an Underrated feature. Simples. The same reason ‘Ain’t No Fun (Waiting ‘Round to be a Millionaire)’ by AC/DC was featured. Everybody loves AC/DC, and a hell of a lot of people love ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’. But look throughout their live releases, and when exactly was the last time they played that song live? Rarely is it ever talked about either. It’s all about ‘Back in Black’, or ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’, or ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’. In years to come, no one is going to be talking about ‘Tension Head’. They’ll remember ‘Feel Good Hit of the Summer’, ‘The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret’, ‘No One Knows’, ‘Go With The Flow’, ‘Little Sister’, ‘Burn the Witch’, and so on, and so forth. But ‘Tension Head’, and most of the Oliveri lead tracks? I feel they’ll mostly get short shrift.

For all my lament about the way QOTSA have gone, the news of Oliveri’s appearance on their forthcoming album, along with Dave Grohl’s return has drummer, has renewed hope that this might just be the best QOTSA album we’ve seen for years. And even if my hopes are dashed in that regard, would it kill them just to let loose the hounds of hell one more time, dragging us down to the fiery subterranea in Lucifer’s sidecart, laughing maniacally without a care in the world as we do? For danger is the key element of any rock ‘n’ roll band that wants to truly kick and take names. The feeling you’re about to plunge over that cliff. That feeling of excess. That unstoppable feeling. From the screech of the tyres to the final collision with the lamppost. Waking up on the cold bathroom floor, fresh from the previous night’s excursions. It wakes up the demon in all of us. Without that demon, rock is absolutely nothing. And Oliveri is that demon personified.

Peter Clegg

Buy ‘R’ here

View all previous Underrated features here, including articles on AC/DC, The Wildhearts, The Cult and more.

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