One of the most surprising things about the new Queens of the Stone Age record is that it exists at all. For a while, it seemed like Josh Homme was happy to do anything but make another QOTSA album: there were side-projects (Them Crooked Vultures and Eagles of Death Metal, production jobs and guest appearances (Arctic Monkeys's 2009 album Humbug, but the only permanent member of the band wasn't saying anything, at least not until May of 2011: "We're gonna come back, do Glastonbury, then jump into the studio. Our record will be done by the end of the year." It wasn't, because of botched knee surgery Homme underwent that autumn. Two weeks in the hospital, during which he almost died, and four whole months in bed caused him to slide into depression. To make matters worse, he had to fire long-time drummer Joey Castillo, and it's this brace of unexpected setbacks that informs the title and some of the lyrical content of the album: "We'd have these great victories, and then something would go south, and we'd go, 'It's like clockwork!"
The Queens have always had a sick sense of humour; it's what they do, and it's what's kept them together, albeit loosely; Homme's the only permanent member, and ...Like Clockwork features no less than three drummers. Castillo left his mark on the new material before he left, and it's his distinctive style that kicks things off on 'Keep Your Eyes Peeled', combining with low-tuned riffs and a seriously ominous feel to ensure that the darkness which surrounded the creation of the album also permeates it. That song doesn't erupt, instead preferring to keep things low-key, but there are certainly more instantaneous moments on the record if you're looking for pop thrills; after all, QOTSA are a great singles band, too. 'My God is the Sun' becomes even more powerful in album context, wrapping up the first half of the record with a complex yet punchy track which, much like the rest of the album, rocks hard. The band go for the gusto elsewhere, too, with 'I Sat By the Ocean' and 'If I Had a Tail' showing that they've lost none of their confidence. There's even a piano-led song thrown in as track three on the album, the curiously-named 'The Vampyre of Time and Memory', and what's most impressive about it is that it helps - not hinders - the album's flow.
Homme and co. have always been a versatile bunch, and what's more, they get many other chances to show it, and there are plenty of others on board to help them do that. On the new record, the supporting cast is even more impressive than usual. By the time we reach 'Kalopsia', Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, Mark Lanegan and Alex Turner - returning the favour after Humbug have already contributed vocals, but the second half of the album is absolutely stacked: 'Kalopsia' features Turner's lyrics and a cameo from Trent Reznor, and 'Fairweather Friends' is their big ensemble number, featuring piano and vocals from Elton John, and vocals from Reznor, Lanegan and former bassist Nick Oliveri. Dave Grohl also returns to contribute drums on all but four of the album's songs (three by Castillo, and one by the band's newest touring member, Jon Theodore, who's highly impressive on the title track).
It's hardly Queens of the Stone Age and Friends, however - rather than overshadowing the album itself, the collaborations help to move things along for the band. Considering that it took them the guts of four years to get their shit together thanks to the extenuating circumstances and tension within the band, they've certainly come a long way in the last 12 months or so, with penultimate track 'I Appear Missing' sounding like only a day has passed since Era Vulgaris; the band are as tight on record now as they were back then, and while the six years since then have hardly been 'Smooth Sailing' for them, Queens of the Stone Age still sound absolutely vital. Different enough to further their artistic progression, yet influenced by albums going back as far as their self-titled debut from 15 years ago, ...Like Clockwork, despite its troubled genesis and dark subject matter, sounds rejuvenated and triumphant.