Though the genre isn’t often discussed in the larger context of rock and roll, desert rock is something incredibly strange, and unique. Jumping out of the Palm Desert region, bands like Kyuss, in the early ‘90s, managed to culminate the dry and rough sounds of grunge, metal, punk, psychedelia, and more, into a cluttered, jam-heavy brand of rock. In many ways, its origins and qualities are reminiscent of the more-freestyle bands like The Grateful Dead, despite, in the end, sounding nothing like them. After helping develop this sound throughout the decade, Josh Homme (member of the aforementioned Kyuss) took a departure from his earlier projects, and eventually shot the sound into the mainstream through the now-well-known unit, Queens of the Stone Age.
With their first, self-titled project in 1998, Homme and friends began to polish the sounds of desert rock, into a more accessible product, while maintaining the overall identity. It was relatively successful on a critical note, with many large publications such as Rolling Stone giving it four-out-of-five stars, but it only managed to hit silver, selling over 60,000 copies. Continuing onto Rated R (2000), a lot of the same pieces were there: aggressive, tough, grimy riffs, strong songwriting, and a gentle darkness to it all. But what was eventually developed during the making of their sophomore project, was an increase in diversity, consistency, and overall focus.
The record throws the audience into the deep end with the initial track, “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer.” Though relatively simple, the song is a perfect entrance to the rest of the project. With a never-ending attack of bass, drums, and guitar, they create a very crowded, punk-esque sound accompanying the long list of drugs mumbled by Homme. Drug usage acts as a centerpiece of Rated R, and they point that out, even adding a reprise version of the track, much further on. Later cuts approach with the same relentlessness and drug-related themes. “Monster in Your Parasol,” details Homme’s first ever LSD trip, where “Tension Head,” goes on to describe the daily sickness involved with his drug-filled way of life. The latter takes a more metal-heavy influence, with much darker guitar tones.
What differentiates Rated R from Queens of the Stone Age (1998), however, are the more serene and laid back looks that Homme crafts. After the surprising jump-start of the opener, the next several songs pull back the forcefulness, and lay down a more blues-based feel. “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” brings a lot of energy during the chorus, but through the verses, relies on some understated guitar chords, and Homme’s silky-smooth vocals. Then, “Leg of Lamb,” and “Auto Pilot,” switch up the instrumentation, adding some acoustic guitars, and even a tambourine. More, stranger additions are made in both “Better Living Through Chemistry,” and “Lightning Song,” taking some focus away from the guitars with a heavily-highlighted bongo beat. But even in the brighter, calmer times lies the pessimistic lyricism of Homme, with lines like “You’re gonna leave me, I should’ve known.”
Following “Lightning Song,” and closing out the record is the eight-minute-long cut, “I Think I Lost My Headache.” The track surrounds the idea of paranoia, and how self-destructive it can be. Whether or not it’s drug-induced isn’t made perfectly clear, but due to the past ideas placed within the record, and lines like “Tastes so good,” it’s easy to assume it might be. Both the choice of topic, and overall feel of the instrumentation make this a perfect closer for the project. The small amount of lyricism is sandwiched by two long, drawn out, and borderline-stressful instrumentals. Though pleasing at first, as it develops toward the end, horns are brought in, the tempo increases, but the notes don’t change. The endless repetition, by the eighth minute, can leave the audience with a bit of anxiety; obviously a purposeful choice. Aside from the mood of the track, the final jam session is a great look into what the desert rock sessions are about. The eventual freestyle-trumpeting compliments other past moments in the record, when the instrumentation gets a bit wild. The decision to exit with a window into the new and refreshing genre leaves a lasting impression.
Twenty years after its release, Rated R still remains a strong, special, and entertaining rock album. Its release marked a turning point for both Queens of the Stone Age and desert rock, toward a more accessible, yet still-dirty sound. Though not as experimental as other, later releases, like their magnum opus, Songs For The Deaf (2002), it paved the way for projects like it. At the time, it was very new and refreshing. Today, it remains relevant by reflecting what it’s like as a young adult, engaging with drugs and alcohol. And unlike most drug references, it portrays the experience with a realism that adds flavor. Add on some sick riffs and great production, and it turns into something memorable.