Throughout the years, poets and believers describing the presence of God have been known to refer to a “terrible glory,” a power of unfathomable, devastating depth and beauty that transcends reference and commands reverence. As it just so happens, John Paul Jones, Josh Homme and Dave Grohl – collectively known as Them Crooked Vultures – make precisely that kind of music. For once, finally, a band has come along that makes the threadbare term ‘supergroup’ its whimpering bitch, in all its terrible glory.
Them Crooked Vultures’ eponymous debut arrives November 17, after a summer of rampant speculation and mind-blowing live performances. This allowed the trio of highly-established rockers the rarified air of having a desperately captivated audience, largely clueless of what was in store but leaping out of their skin with anticipation for what they were about to hear. When they left, they left amazed.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Grohl and Homme are lifelong Led Zeppelin disciples, and the fact that their bassist was in fucking Led Zeppelin obviously lends itself to comparison. But for the sake of sticking with the rational and relative present, how ’bout we leave Zep out of this? There’s really not much meat on that comparative bone when all’s said and done.
Although the band as a whole are credited, Homme’s familiar production wizardry is the crystalline rudder for Them Crooked Vultures on wax, a clean and layered thousand-sided Rubik’s Cube that wouldn’t be a reach outside the Queens Of The Stone Age canon, as far as strut and color are concerned. Jonesey’s multi-instrumental contributions lend a cockney flare and dash of cultured nobility to the proceedings, whether on a classical piano intro/outro or a keytar solo that pulls at the song’s seams of obtuse cohesion. Amidst Homme’s jittery, hook-heavy sexuality and Grohl’s pulsing metronomic backbone, Jones provides a key bit of cognitive dissonance, a regal spice of sorts.
Self-sustained on arbitrary cool, the album is a planet of popped-collar reptilian kings with wild eyes, razor teeth and rampant adrenaline, getting themselves off on the groove for the fun and the fuck of it – Rock doctrines be damned. New Fang and Elephants – the latter a gloriously monolithic stampede of crushing riffs, roughly doubled vocals and brain-tick hooks – are evidence of this. The former, being the first single and impression-setter for casual moths to the flame, is a bit misleading; it captures the energy and strut of the album, but is easily the most straightforward of the thirteen songs included.
Traditional arrangements are scarce, and appeasement of quick-fix Rock idolators is clearly not the motive here, with riff-riding rhythms (and rhythm-riding riffs) pulsing like an undeniable heartbeat through the course of innumerable labyrinthian arrangements. It’s not safe, it’s not slight, and the riff and tempo changes demand constant engagement. Trap doors are a vital component to the songs, with the sweet spots setting in unannounced as the polyrhythms shift, the clouds part and a motherfucker of a riff suddenly lifts off, taking you in entirely unexpected and adrenaline-surging directions.
Driven by cocksman confidence dripping with sultry redlight overtones, No One Loves Me is a song for sportfucking, undeniably. The hip-check strut belies a deeper undercurrent groove, a surging, steady rhythm that remains throughout the album, albeit shifting like a chameleon all the while. If sex is a weapon, then smash, boom, pow, how you like me now? Homme asks, before the song cuts into the first of a countless number of larger-than-life riffs on the album – a chugging, brooding current soaked in sex and attitude.
The vocal production is uneven from one song to the next, likely because the instruments – vocals included – are all given largely common ground. If the song calls for a Jones-driven Middle-Eastern melody on some strange stringed beast midway through the third verse, so be it. Josh apparently felt as if his vocals would dominate New Fang unless it sounded like he was singing from an aluminum-lined pool fifty yards away, so you’ve got a polar shift in vocal presence between Fang and following night-drive murder ride Dead End Friends.
In concert, Interlude With Ludes is a sexy slow-romp, featuring Homme’s rooster-strut and hammy overtness. On record it’s a circus-tent ecstasy ride with a side of raw ether, a mindbending binge that’s not recommended for anyone who can’t hold their psychedelics. If you want me I’m yours, Josh croons, Even if you don’t want me. Definitely the oddball track of the album, Interlude evokes the feeling of sinking into the sunshine after a handful of, well, ‘ludes. Warsaw, by contrast, is a chin-jutting groovefest, an awesome multi-part jam spaz that bathes in blues before giving way to a spacey, long-form psychedelic breakdown.
Jones’ keyboard solos and slap bass run new colors through the squealing-lead funk of Scumbag Blues, and his organ leads out-absurd Homme’s pop-chug riffage in Caligulove, making a guilty-pleasure Halloween jam out of something that shouldn’t have worked in the first place. Reptiles, meanwhile, is a little bit of Talking Heads, a dash of Queens’ Rated R and a whole lotta supercharged classic-rock melody, rolled into a murderous vaudeville song-and-dance freakshow. It’s a terrible, hateful beast in caked-on makeup, singing for the spotlight, barely able to hide its scales and deadly spite. On the jitter-strobe of Gunman, Homme’s vocals seep through like ghosts in the halls of ancient castles – layered echoes over guitar countermelodies and an alarmingly danceable beat.
Having saved the best (and longest) for last, Spinning In Daffodils is possibly the best closing track on an album by any of these men. Grinding to life after an epically melancholy mystic-fog piano intro, the sounds of a herd of shadowed giants running through ancient forests emerges. It’s the feeling of being sixty feet tall, leading an unstoppable march of Tyrannosaurs, the perfect product of millions of years of evolution and raw survivalism or, in this case, decades of top-of-the-mountain Rock experience, craftsmanship and devotion to the sound. A more beautiful, powerful climax would be difficult to imagine.
So high I just may never come down are the final words on the album, a fitting narrative to the feeling you’re left with as you watch the hurricane pass into the night – but the urge to run back into the storm and go through it all again has never been stronger. It’s hard to imagine turning on the radio after such an album. This one is special, a very rare melding of classic, psychedelic blues-rock authenticity and passionate groove-junkie sorcery. Feed with the Vultures – it’s good for you.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.