Photo By Chapman Baehler

Lullabies To Paralyze is Queens of the Stone Age’s latest successful attempt to give music something it needs: a swift kick in the ass. It was recorded following the departure/sacking of bassist Nick Oliveri, who in the past had been a crucial punk rock grounder for these iconic ­desert dudes, leavening leader Josh Homme’s more stoner-prog instincts. In hindsight, you could see that split coming, when you think about the band’s previous Songs for the Deaf, a wildly exploratory disc that careened from bronto-rock flame-ups (pushed by guest Dave Grohl’s most ferocious super-drumming) to cowboy campfire ditties to Gypsy carny sounds. The question was, where was it all leading?

With Lullabies, it’s as if Homme had to determine finally whether or not QOTSA was a rock combo at all, and decided that it was. Thus, Lullabies evolves from Deaf to bring a slightly reined-in experimentalism. These QOTSA albums never seem too much about Homme’s career as a rock star, though: They’re far more about where rock music can take you, a little bit about where it comes from, and a lot about what it should be. Homme seems to say that it should be something that makes you cock your head while you’re tapping your toes or playing air guitar; you ought to be able to say “huh?” a lot when you hear the new heavy rock.

There’s a fever-dream air of both introspection and urgency to these new tunes, a characteristic QOTSA duality heard in the darkly pretty opener, “This Lullaby,” with guest Mark Lanegan on vocals and Homme on acoustic guitar, sort of hushing you into a false sense of cozy. But! A hilariously thrashing “Medication” quickly jump-cuts out, followed by “Everybody Knows That You Are Insane,” where a Dave Gilmourish slide electric sails like a bomber to Homme’s choirboy croons under an avalanche of walled-in, itchy frenzy. While often heavy, QOTSA are not metallic per se, but they do make noisy, satisfyingly claustrophobic minor-key punk-underpinned pop that can accommodate a small world of other real interesting shit. Like “Tangled Up in Plaid,” which starts with a march, segues into another kind of march, and offers florid flourishes of Brian May/Tom Scholl ’70s guitar frillery as an acoustic piano pumps away and a thousand guitars hammer and crow. Because the thing is loaded with Homme’s characteristically great English pop chord structures and melodic acuteness, it’s light-years away from Kyuss or any stoner rock, circling more somewhere in the heady vicinity of Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood’s the Move.

Lullabies is gifted with pertinent contributions from a smart core unit of ex-everybody bassist Troy Van Leeuwen, former Danzig tub-smasher Joey Castillo and the great Alain Johannes on bass, guitar and about a hundred other things. A few others dropped by, such as Garbage’s Shirley Manson on “sultry vocals,” Masters of Reality boss Chris Goss and, dig it, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on guitar and singing. (Billy said he liked QOTSA ’cause they’re kinda eccentric and he can relate. On the happy/depraved “Burn the Witch,” he rips a funky little solo with one of his patented whistling harmonics — his beard hit the strings!) Meanwhile, “Burn the witch/burn to ash and bone,” says Homme, and that’s all you really need to know. But notice how painterly Homme’s settings of these largely improvised concoctions are — even when they wander into queasy limbo vagueness, he always finds a peculiarly logical way of yanking you back down to Earth.

It’s a unique effect for the brain, but it also hits the body hard. “In My Head,” “Little Sister,” “I Never Came,” “The Blood Is Love,” “Someone’s in the Wolf” — these strange rock parables amount to a lot of prime obscuranza from some very wicked minstrels, as if you’ve got to be humorously cunning to ward off the evil. A densely packed beautiful noise to savor, Lullabies To Paralyze also is like a descent into someone’s hell, yours possibly, or at very least one very odd dream.

QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE | Lullabies To Paralyze (Interscope)

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