Band overcomes loss of members to produce more polished album

There are essentially two paths to success in the music world. The first entails repeating a winning formula until audiences tire of it. The second requires breaking new ground in hopes that innovation will catch listeners’ attention. The latter path is more challenging but, for some bands, is also more rewarding.

Queens of the Stone Age is one such band – a relentlessly creative outfit that revels in ignoring popular trends and creating its own. Born from the remains of the metal band Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age has yet to take a conventional approach to any aspect of music.

Each of the band’s three previous releases featured a different sonic theme and a rotating gallery of members. From the Western-tinged self-titled debut album, to the druggy, mellow “R,” to the blissfully fuzzy, gimmick-laden “Songs For the Death,” the only constant has been vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Josh Homme.

On the band’s latest release, “Lullabies to Paralyze,” Homme reinvented Queens of the Stone Age once again. The most recent incarnation follows the departures of bassist/founding member Nick Oliveri and drummer Dave Grohl (of Foo Fighters fame). Losses such as these would bring a normal band to the brink of ruination, but the talented Homme has found a way to persevere.

If anything, these departures have allowed Homme to take on a greater creative role. The result is that “Lullabies to Paralyze” is a more polished album than its predecessors. Granted, there are plenty of bizarre flourishes, but the sheer contempt for the audience shown on previous releases is gone. Homme, along with new band mates Joey Castillo (drums) and Troy Van Leewan (bass), has managed to mate the tripped-out melodies of “R” with the fuzziness of “Songs For the Death” and the metallic aggression of Kyuss. The result is a sound that is at once dark, visceral, beautifully haunting and entirely new.

“Lullabies to Paralyze” is not elevator music – it actively engages the listener. The opening melody, “This Lullaby” (featuring vocals from guest contributor Mark Lanegan), creates a lulling sense of faux placidity. By the middle of the next track, “Medication,” this illusion is completely blown away as Homme and crew pound out art rock with energy to spare.

These contrasts persist throughout the album. The thudding bass lines of “Burn the Witch” are offset by the laidback, carefree ethos of “Tangled Up in Plaid.” “Little Sister”‘s complex, catchy rhythm melts into the slower, understated accusations of “I Never Came.” All the elements come together on “Someone’s In The Wolf,” a seven-minute stomp that revels in repetition. An instrumental hidden track evokes images of grandeur and brings the album to a fitting conclusion.

“Lullabies” is by no means a perfect album. Its sheer sonic diversity is likely to alienate/confuse/scare those not already familiar with Queens of the Stone Age. Even the band’s faithful fans will likely find the latter half lagging – it moves at a much slower pace than the first handful of tracks.

Nevertheless, there are enough rewards to reap for those who are willing to endure the album in its mesmerizing entirety. Homme’s guitar is as sharp as ever, his voice has improved and the lyrical content is wonderfully warped and pleasantly psychedelic.

By the album’s conclusion, the listener is literally paralyzed, left with an unerring sense of “Whoa.”

Queens of the Stone Age has taken a gamble here. “Songs For the Deaf” brought them perilously close to mainstream success. Rather than embrace it, the band has chosen to self-destruct and build anew. Inevitably, this has left some to conclude years of casual drug abuse have finally turned Homme’s brain to mush. But if the past (to say nothing of the new album’s repertoire) is any indication, he has another unlikely winner on his hands.