For the past 15 years, Josh Homme has subtly tweaked and refined his music like a mad scientist. For all its visceral power, Queens of the Stone Age is built on a formula -- a heavy, colossal, mind-blowing formula, defined by detuned stoner-rock crunch and angelic minor-key spaciness, best exemplified by modern-rock classics like 2002's 'Songs for the Deaf' and 2007's 'Era Vulgaris.'

Homme's always exerted masterful control over his band's sonic direction, but the real world is more difficult to predict. In 2010, Homme briefly died during a routine knee surgery, which served as the catalyst for a dark three-year span, setting off a domino effect of physical pain, depression, band turmoil and artistic crisis. But those bleak circumstances ultimately gave birth to '...Like Clockwork,' the Queens' most fully realized album in more than a decade.

'Keep Your Eyes Peeled' is the ultimate anti-opener, a languid churn of guttural guitar spasms flickering off Joey Castillo's cold thud. It's everything Queens do well -- spooky hooks, proggy textures, vividly gothic lyrical imagery -- but it's also the least surprising moment on an album full of striking new colors.

'I Sat By the Ocean' is one of the greatest guitar songs in a long, long while. Homme's winding riff is deceptively inventive, blurring the line between major and minor, always pushing to an unexpected chord. As Frank Zappa used to say, it's got "the eyebrows." There's a newfound sophistication in the arrangements: a softness and maturity that -- on the surface -- seems to counteract the pummeling majesty Homme's band does best.

Homme has re-awakened from black-hole turmoil with an emotional sensitivity. There are more major chords than any other Queens album, more personal pronouns -- almost as many rainbows as storm clouds. 'Kalopsia' is the most gentle, psychedelic song they've ever written; the masterful closing title-track places Homme's raw falsetto over symphonic piano changes, building to an explosive, double-time climax; the lumbering beat on 'Smooth Sailing' is borderline danceable, in a stoned-caveman kind of way.

But when Queens do get heavy, they're the greatest heavy band on the planet -- from the desolate wastelands of 'I Appear Missing' to the skank-funky throb of 'If I Had a Tail' to the primal 'My God is the Sun,' which bludgeons like a jackhammer.

Queens of the Stone Age has always been more of a songwriting platform than a legitimate band; as usual, '...Clockwork' is loaded with guest stars, from ivory-tickling Elton John to former bassist Nick Oliveri to, um, a Scissor Sister. Fitting, though, that their performances are borderline undetectable: This is Homme's band, more than ever, and 'Clockwork' ranks among his most affecting work to date.

8 out of 10 rating

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