Queens of the Stone Age – Era Vulgaris

Josh Homme, the mastermind and mainstay of Queens Of The Stone Age, is back with the next incarnation of the band’s revolving-door line-up, which includes Chris Goss, Troy van Leeuwen, Joey Castillo, Alain Johannes, and guest vocals by Mark Lanegan for this album.

QOTSA (i.e., Josh) has reveled in up-ending traditional rock conventions by incorporating sweet, choirboy vocal accents, turn-on-a-dime dynamics, and haunting guitar atmospherics to catchy and melodic effect while still rocking out hard.

Era Vulgaris is the sound of Josh tinkering with all the machinery in the high school shop class and the auto body garage, running hot and cold as he single-handedly (well, vocally) holds the stylistically disjointed album together, soldering pieces of song structures to each other to create a finished product. For all the instrumentation present, most songs seem stripped down, showing their working parts instead of being buried in layers of distorted guitar varnish like on QOTSA’s breakthrough album Songs For the Deaf.

The sound alternates between mostly aggressive, down ‘n’ dirty gear grinders that are too in control to give enough of a release (like the brusque, lurching guitar blasts of “Sick, Sick, Sick”, “Run, Pig, Run”, “I’m Designer”, “Misfit Love”, and “Battery Acid”), a couple of beautiful sculptures of melancholic longing (“Into the Hollow” and “Suture up your Future”), and rare instances where noisy upheaval and flowing romanticism co-exist within the same song, with Josh’s fleeting, caressing croon, dreamy melodicism, and nimbly shifting guitars tempering the abrasive, short-riff guitars and terse drum dynamics (“River in the Road” and “Turnin’ on the Screw”). Then there’s the odd-one-out, “Make It Wit Chu”, which sounds a bit like the Afghan Whigs with its laid-back, piano-driven, 1970s vibe.

A couple of these songs wouldn’t be out of place on previous QOTSA albums, like the smoothly-crafted breather “Into the Hollow” (the aural highlight of this album), which could nestle somewhere around “First It Giveth” and “The Sky is Fallin’” on Songs For the Deaf with its achingly airy lost-angel chorus, soft cymbal shimmer that’s mirrored by a delicate, bittersweet ascending guitar line, and calmer-paced drums that are off-set by creepy lyrics that can be interpreted in various ways, and “River in the Road”, which could fit on Lullabies To Paralyze with Mark Lanegan lending a brooding, raven-like presence on guest vocals as he backs Josh’s voice with his aged-in-an-oak cask whisky vocals against a clean, low-end bass line and bell tone notes.

While Era Vulgaris is not cohesive in tone (Could it be a reflection of today’s fragmented, compartmentalized world that pulls in all directions?) and doesn’t fire consistently on all cylinders, the album is still chock-a-block with complex instrumental arrangements, stop-and- start rhythms, gracefully refined harmonies, cranked-up choruses, and pointed commentary on the modern world, as Josh sometimes takes on the mantle of the disaffected teenager, the misfit, and the outsider, as can be found on the lyrics of “Turnin’ on the Screw”: “The world is round, my square don’t fit at all.”