Queens of the Stone Age have always occupied an unusual position in the music industry, a sort of throwback to the days when huge, arena-filling bands could actually have some merit. The title “biggest band in the world” doesn’t mean as much nowadays with file-trading taking the place of radio and major labels imploding from their own inner rot. The audience has splintered. Expectations are low. Product is disposable. The days when #1 albums were possible future classics, and when everybody knew the riffs from the last Led Zeppelin or Guns ‘N Roses or even Nirvana record are long gone.
As a result, it’s almost an anomaly that a band as good as Queens of the Stone Age can exist on a large scale. And more than that, it’s downright weird that Queens of the Stone Age can continue to push the edges a little, not just churning out the kind of storm and drone people expect of them. Josh Homme can take his big label bucks and plow them into interesting side projects like the Desert Sessions series and Eagles of Death Metal. He can make even his main project a little more complicated and conflicted than the core fan base might demand… and he can somehow slip all that past the suits with a wink and a nod. You have to be smart to rock the football stadiums, but still keep the music interesting enough to care about. You have to stay on your guard. No wonder half the songs on Era Vulgaris, the band’s fifth full-length, are about falsity, selling-out, and game-playing. But not to worry, the other half are about debauchery—sex, drugs, rocking out. It may be a game, but the prizes are worth having.
Era Vulgaris then, is everything you’d want from a hard rock album, blistering beats, abrasive guitar riffs, sexually-charged croons and anthemic rock choruses, but it’s also a trippy dive into psychedelia, a caustic commentary on greed, and, on one track, a Neil Young-esque bluesy come-on that could launch a thousand slow dances. It’s a little slicker and more pop-oriented than R or Songs for the Deaf, a little more focused than Lullabies. The two elements of QOTSA’s sound, the brutal riffage and the high chilled-out vocals, combine in various permutations here: the rock coming to the forefront in singles “Sick Sick Sick” and “3s and 7s”; the more delicate side of the band emerging in the spooky “Into the Hollow” and “Suture Up Your Future”.
The disc starts out hard with “Turn on the Screw”’s back-breaking, stripped-bare beat, the bleat of keyboards buzzing through the carnage. All this carves a space for a monolithic Zeppelin-esque guitar riff that seems to teeter on a cliff’s edge, vertiginous and ready to plunge into a void. It’s a hot, sweaty, desperate sound, and, characteristically, the vocals seem to come from another planet, cool and serene and mocking. “You ain’t a has-been if you never was,” croons Homme, the tail end of a daydream, and it runs straight into a barrage of fire-drenched slides and heat-blistered feedback. “Sick, Sick, Sick”, the album’s first single, offers even more of a straight-up rush, a red alert buzz, a frantic blitz of drums, a push in the rhythms, and sexual aggression in the lyrics (“A lick of your lips / A grip on your hips”). “3s and 7s” warps the guitar scramble from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a faster, more cynical riff, and runs like a freight train over it, rapid-fire slides slicing through its beat like hot knives. You want the rock? It’s all here.
The harder, faster songs sit right next to QOTSA’s ballads, dreamy “Into the Hollow”, all guitar bends and feathery falsettos, and ghostly “Suture Up My Future”, with its shimmery soul keyboard and distant pulse of bass. The best of these softer songs, though, is clearly “Make It Wit Chu”, which appeared on Desert Sessions. Here Homme’s ultra melodic delivery makes perfect sense, fluttering over a slow, soulful boogie. There’s something Neil Young-like in the shuffle of piano and drums, and particularly in the long-noted guitar solo. It’s also as close as QOTSA gets to a love song, jaded about life (“Sometimes the same is different / But mostly it’s the same”), physical about attraction, but unusually direct and open-hearted. The only downside about the song is the way it finishes, in an obliterating series of big distorted guitar notes that are totally out of place with the rest.
“Make It Wit Chu” aside, QOTSA has always been better at sarcasm than sincerity, and Era Vulgaris is packed with great, smart-assed lines. “I’m Designer” opens with the line “My generation’s for sale / Beats a steady job / How much have you got?” and sending up success, striving, sex, and personal authenticity to a slamming, minimal beat. Or later, in misfit love, Homme observes, “In the city, it is true / If you don’t, you act like you do.”
It’s interesting, all this bitterness, because to my mind, no big commercial band has resisted commercial pressures as well as QOTSA. When Homme sings, “The thing that’s real to us is fortune and fame / All the rest seems like work / It’s just like diamonds… in shit”, it’s a laugh and a jab at the hand that feeds you. But it’s also maybe an observation of how hard it is, these days, to be the biggest hard rock band in the world and still make music that matters. Slick, sly, hard-hitting, and intelligent, Era Vulgaris is the rare big record with staying power.