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Harmony amid the chaos

June 24, 2007|Greg Burk

Queens of the Stone Age

"Era Vulgaris" (Interscope)

* * *

Abrilliant album. Just not too friendly.

As the last original Queen, Josh Homme was free to hole up and do what he wanted -- and he wanted a lot. Atop his pop songcraft, which has spun far beyond his sludgy early-'90s days with Kyuss, he was determined to overdrive, tweak and filter every sound till it bled new colors. What he got: an assault of very artful, very tuneful noise.

Compare U2's "Zooropa" (1993) and Motley Crue's "Generation Swine" (1997); "Era Vulgaris" matches those in dystopian title, distorted pop values and deliberately ugly cover. But QOTSA's new collection excretes a willful contempt all its own. You never heard music that fights itself so harmoniously -- riffs against rhythms, melodies against chaos, finding balance in the same way that desire for independence balances desire to please.

The crew is an effective condensation of the ever-mutating Queens collective: Homme's vocals and guitars supported by Troy Van Leeuwen's guitars, Joey Castillo's drums, Mark Lanegan's occasional vocals and the production-engineering-musician team of Chris Goss and Alain Johannes. The latter two, exorcising the curse of ageism, have crept out of rock's cult shadows along with Homme to exert leverage on what's looking like a substantial current of the mainstream.

Goss' sweet-tart, Cream-y approach to high harmonies is all over the place, as it has been on Queens records for a while. And Johannes' sprung funk sticks out in ways rarely heard since his '80s band What Is This. With Van Leeuwen lavishing exquisite lines and Castillo's crisp gravity interlocking ingeniously, "Era Vulgaris" ain't vulgar at all -- in fact it's musicianly as heck.

Aside from the boring "Sick, Sick, Sick" (with vocals by the Strokes' Julian Casablancas), the album's full of barely buried hooks that gleam brighter with each listening. The most obvious hits are "Make It Wit Chu" and "Into the Hollow." But don't neglect the Zep funk stomp of "Turnin' on the Screw," the wired-yet-weighted synth grind of "Misfit Love" or the riffy oom-pah zoom of "Battery Acid." Variety rules.

If it's all a little cold, don't blame Homme. He's only the weatherman.

-- Greg Burk


Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor).

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