it was tempting to shift this segment’s focus to the queens’ 2005 effort lullabies to paralyze; this year marks the tenth anniversary of the album, and it’s always been one that has accurately reflected the drastic changes that impacted the band’s lineup and overall sound throughout the mid-2000s. but as important as lullabies to paralyze was, its successor was even more telling.
if lullabies served as a partial reset button for queens of the stone age, then era vulgaris should be championed as proof that the band’s retooling worked. the album sheds the band’s previous propensity for erratic song lengths and distills all of its contents down to similar sizes, offering up something that feels like the closest josh homme will ever come to writing a pop record.
sometime early in his career, homme coined the phrase “robot rock” to refer to the salient traits of his music. queens of the stone age was a robotic project in the sense that a large portion of its guitar riffs were repetitive in nature, becoming a continuous mechanism that powered the vast majority of their songs. this practice really came to a head on 2002’s songs for the deaf, with tracks like “first it giveth” and “go with the flow” leaning heavily on down-tuned, droning repetition, while others like “no one knows” and “a song for the dead” were cyclical in nature and relied almost exclusively on a pair of alternating riffs.
era vulgaris is decidedly robotic in a slightly different sense. sure, the guitar remains at the forefront of the band’s sound – because the queens wouldn’t be themselves if they didn’t ultimately adhere to a meat-and-potatoes approach to rock’n’roll – but era vulgaris portrays a new, unabashed embrace of analog synthesizers that become an integral part of the album’s sound.
riffs that would have previously been considered robotic solely due to their repetitive tendencies benefitted from this new sonic delivery, as the angularity of the synthesizers on “misfit love” and their brutal interjections throughout “turnin’ on the screw” adds an industrial dimension to the band’s aesthetic. it’s plausible to envision the entirety of era vulgaris being written and recorded in an abandoned factory, with buzz-saw guitar lines and metrically flawless drum parts metaphorically replacing the machinery.
part of this shift can be attributed to the changing landscape of principal songwriters in the band. the first three albums were largely a collaboration between homme and bassist nick oliveri, with occasional vocalist mark lanegan offering lyrical input. oliveri’s exit in 2004 precipitated all of the major changes in queens of the stone age, as new members troy van leeuwen and joey castillo filled in as contributors. lullabies to paralyze embodied that dark period rather well, but it felt like van leeuwen and castillo were trying desperately to write the fourth homme-oliveri queens of the stone age album instead of relaying their own creative input.
that’s why era vulgaris is so fresh and different, the outlier in the queens’ discography. never has an album, before or since, relied so heavily on elements of dance music or incorporated crucial elements of fundamental electronica without hesitation. even the band’s approach to the most resounding of homme’s musical tropes is novel, as they strip down the effectiveness of repetition to its very core. “sick, sick, sick” leans on a single note for over half of its duration, forgoing any semblance of melody in favor of strictly mechanized rhythm, and similar practices also ensue on “into the hollow” and “battery acid,” albeit with more melodic leeway.
the robotic nature of queens of the stone age is ever-present, and it will probably never leave. what makes era vulgaris so remarkable is how homme has used his complete mastery of the aesthetic to prop up melodic vocal lines that are pretty much the antithesis of his riff-based guitar playing. homme has always toyed with the notion that rock’n’roll does not have to be masculine, particularly by employing falsetto in his vocals.
his use increased as he became a more confident and permanent lead vocalist, and his unabashed embracement of the technique is on full display throughout era vulgaris. from subtle hints on “turnin’ on the screw” and “3’s & 7’s” to more concentrated usage on “misfit love” and “suture up your future.” this partial admission to vulnerability in turn opens up the possibility of more intricate, ambitious vocal contours which are evident across pretty much the entire album.
there’s a strong camp that fervently maintains that songs for the deaf is the finest queens record pressed to wax, and this is not an argument against that claim. while that album is undoubtedly a display of flawless musical talent, era vulgaris holds its own due to its ingenuity and moments of delicacy. the album’s lone bit of recycled material, “make it wit chu,” is repurposed from its desert sessions origins into a concoction that matches the aesthetic of the rest of era vulgaris, a slightly crass blue-collar love song to cool down with in between the more aggressive tracks.
there has always been an element of sexual allure in josh homme’s music and stage persona, and era vulgaris bears witness to that intersection. queens of the stone age might be the finest rock band actively recording, and era vulgaris runs the entire gamut of their musical ambitions and capabilities.