Calling your new record “Common Era” takes guts – especially if, merely years before, you were the figurehead of the greatest band on the planet. Circa 2002’s ‘Songs For The Deaf’, Queens – then flame-haired brute savant Josh Homme, naked berserker bassist Nick Oliveri, Neanderthal drummer Dave Grohl and walking cadaver Mark Lanegan – wore that crown with both pride and menace. But these were some big men, and big men cannot bounce off one another for long – they spin off, like fiery meteorites, and so it was with Queens. Come 2005’s ‘Lullabies To Paralyze’, this band had basically become The Josh Homme Experience – a set of songs that sounded accomplished but self-satisfied, lost in a psychedelic reverie. It was as if Homme had kicked out his drug buddies, then woken up to wonder where the good times had gone.
‘Era Vulgaris’, we’re initially disappointed to report, is not a return to that unhinged, collective Queens experience. Early reports suggested an encouraging string of guest names: Trent Reznor, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Death From Above 1979’s Jesse F Keeler. But these either cropped up elsewhere (the Trent Reznor collaboration will now only appear on some UK versions of ‘Era Vulgaris’) while others simply disappeared into the ether. No, this, clearly, is another Josh Homme solo album in more than name; recorded with a sturdy but faceless backing band, and produced by Homme’s long-time Desert Sessions collaborator Chris Goss.
Inspired by Homme’s time in Los Angeles, recording late at night and returning home as partied-out stragglers made their unsteady path home, Queens’ fifth album is a sure break from the past. Spiky and cool where ‘Songs For The Deaf’ was smooth and tanned, tense and alien where that record was baked and ready to party, ‘Era Vulgaris’ is a record that feels like rust and stings like battery acid. The opening ‘Turning On The Screw’ struts along on a clipped, mechanical beat, guitars sparking like severed electrical cables, but it’s the next track, ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’, that lets you know Queens still mean business. A heavyweight cut of mighty, piston-pumping metal that sounds like Foo Fighters’ ‘All My Life’ with Al Jourgensen of druggy industrial deviants Ministry at the wheel, listen carefully and you can hear Julian Casablancas crooning the chorus, all but lost in the roar. One wonders if it’s a sly joke on Homme’s behalf; like he’s saying, ‘Sure, guests are welcome – but don’t forget who rules this show’.
And he does, still. The monster jam that is ‘Misfit Love’ builds an awesome, robotic groove – the sort of insistent fuzzed-out tumble that feels so unstoppable, it’s like the band could lay down their instruments and they’d continue to play themselves. Yet ‘Battery Acid’ takes the same template to occult soul territory, because, as ever with Queens, even at their most hedonistic and removed, there’s a troubled humanity lurking just beneath the surface. ‘I’m Designer’ is cold and mechanical, but totally fucked – jerking along on malfunctioning guitar crunches, it sounds like Devo’s ‘Mongoloid’ left to decay in a junkyard. Lyrically, too, it’s uncharacteristically self-lacerating – a song that equates music-making with prostitution, Homme turning rock’n’roll tricks for money like some leather-clad streetwalker. “My generation’s for sale/It’s a steady job”, croons Homme. “How much have you got?” Yet as he drawls “Never again will I repeat myself” on that same song, you start to get an understanding for the strange path that ‘Era Vulgaris’ is taking. Like a shark, this band can only go forwards and the deeper reaches of ‘Era Vulgaris’ are very clearly the sound of Queens finding new waters in which to hunt. ‘3’s & 7’s’, the album’s version of a radio single, is twisted marvellously inside out. Then there’s ‘Into The Hollow’ – a piece of wyrd mythology for the urban sprawl, Homme’s chanted multi-tracked vocal soaring above chiming guitar strings like a smog-choked angel. Just as impressive is former Desert Sessions cut ‘Make It Wit Chu’, a Funkadelic/Sly Stone-style gospel strut that sneaks transcendental spiritual ponderings in under a velvety soul exterior – like finding a Holy Bible in the boudoir in a Hollywood whorehouse.
Not every experiment works perfectly. Homme seems to run out of puff before the end: ‘Suture Up Your Future’ can’t decide if it wants to be peyote-chewing desert lament or lolloping rock knuckle-dragger, while a sole Mark Lanegan track, ‘River In The Road’, gallops by without really making a mark. But, hey, what can you say? It’s Queens. Even on an average day, they beat your best day into the ground. Don’t call this a common era. Just put on ‘Era Vulgaris’ and crank it – a band in the rudest health.