Damaged Circuits

Queens of the Stone Age smash the alt-rock robot

Josh Homme is the rare alt-rock musician equally capable of solid songwriting and crushing riff science. That's been the case for his involvement with desert rockers Kyuss' downtuned cosmic sludge in the early 1990s through anchoring the tuneful heaviness churned out by Queens of the Stone Age for the past decade. Over the course of four albums and an evolving crew of bandmates, QOTSA have blazed an unpredictable path, steered by Homme's mix of fever-dream melodies, megaton guitars, and unbridled experimentation. Never saddled with the retro tag that dogs bands slavish to '70s rawk imitation, Queens capture a hazy throwback vibe without sounding like an artifact.

Though die-hard fans have grown accustomed to the band's consistent reinvention, QOTSA move in an altogether different direction with their latest release, Era Vulgaris. Homme, frequent production collaborator Chris Goss, and current members Joey Castillo (drums) and Troy van Leeuwen (guitars, keyboards) return to the ferocious heaviness of Songs for the Deaf while embracing a new aesthetic swathed in harsh electronic grit and brittle drums. Simultaneously noisier and packed with more ear-pleasing hooks, the material doesn't so much step toward a more contemporary sound as fall ass-over-elbows into it.

"This started — not on purpose — shaping up to be a "modern' record for us," recalls Homme, speaking by phone from New York. Taking a similar damaged approach to technology as Primal Scream and Peaches — the guitarist appreciatively described their music as having a "naively destroyed element to it" — the band eschewed effects and filters, stumbling into sounds through accidents and willful wreckage. "It's just one mike that's making all that explosion in the drums," explains Homme. "It's not a processor; it's all actually genuine broken parts. Mostly it's Troy. He's our resident drunken doctor/broken robot."

Queens of the Stone Age: Nobody smiles, nobody gets hurt.
Jason Odell
Queens of the Stone Age: Nobody smiles, nobody gets hurt.

Era Vulgaris frontloads the more distorted, electronically tinged experiments in the album's early tracks. Layered percussion propels the lurching maelstrom of stereo-panned guitars on opener "Turning on the Screw," while dive-bombing synths give the pro-indulgence anthem "Sick Sick Sick" a suitably queasy undercurrent. But even as the grime factor bristles, the songs slide into beguiling vocal harmonies that can't help but seduce.

No stranger to couching melody amid dissonance, Homme lets the abrasive nature of the songs invite more sweetness than usual as counterpoints. "I'm Designer" jerks Devo-style through a hard, disjointed groove that melts away when Homme croons the chorus. "When that kind of dirtiness was comfortable, I felt like it gave us clearance to go farther," says the guitarist. "When it's that broken-sounding, you can inject it with more hook than ever."

In what could be considered a concession to older fans, Queens breaks up the proceedings with some tunes that hearken back to the band's more familiar styles: Mournful rocker "Into the Hollow" would have been at home on the somber Lullabies to Paralyze, while the soulful come-on "Make It Wit Chu" from Desert Sessions Vol. 9&10 gets a re-recording that actually improves on Homme's smooth vocal delivery. Still, for every straightforward moment found on Era Vulgaris, Queens have three or four flashes of new weirdness to spring on the listener.

So will the accessibility of the new material outweigh the abrasiveness, bringing Queens of the Stone Age a bigger mainstream audience? For someone who has made a career of sonic reinvention, Homme isn't too concerned with breakout hits. "We're sort of defining ourselves each time," explains Homme. "But it's obvious we wouldn't have it any other way. We just try not to do the same thing over and over."

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