Retrospect: Queens of the Stone Age – ‘Era Vulgaris’ (2007)

Ten years have passed since Queens of the Stone Age released their fifth studio album Era Vulgaris. And what a delightfully strange beast it is.

Era Vulgaris could be viewed as an outlier in Queens of the Stone Age’s studio album discography. It’s certainly their most polarising record amongst fans and critics alike. However, time has proven that this record became a monumentally significant chapter of the band’s career, and one that entirely needed to take place to not only mix up the formula, but inevitably heighten the band’s legacy as one of the most consistent modern rock bands around who manage to switch up their sound each record they release.

‘Era Vulgaris’ refers to the Latin term for ‘Common Era’. Frontman Joshua Homme states that the album’s inspiration came from his daily drive through Hollywood, describing it as “dark, hard and electrical, sort of like a construction worker. It’s like dirt, clearly seen”. Prior albums had seen Queens of the Stone perform with an ever-rotating and guest-heavy line-up, you know, Homme and his merry band of desert men. However, many of the personnel from the Lullabies to Paralyze era had returned here.

The core line-up featured Joshua Homme, Troy van Leeuwen & Joey Castillo, with instrumental contributions from long-time acquaintances Alain Johannes & Chris Goss, as well as vocal appearances from The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, Mark Lanegan & Trent Reznor. Johannes also handled recording and mixing, with production by Homme and Goss.

In relation to prior albums, Era Vulgaris harkens back mostly to the self-titled debut with its decidedly erratic robot rock. However, Era Vulgaris pushed the boat out, with a concentrated effort to embed synthetic beats and largely peculiar sounds within the band’s core sound. Much of the record was a direct punch in the gut for mainstream rock, with very few easily accessible tracks, or ‘radio-friendly’. In terms of musical styles and branching into other sub-genres, Era Vulgaris was the band’s most varied record yet – generous helpings of psych, punk and metal poured their way into the quintessential Queens brewing pot of Californian desert rock.

Guitarist Troy van Leeuwen claimed it was the longest writing and recording process the band had carried out so far, doing so at many different studios, including the prolific Sound City Studios (also where they had recorded their sophomore album Rated R). It also had absolutely zero input from record label Interscope Records, which may likely have been a contributing factor to the wholly creative freedom suggested by the outright wackiness and experimental qualities of the album.

Therefore, written & recorded in just under a year, Era Vulgaris released June 12, 2007.

 

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The mascots for the music – meet Bulby and his pirate accomplice Stumpy

 Jason Noto and Doug Cunningham of Morning Breath Inc. were commissioned to handle the art direction of Era Vulgaris. The wacky and comical direction that Morning Breath Inc. had taken resulted in some of the most recognisable artwork in the industry. The album’s front cover features the two main characters – Bulby (right) & Stumpy (left). The band were keen to poke fun at the crude nature of TV commercials at that point in time, as many companies were using cartoon characters to sell various products.

Thus, a set of fictional cartoon characters were created to be at the forefront of marketing for Era Vulgaris. Homme stated that the light bulb represented “what you perceive to be a great idea that really is not that great of an idea”, seemingly talking about how many tracks on the record descend into a realm of instrumental bedlam.

 

Let’s dive into the tracklist, shall we?

 “You ain’t a has-been if you never was”

You’d be wrong if you believed the opening track Turnin’ on the Screw wasn’t a blatant effort by the band to communicate a vast change in sound to prior material. Peculiar instrumentation and synthetic drum beats form the backbone of this cut, yet is undoubtedly built upon well-established traits, such as Homme’s lust for a repetitive guitar groove and lush vocal melodies. Examine the main guitar refrain closely and you’ll discover one of Homme’s most recognisable traits as a guitar player – his love to take something away from a traditional structure, and add something unorthodox to it. His variance of that specific chord culminates in a demented riff, that sounds almost entirely broken. It’s these sort of experimentations that ultimately make their tunes so memorable.

“Sick, sick, sick, don’t resist” chants Homme on the subsequent cut, all whilst a dirty, metal-churning riff escorts the song into catchy-as-hell oblivion. Sick Sick Sick is most akin to the alt-metal they conjured up on 2002’s Songs for the Deaf, and it’s definitely the hardest the band had gone since that specific era – driven by its frantic drums and lightning-fast rhythms.

“You’ve made me an offer that I can refuse // Course either way I get screwed // Counter proposal, I go home and jerk off”

Sonically, I’m Designer is one of the wackiest tunes that Queens have ever cut. All instrumental elements seem to combat one another for the spotlight, as the guitar lines twist and turn around the off-piste whistles and jolty drums. A melancholic chorus offers a calm reprieve, where Homme once again practices his seasoned witty wordplay.

“Don’t you wanna go // into the hollow? // I won’t go alone // Aren’t you gonna follow?”

Into the Hollow could have easily fit on the tracklisting of Queens’ prior record Lullabies to Paralyze. Its devilishly melancholic yet sweet tone lends to one of the band’s most soothing and captivating listens, as the instrumentation builds to a euphoric crescendo in the final act. Homme’s falsetto is also a perfect match for the track’s highly melodic qualities.

On surface-level, the next two tracks could be heard as rather disjointed, ugly-sounding cuts. They both possess abrasive, unmelodic qualities – a far cry from what Queen push for in most of their material. Misfit Love carries strong electronic influences, from its synthetic beats to various jagged keyboard lines. Battery Acid, is a different beast altogether. A relentless attack on the senses, Homme and co. drop all sense of melody in favour of brutal guitars and synthetic horrors. Pay attention and you’ll find there is constant heated debate among hardcore fans over the track’s significance. One’s thing’s for sure – it belongs on Era Vulgaris.

“Every masochist gets a turn // sadistic twist, you’ll never learn”

Following Battery Acid with Make It wit Chu is like free-falling from a thunderous sky, and landing in the driver’s seat of a Chevy Camaro travelling 70 mph down the interstate. Originally appearing on Volume 9 of The Desert Sessions back in 2003, it was re-recorded and slapped in the tracklisting here. It does feel out of place for the themes of the album – yet it became a fan-favourite, with its sensual blues sensibilities and effortlessly cool guitar solo (where Homme showcases his ‘Hendrix bend’).

“The only thing I know for sure // is what I wann’ do // anytime, anywhere

Perhaps the most straight-up rock cut within the tracklist here is 3’s & 7’s. Its main riff comprises of a series of power chords, coupled with flangey bass and Homme’s ‘oohs’ & ‘ahhs’. The highlight comes from the two guitar solos – more so the one that closes out. Homme sure does dance around the fretboard with ease.

“The truth hurts so bad, wouldn’t you say? // So why tell it? // If ignorance is bliss, then I’m in heaven now”

As we approach the album’s close, the band inject more mellow vibes in the shape of Suture Up Your Future. A subtle partnership of echoed guitar and creeping bass transcend into an outro like Into the Hollow, ultimately hitting all the correct emotions.

“I’m gonna suture up my future // I ain’t jaded, I just hate it”

Homme’s smoky subdued vocals lend perfectly to the surrounding instrumentation in River In the Road, multiple guitar lines create a layer of ethereality, whilst Joey Castillo’s erratic drums keeps the listener on their toes.

“Run, darling run. I’ll stall them if I can // You’ll escape and I’ll be left rotting on the vine”

Then we get to the closing track Run, Pig, Run. It’s dark and surrealistic themes cause comparisons with Lullabies cut ‘Someone’s in the Wolf’, with its abrasive guitar and drum sections acting in tandem.

 

These are bonus tracks? You mean they were dropped from the album?

The greatest pitfall of Queens’ career thus far (evidently) was leaving the three bonus tracks out of the regular tracklisting. They’re all super high-quality and in fitting with the core themes of the record, therefore it begs the question, why were these tunes cut and set aside for the Japanese release?

Running Joke is a delicate lullaby, laden with arpeggiated piano and keys and containing some of Homme’s most heartfelt vocals and creative penning. The track builds up into a swirling cyclone of enigma, unease & wonder, and it’s a crime it doesn’t appear on the tracklist.

“Standing in the shadows // a whisperer to be // just fishing in the darkness // of possibilities”

The dropped title track marches forth with a repetitive yet incredibly catchy groove, featuring supporting vocals from Trent Reznor throughout. It would be a straightforward rock song, if it wasn’t for the shifting time signature during the bridge.

Perhaps the most instrumentally ambitious cut Queens’ have graced upon us is The Fun Machine Took a S*** & Died. It’s multiple stages of instrumentation constantly shake up the mix throughout its sub seven-minute runtime – no wonder why it became a festival-favourite and was requested by fans specifically to be played at Glastonbury 2011. There were no bonus or extra tracks surrounding 2013’s …Like Clockwork so it begs the question – have we seen the last of the inclusion of bonus tracks from Queens of the Stone Age?

 

So, ten years have passed – what legacy has the album left behind?

It took a while for the band to produce a follow-up to Era Vulgaris – a whole seven years in-fact. This was more than three-fold of the time fans waited between Lullabies and Era. Following Homme’s surgery complications, including how he nearly ‘died’ in 2011, a significant amount of that experience fuelled the themes and lyricism of the band’s sixth and latest studio album …Like Clockwork. This record was more streamlined, concise, and their biggest stride towards the mainstream yet.

Queens of the Stone Age have not released a bad record. They’ve released consistently good albums that pull and extrapolate around their core desert rock sound. Era Vulgaris comfortably sits in this declaration and is undeniably their most experimental and outrageous-sounding album. Joshua Homme’s work with Kyuss in the early-mid 90’s and subsequent work with Queens of the Stone Age has influenced countless new artists and bands, most notably Royal Blood, who are currently steamrolling with popularity thanks to their repetitive riff-based brand of rock.

Era Vulgaris is a heady brew, a concoction of sultry delights and repulsive nightmares. A delightfully strange beast it is, and one with a legacy to live on.

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