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Play Queens of the Stone Age's new album, Era Vulgaris, and bask in a manic, methodical, robotic orgy, conjuring everything from fuzzy memories of drunken Saturday nights to visions of junkies in dank hallways and emerald Celtic plains dotted with robed ancients holding candles and erecting giant stones. How can something so driving and resolute (commonly referred to as "robot rock") sound so organic? This stuff gushes out of these guys just as easy as the visions it brings about in their typically frenzied fans. Queens of the Stone Age are back, and fans are, again, frenzied.
Most of the interviews involving the Queens focus on front man Josh Homme, who loves a dry, witty joke just as much as a good old-fashioned bar brawl (he was recently convicted of battery for smashing a bottle upside the head of Dwarves singer Blag Dahlia, commenting that everyone "deserves to get slapped"), and damn if you don't just hang on the guy's every word. He's not a genius, and he knows it—but rather relentless, blue-collar, and free of either the need or the willingness to apologize for anything. His room-darkening scowl hides a rebellious kid pointing his finger and laughing. Homme is so obviously having a good time doing what he does that his fans—and apparently his colleagues—can't help wanting to join in. That Homme is the Queens' only consistent member over the years cements his identity as the band's face.
Homme has become something of a hard-assed, rock version of Kevin Bacon—the musicians who have graced his stage and records make up a considerable network. Among the bands with whom he's collaborated are Foo Fighters, Soundgarden, Eagles of Death Metal, the Strokes, the Raconteurs, Nine Inch Nails, ZZ Top, Screaming Trees and Tenacious D. Who wants to play Six Degrees of Josh Homme?
A lesser-known side project draws these guys to the spiny plains from which Homme hails—and to which he withdraws for irregular improvisational Desert Sessions that have produced several volumes. Odd and hard-to-find equipment reportedly packs every room of a Joshua Tree ranch-house retreat known as Rancho de la Luna, a recording studio owned and founded by David Catching, musician and sometime Queens guitarist. The mildest descriptions of the gathering portray it as a cathartic and creative get-together, while the most extreme anecdotes paint a romantic, gonzo, psychedelic-fueled rant on tape.
Beneath the romanticized exterior of a 6-foot-5 front man who kicks people's asses and sexifies the stage with hip swaggers and snarl, Homme is, well, really funny. In February, an announcement surfaced on the Queens website stating that along with a number of other contributors, the long-deceased writer/housewife Erma Bombeck would be laying down a few tracks. Erma was a great lady, but it's pretty certain she couldn't handle what Josh is bringing, dead or alive.
Once he tired of the incessant questioning about the meaning of Era Vulgaris, Homme started handing out strips of paper with his answer written on them: "Because it sounds cool." But discerning how much of his humor is savvy marketing and how much is pranksterism is hard to say.
Era Vulgaris (Latin for Common Era, but whatever) debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard charts, and it's harder, sharper, leaner and catchier than the Queens' previous album, 2005's Lullabies to Paralyze. Era Vulgaris' first track, for example, "Turnin' on the Screw," evokes a pagan chant, along with the ominous, Eastern aura of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." It's all very raw and eager, but also clearly natural. Much of the album is repetitive and driving, like a drum circle or tribal chant: mesmerizing and enchanting, not poppy or formulaic.
The new album also contains more high-level networking: The Strokes' Julian Casablancas lends his keyboard skills on "Sick, Sick, Sick"; Brody Dalle (Homme's wife) formerly of the Distillers, sings; and even Liam Lynch (musician, director, and Sifl & Olly puppeteer) contributes backup vocals.
The Queens of the Stone Age are due to pound out a set Sunday at the Pacific Amphitheatre. Also on the bill are the Eagles of Death Metal, featuring Homme on drums. Eagles of Death Metal are brilliant onstage: Not only is front man Jesse "The Devil" Hughes a Freddie Mercury look-alike, but he's also got songs with names such as "I Want You So Hard." With those credentials, it's no wonder they are renowned as the "World's Greatest Bar Band"—at least at my house, anyway.
Despite already having released five albums, Queens of the Stone Age seem like they're just getting started. The side projects, guest appearances, court orders, multimedia projects and networking of these superficially separated groups continue to proliferate. They are joining forces and growing ever stronger, and at the center of it all is Josh Homme. Why does he do it? Because it sounds cool.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE PERFORM WITH EAGLES OF DEATH METAL AND THE DUKE SPIRIT AT PACIFIC AMPHITHEATRE, 100 FAIR DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-1500; WWW.OCFAIR.COM/PACIFICAMPHITHEATRE. SUN., 7 P.M. $39.50.