It would be easy to laud Era Vulgaris as a return to form for Queens of the Stone Age, but the problem is that they don't really have a form. The band has changed styles and members with regularity, and the only true constant has been founder Josh Homme and his unrelenting vision.
For Era Vulgaris, that vision is a sonic stew of loud guitars, vocals, feedback, tight rhythms, and hypnotic textures. "Turnin' on the Screw", the loping and trippy opener, lets the listener know that on this album the riff is king. The mellow (as mellow as QOTSA gets anyway) mood achieved here, however, is smashed to bits on the aggressive and cathartic "Sick, Sick, Sick", featuring the Strokes' Julian Casablancas on vocals. The song's absurdly simple chorus is also absurdly memorable, and it is one of the standout songs on the album.
While Era Vulgaris offers no instantly gratifying radio-friendly singles in the mold of "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret" or "No One Knows" – current single "3's & 7's", however, sure makes a case for that distinction – there are still many pleasures to be had. "Into the Hollow" and "Suture Up Your Future" showcase the reserved side of Homme, but neither is soft by any means. "Misfit Love" burrows under your skin with a nasty groove and an abundance of swagger. The dense veil of production present throughout the album is lifted temporarily for "Make It With Chu," a bluesy, laid back number that first surfaced on one of Homme's Desert Sessions recordings.
The Queens deliver a pair of scorchers to close out the album: "River in the Road" evokes a sense of vague but impending doom at the hand of unnamed monsters ("Run, darling, run/I'll stall them if I can") – are those police sirens in the background? – while "Run, Pig, Run" turns the tables by putting Homme (or the protagonist) in the role of aggressor ("There is no safe place to hide"). With its jackhammer rhythm, "Run, Pig, Run" comes the closest to recreating the sound of the band's breakthrough album, Songs for the Deaf – although the demonic-sounding bridge adds a whole new dimension of insanity.
Era Vulgaris is saturated and dense, but never sounds cluttered. It is rough and ragged, yet full of tight musicianship and lean performances. And while it may not be groundbreaking, it is easily one of the standout rock albums of the year.