Review Summary: The often overlooked, classic debut of one of modern rock's most important bands
I had the wonderful chance to see one of my former teachers at a supermarket a few days back and strike up a conversation about albums we've been listening to recently. This former teacher of mine has been my personal gateway to good music, and it is to this guy I credit to introducing me music beyond 80's pop metal, an awful aural cold my ears caught while in their unlearned era of music listening. I decided to see his opinion on Queens of the Stone Age, a group I had been so immersed with this whole summer. My teacher nodded his head and said "Oh yeah, they're good, but their first album is the best stuff they ever did". I went on to argue this point with him, telling him that this long forgotten debut album can't be the best material the Queens have ever made, Rated R and Songs for the Deaf would definitely blow the debut out of the water. I was being extremely ignorant at this point, and realized then that I hadn't listened to one song off that album, yet I was judging its music.
I bid farewell to my former teacher and then went off to pick up some cold cuts, planning to stop at the city record store on the way back home. I went to the record store and walked my way to the "Q" bands and immediately found the Queens of the Stone Age section. I sifted through a few copies of Era Vulgaris and then found what I recognized to be their debut. The album cover reminded me of something straight out of the 70's, with its vintage type face and a bottom shot of an apparently topless female. I drove back home and popped this into my stereo and immersed myself into what would become my new favorite QOTSA record.
There were immediate differences from later QOTSA records that I noticed on my first full listen of the record. Very little of the experimentation found on Rated R could be heard here, or the atmospheric spookiness of Lullabies to Paralyze. Simply put, this is a hard, rifftastic effort with no frilly edges around it. It was also distinctly different from Josh Homme's former band Kyuss's efforts, subtracting the massive grind and psychedelic obsessions that characterized Kyuss albums like Welcome to Sky Valley. As Homme puts it, this is "robot rock", driven by tight repeating riffs. QOTSA at the time consisted of 3/4 of a fromer Kyuss lineup, with Homme on vocals and guitars, the insane, lovable Nick Oliveri on bass, and Alfredo Hernandez on the skins. However, it should be noted that there is little to no instrumental or songwriting contributions from Oliveri, and this is primarily a Hernandez/Homme effort.
"Regular John" opens off the album in prime fashion, with a tight Kyuss-like groove and Homme's gentle falsetto floating over his own power chords. Homme is a genius riffmaker, and there is no shortage of them on this record. However, most importantly, these are great songs as well, and the fuzzed out riffs only add to the tight instrumental work and great songwriting. "Avon" is driven by a great climbing riff, while "If Only" is a song that could've been a hit single if it was released at the top of QOTSA's popularity. "How to Handle a Rope" is another highlight, opening off with a riff that is so fuzzed out that it begins to crack beneath its own fuzzy proportions. Some Kyuss vibes are invoked in the jammy track "You Can't Quit Me Baby". The track opens off with a groovy, Sabbath-esque bass groove, that provides the perfect backdrop for Homme's falsettos. The song instantly becomes a fuzzy, trippy haze with Homme singing over the blanket of fuzz "You're solid gold, I'll see you in hell". It finally collapses on itself into a noisy barrage of Homme's solos and Hernandez's pounding drum beats. The experimental space rock of "I Was a Teenage Hand Model" works surprisingly well and is the only hint of the oddball instrumentation and songwriting that would characterize Rated R, their next effort.
Overall, this great debut record has something that any hard rock will enjoy, whether it be the unique songwriting, fuzzy riffs, or Homme's great vocals. This record captures QOTSA in an era before they were a household name in modern rock, and is a document of a time when this band most purely represented Homme's riff-driven "robot rock" ethos. While it can't be argued that the band didn't expand their creative horizons for their next two classics, the depth of the songwriting presented on this self-titled cannot be denied. At the end of the day, there's perhaps one important moral we can all take from this: it doesn't seem it, but sometimes your teachers really do know what they're talking about.