When rock bands swarmed Earth 40 years ago, they seemed otherworldly — hirsute tribes clad in kaleidoscopic garb, brandishing their guitars like medieval weapons. But over time, these mongrel hordes and their misshapen songs assimilated into American culture so seamlessly, they practically vanished into the normalcy of popular music. Today, our guitar heroes reside mostly in video games.
In that sense, supergroup Them Crooked Vultures makes for an evocative throwback, recalling an era when riff-hurling rock troupes felt dangerous. And bizarre. And totally worth listening to.
This is a trans-generational supergroup that's earned its "super." Vultures' singer-guitarist Josh Homme leads Queens of the Stone Age; Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl reprises drummer duties from his days in Nirvana; and bassist John Paul Jones once laid the bedrock for the mighty Led Zeppelin.
The trio does not disappoint. Them Crooked Vultures' self-titled debut is churning with neoclassical rock-and-roll, summoning the heaviest qualities of Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Cream and Iron Butterfly.
Guitars crunch, drums pummel and songs sprawl for minutes on end, creating a brawny ambiance that approaches unimpeachabililty.
And air-drummers, rejoice! With Them Crooked Vultures, Grohl cements his rep as our greatest living rock percussionist (a fact that makes his nearly 15 years of playing guitar for Foo Fighters really sting).
Jones, who helped forge the sound of heavy metal with former-greatest-living-rock-drummer John Bonham, makes an ideal partner for Grohl, as evidenced on the album's most hulking track, "Elephants." It's a tempestuous tempo-shifter, where the band's death-march riffs break into a stampede, and back again. While his rhythm section toggles between stomping and sprinting, Homme moans: "We're unwanted strangers / exploited and dangerous / unable to hide, or even dream of it."
The album's core is truly molten. "Scumbag Blues" sits near the center of the track list, all speed and snarl. And just when the tune's riffage couldn't get any more righteous, a Clavinet lick arrives with a delightful, Stevie Wonder-inspired stutter.
The funkiness continues with "Reptiles," reanimating the jitters that Zeppelin achieved in 1971 with "The Crunge." It's a vista that Stone Temple Pilots always threatened to colonize but could never pull off. (They also never had a member of Led Zeppelin playing bass.)
Jones plays a supporting role on this album, but, as with Zeppelin, these towering tunes would surely crumble without him. And while Grohl's backing vocals serve as melodic crab grass, both omnipresent and irrepressible, "Them Crooked Vultures" is largely a souped-up Queens of the Stone Age album, with Homme crooning in the same snooty, disaffected sneer that's bedraggled his previous work. The guy sounds as if he wears a monocle into the recording booth.
But that's OK. Even vocalizing at half-throttle, he can't suppress the instrumental heft that he and his bandmates generate — a din that deserves to flood from your speakers at the highest volume tolerable. If you have a home stereo that can reach 100 decibels and neighbors who won't call the cops, put away the earbuds. This is an album that works best when it's actually shaking the air molecules of your personal living space.