Josh Homme is a man of many talents, but he's not quite a man of his time. He floats outside of it, sniping and sneering at it, but he's not part of it -- he's too in love with rock & roll to belong to a decade that's seeing the music's slow decline. You could say that Queens of the Stone Age keep rock's flame burning, but unlike other new-millennium true believers -- like Jack White, for instance -- Homme lacks pop skills or even the interest in crossing over (which isn't the same thing as lacking hooks, mind you), and unlike the stoner metal underground that provided his training ground, he's not insular; he thrives on grand visions and grander sound. He's an anomaly, a keeper of the flame that will never be played on Little Steven's Rock & Roll Underground because Queens of the Stone Age are too heavy, too muso, too tasteless in all the wrong ways to be commonly accepted or embraced as among the next generation of rock heroes -- which only makes them more rock & roll, of course. And if rock & roll is indeed in decline in the 2000s, Homme and his Queens of the Stone Age prove that rock & roll can nevertheless be just as potent as it ever was with each of their remarkable albums. All are instantly identifiable as QOTSA but all are quite different from each other, from the sleazoid freak-out of R to the dark, gothic undertow of Lullabies to Paralyze, a record so willfully murky that it alienated a good portion of an audience ready to bolt in the wake of the departure of Homme's longtime partner, Nick Oliveri. Its 2007 successor, Era Vulgaris, is as different from Lullabies as that was to their dramatic widescreen breakthrough, Songs for the Deaf: it's mercilessly tight and precise, relentless in its momentum and cheerful in its maliciousness. Like other QOTSA albums, guest musicians are paraded in and out, but here it's impossible to tell if Mark Lanegan contributed anything or if that indeed is the Strokes' Julian Casablancas singing lead on the lethal "Sick, Sick, Sick," because Homme has honed Era Vulgaris so scrupulously that it's impossible to hear anybody else's imprint on the overall sound. QOTSA retain some of the spookiness of Lullabies -- there's a ghostly hue on "Into the Hollow" -- but this is as balls-out rock as Songs for the Deaf, only minus the mythic momentum Dave Grohl lent that record. But Era Vulgaris isn't designed as a monolith like Songs; its appeal is in its lean precision, how the riffs grind as if they were stripping screws of their threads, how the rhythms relentlessly pulse, and, of course, how it's all dressed up in all kinds of scalding guitars, all different sounds and tones, giving this menace and muscle. If the songs aren't pop crossovers -- not even the soulful seductive groove of "Make It Wit Chu" (revived from one of Homme's Desert Sessions) qualifies it as a potential pop hit -- they still have hard hooks that make these manifestos even if they aren't anthems: "Misfit Love" digs in like a nasty Urge Overkill, "Battery Acid" is metallic and mean, blind-sided only by the gargantuan, gnarly "3's & 7's." It's hard to call Era Vulgaris stripped-down -- there's too much color in the guitar, too much willful weirdness to be that -- but this is Queens of the Stone Age at their most elemental and efficient, never spending longer than necessary at each song, yet managing to make each of these three-minute blasts of fury sound like epics. It's exhilarating, the best rock & roll record yet released in 2007 -- and the year sure needed the dose of thunder that this album provides.