Queens Of The Stone Age, Civic Hall, Wolverhampton

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The Independent Culture

I can hear the screech of two low jets from the bar. Nick Oliveri and Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age, learnt to play with their first heavy-rock band, Kyuss, in the Californian desert, so such volume and excess are second nature. But that sound proves deceptive. Closer listening reveals one of the more melodic, subtly inventive rock bands in America.

As you enter the venue, it's Oliveri you notice first - wiry, wizened, topless and bald, with a forked beard that makes him seem like a goblin as he scrunches his face up to the mic to scream. With simian arms stretching down to his guitar, he's a talisman, the Queens' primal element. Despite claiming he'd arrived here, in the Black Country, "to get my hampton wolvered", he does not favour us with his regular habit of going bottomless, too. Josh Homme, short-haired and in a shirt, is more ordinary-looking, but has participated equally in the Queens' legends of touring devilry. And then there's the third vocalist, Mark Lanegan, formerly of Screaming Trees, whose presence demonstrates the high calibre of guest that the Queens effortlessly attract - Nirvana's Dave Grohl postponed a Foo Fighters album to drum with them last year.

What strikes you very quickly is the rough-hewn unison they achieve with three rearing guitars, chopping against driving drums, with Beach Boys high harmonies creaming the top. You'd go a long way to find a British rock band so finely honed, and a long way to hear another US one so comfortable with what at times sounds like jerky New Wave and at others like angular post-punk, but turned up to 11 and aimed at the charts.

Homme has said: "The last thing I want to see is a bunch of hot, sweaty boys slamming at our shows", and the feminising, even androgynising, of hard rock begun by Nirvana continues here, with just one boy slam-dancing mildly in spare space, and no macho excess from boys or girls. Apart from at the front, though, there's surprisingly little movement, intensity or sense of connection in the hall. When Lanegan takes over and Oliveri slouches away, especially, the lack of overwhelming power or light and shade does make the Queens' muscular pop turn sludgy.

It's only with the encore, and especially their self-explanatory single "Feel Good Hit of the Summer", that this really feels like a place you need to be. Chords come down fast, and a scratchy guitar solo from Homme serves as foreplay to accurate, full-volume chucking of everything they've got at the wall, where it sticks. The crowd surges. A few more tunes like that, and the Queens could be rock's Kings yet.

Brixton Academy, London SW9 (020-7771 3000) tonight

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