Acrimonious breakups be damned, Guns N’ Fucking Roses hairballs W. Axl Rose and Slash obviously long for each other like lovers. After ditching his mates in the mid-’90s, the shithouse-crazy howler dicked around with all manner of replacements, but when it came time for the new GNR to close the 2002 MVAs on MTV, Axl opted for…a shaggy ax-wielding sidekick with only one name: Buckethead (who was then, of course, promptly fired). In Saul “Slash” Hudson’s case, when the top-hatted guitar hero needed someone to front new Marshalls-stacked supergroup Velvet Revolver, he wrapped his inked-up arms around a flaky, self-destructive wailer all too familiar with “Mr. Brownstone”: Scott Weiland. Good lord: High-schoolers are more subtle.
For those of us who have yet to remove 1987’s Appetite for Destruction from our players—and who pathetically whisper of Axl’s long-delayed Chinese Democracy as if it’s some sort of sonic Shangri-La—the divorce-courting between the two great Gunners is both fascinating and frustrating. Axl and Slash are the once and future kings of hair-metal, a none-too-deep genre that once sold a sex-drugs-etc. lifestyle to horny teens—and now teases about rock-star trappings to flabby (and still kinda horny) adults who oughta know better. The boys’ lost-in-love affair, born in the shallows of the Sunset Strip, connects us to our youths gone wild.
That’s why Velvet Revolver’s current tour—a flamboyant time capsule of old, new, and endless Marlboros dangling from lips—is selling out in seconds flat. And it’s also a large part of the reason Slash & Co.’s new album, Contraband, plays like the most satisfying slug of rock-out-with-your-cock-out metal since, well, the Darkness’ 2003 gem Permission to Land. In these sour days of obligatory irony, there is nothing even close to wink-wink about the police sirens wailing at the start of Contraband’s first cut, which sound a lot as if someone’s back in the jungle, if you know what I mean.
Of course, whereas GNR songs had plenty of open, dangerous spaces and distinctive individual parts, Velvet Revolver’s 13 tunes offer the sound of five guys going all at once and as loud as they can. It’s less GNR for modern times than GNR for the hard of hearing. But who needs nuance? Contraband is loaded and layered with anthemic hooks, air-guitar dreams, and a whole lotta sinister rhythm from bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum, who can still go as gonzo as they did on Use Your Illusion II’s bullet-to-the-brain “You Could Be Mine.” (Rhythm guitarist Dave Kushner, from Duff’s post-GNR band Loaded, fills out the quintet.) It’s all quite silly and derivative, yes—but anything less would have been a disappointment.
If there’s a weak link, it’s Weiland. The forever 12-stepping frontman doesn’t have Axl’s range, and he certainly doesn’t have Axl’s rage, which gave GNR the edge over Poison, Ratt, and the rest of the hirsute hotshots. Stuck in STP mode, Weiland writes songs as if he were soundtracking a Michael Bay movie. You can certainly tell which cleaned-up-grungers are his: “Illegal I” and “Spectacle” start hard but go soft in the middle, with Weiland cooing for salvation while trying to sound epic. Warrant’s Jani Lane and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach never gave a shit about salvation, but apparently those out-of-work shriekers weren’t fucked up enough in Slash’s eyes.
Weiland also resorts far too
often to the ol’ moan-through-a-megaphone routine, a lame cover for his deteriorating voice. But Slash is the real hero here, and he can still convey all the carnal pleasures of West Hollywood with a single skull-ringed strum. The guitarist drives almost all of Contraband, working his ass off with those trademark blues-streaked solos that weave and jab like a desperate pugilist. On hard-harder-hardest first single “Slither,” which chugs along on gloriously tricky tempo changes, Slash’s big moment—delayed with a delicious one-two-three pause—erupts like a last-call saloon brawl. And you just know Slash had his shirt off when he played it.
Since-gone-missing Izzy Stradlin was the secret genius behind many of GNR’s most memorable hooks, but Slash definitely learned a few catchy tricks from his pal. “Fall to Pieces” is the obligatory ballad, and although its attempts at detailing the horrors of heroin addiction are, of course, funny, it plays like a more prickly “Patience”; Slash’s lullaby-like melody is legitimate reason alone to flick your Bic. “Set Me Free” and “Superhuman” speed along with a “Nightrain” ferocity but don’t go so fast that you can’t sing along. And “Headspace” features Slash’s swarthiest stoner-rock riff since “Rocket Queen.”
Contraband wouldn’t be a good hair-metal album if the lyrics weren’t really stupid. And they are—as dumm as they come, whether they’re about fucking, drugs, or more fucking. Only 13-year-olds would find the techno-edged “Big Machine” to be a careful meditation on these media-driven times: “It’s a big machine/It’s a big machine/ We’re all slaves to a big machine.” Good thing the accompanying music is a thoroughly take-no-prisoners lesson in Mordor-sized riffing. Album opener “Sucker Train Blues” is chock-full of the disc’s flimsiest gobbledygook—“Somebody raped my tapeworm abortion/Come on motherfuckers and deliver the cow”—but those here-come-the-fuzz sirens and the rampaging beat are pure neck-snapping bliss. Slash unloads another fastest-finger solo as if he knows damn sure these good times ain’t gonna last.
He’s right, of course. Velvet Revolver will no doubt have a short shelf life, if for no other reason that Weiland can’t seem to keep his scrawny ass out of Betty Ford. So Slash keeps rolling, track after track, like a freight train. ’Cause rock ’n’ roll is the only life he knows. And ’cause Axl—freakish cheekbone implants and all—is out there somewhere, waiting, watching, and planning his rebuttal in this lover’s spat that won’t end until the inevitable glorious reunion. CP