Building a ‘supergroup’ could be a very tricky thing. By definition alone, they are a novelty of musicians from previously successful bands put together forming a make-shift act. While having built-in fan bases from each of the members, it still creates the problem of preconceptions holding those same members to a higher standard. It’s always been a strange mixed bag. Sometimes it works (The Traveling Wilburys, Them Crooked Vultures, even Gorillaz) sometimes it doesn’t (Black Country Communion, Chickenfoot) and sometimes, they are hard to even get off the ground. What happens when a supergroup comes together and actually works out because it kinda doesn’t? We get Velvet Revolver.
After performing at a private benefit concert in 2002, Slash, Duff McKagen formerly of Guns N’ Roses, decided they should form a band together with Matt Sorum (drummer for The Cult who as also played drums on the Use Your Illusion albums with GnR before being fired soon after Slash quit the band). Soon McKagen introduced Slash to his highschool friend Dave Kushner, who previously played guitar with Wasted Youth, Danzig and Dave Navarro, and almost instantly a band a supergroup was formed. They auditioned a handful of singers such Travis Meeks of Days Of The New and Sebastion Bach, but ultimately decided upon the reluctant Scott Weiland of then recently broken up Stone Temple Pilots. Without even deciding on a band name, they quickly entered the studio and recorded two songs that would later appear on two movie soundtracks. One of the songs “Set Me Free” managed to reach number 17 on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts without proper radio distribution or being singed to a label! The went back to the studio and worked as a proper band with a producer to complete a full length record eventually signing to RCA The album Contraband was released in 2008 and debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart.
Despite the media callling Velvet Revolver a “mash-up of GnR and STP”, the album manages to defy that label. Oddly enough, the GnR combo of Slash/Duff/Sorum comes out sounding completely less like GnR than Axel Rose’s version of the band with his Chinese Democracy record. Weiland’s vocals and front man poise sounds more like a hybrid of Jim Morrison and David Bowie than he ever did in STP, and even Kushner’s explosive guitar work takes on a more industrial rythmic style that wasn’t found on any of his previous studio work. In a unexpected turn of events, Velvet Revolver was a legitimate band that didn’t rely on the tropes of their member’s previous work.
Most of the songs feature gritty, pounding rhythms with distorted bass, chunky guitar riffs, squealing solos and seedy vocal performance acting like the icing on an already sleazy cake. Lyrically it’s about the dark side of self destruction with women, drugs and lifestyle, which was to be expected, but even though these elements of each member are brought to the table with heavy-headed ego, it all comes together and actually works because it shouldn’t. For ever song like Sucker Train Blues and Dirty Little Thing than sound just as hungry and vicious as anything from Appetite For Destruction, there’s songs like You’ve Got No Rights and Headspace that blow the roof off anything Scott did with STP. They combine the raw blues-based grind that GnR fired on with the tormented, seduction of Tiny Music era STP, and use this dark, distorted industrial grind as sort of a glue, creating something that is actually hard to describe without listening with an open mind.
With all of the dangerous destruction found throughout the album, they still manage to craft a couple ballads that are just as delicate as they are hard hitting. One being the summer hit Fall To Pieces that peaked at number one, and the other Loving The Alien which closes the album and ends up being one of the stronger, unexpected songs on the record. Weiland croons “Sometimes I think I’m scared, sometimes I know” as if he is emotionally owning up to the self-destruction that has plagued his adult life and admitting that his front man charisma is a front hiding his deep insecurity. It’s a touching sound that showcases that Velvet Revolver is more than a novelty that most critics had written them off as.
Or were they? After the success of Contraband the band toured and worked on a follow-up despite falling victim to all of their previous vices: sex, drugs, and rock n roll. In and out of jail and rehab, the follow up record ended up being a completely different beast (in which a review I will save for another time) before ultimately going on an expected extended hiatus.
Contraband to me, was actually one of the strongest hard-rock records of the entire decade and at the time of it’s release, had me excited for the genre much like The Strokes’ Is This It? had me for alternative rock a few years before it. The clashing of egos and synergy that oozes out of every pore on this record acts something of an additional instrument on it’s own, reminding the listener that all good rock n roll IS arrogant, self-destructive, and ready to explode at any given moment, falling apart or going off like an atom bomb. It’s the very nature that had been missing within the genre and arguably today. It’s why we love bands like The Rolling Stones, Van Halen, and of course Guns N’ Roses and Stone Temple Pilots! When listening to musicians that may or may not get along, it’s true we miss out on the chemistry of comradery, but we’re also taken on an extremely interesting roller coaster of unpredictability. Contraband is all of those things, and while the mainstream has all but forgot about this short-lived supergroup, it still manages to be one of my favorite records out of the 2000s. Check it out.