The odds are stacked against Velvet Revolver. Their singer, Scott Weiland, is currently in drug rehab for the umpteenth time. Who knows if he'll be a free man when it's time to tour, and judging from his past history, it could be a struggle for him to stay clean when the band hits the road.
As for his bandmates — ex-Guns N' Roses members Slash (guitar), Duff McKagan (bass) and Matt Sorum (drums), and former Suicidal Tendencies guitarist Dave Kushner — they're ready to rock, but there's some question whether the rock community is ready to embrace them. Over a decade has passed since most of the lineup set stages alight with Guns, and since then the members have embarked on other projects without much mainstream success.
Velvet Revolver are fighting an uphill battle for sure; it's one of the main reasons their music sounds so volcanic. They know they have everything to prove on their debut album, Contraband, which comes out May 18, and they're shouting, "Bring it on!" Even after a single listen, it's clear that Velvet Revolver have met the challenge, creating a punchy, aggressive and uncompromising disc that emanates the hunger and vitality of Appetite for Destruction-era GN'R, back when the bandmembers were wild, wasted and struggling to succeed.
"We're probably more aggressive and angrier than ever," Sorum said. "It's definitely an aggressive, dangerous, sexy rock and roll album."
In some ways Contraband is the sum of its parts. Slash fires off an arsenal of bluesy metal riffs and serpentine solos, McKagan and Sorum lay down throbbing, swaggering rhythms and Weiland sings in a voice that's equal parts rage and pained regret. But while Velvet Revolver conjure the ghosts of Stone Temple Pilots and '80s GN'R, there are lots of other demons at play that drive Contraband, and prevent it from sounding retro.
Kushner provides important counterbalance to Slash's trademark playing, enhancing the songs with layered guitar textures and scratchy post-punk passages that are sometimes reminiscent of Jane's Addiction (before joining, Kushner played in Dave Navarro's solo band). "It doesn't sound exactly like either one of our bands," Sorum said. "There are elements of GN'R, and these vocals sound a little bit like STP, of course, but I mean it — it's a different album and it's a contemporary record."
The first single, "Slither," opens with brooding bass and gurgling guitar before erupting into a head-bobbing rocker that could be Soundgarden covering STP. Then the chorus kicks in, and Slash picks a familiar distorted guitar lick while Weiland croons an infectious line that'll make for an obvious concert sing-along.
In "Illegal," a staccato guitar punctuates the main verse, then drops out for the Beatles-y chorus. On "Set Me Free," which was also featured in the soundtrack to "The Hulk," an angular lick segues into a blazing, decadent guitar line, creating images of a speeding, swerving car on a slick, windy road. The excitement of heightened reality hangs thick, but disaster could lurk around the next bend.
The intensity of the music on Contraband is a selling point, but it's Weiland's personal, heartbroken lyrics that fill the songs with lingering emotion. The guy has had it rough over the past year. He was arrested for drugs, busted for driving under the influence, ordered into rehab and his wife left him. These traumatic experiences resonate in his verse. "I keep a journal of memories, feeling lonely can't leave/ Fall to pieces, I'm falling/ Fell to pieces and I'm still falling," he sings in "Fall to Pieces."
Some songs deal directly with Weiland's addiction. On "Big Machine," he sings, "He's a junkie piece of sh-- because you say so/ All that first-class tough sh-- brings me down, down, down." More of the tunes address his marital woes. "I broke through the ice, she won't be coming back again," he laments on "You Got No Right."
Clearly Weiland hurts and he regrets what has happened to him, but he gives very little indication that he wants to change his lifestyle to win back the things he has lost. Instead, he comes off as cocky and obstinate, condemning the people around him for pushing him into the hole in which he has fallen. For much of the record, he's on the defensive. "Kick the town with broken bones ... Fight now, stand your ground," he sings in "Spectacle." And in "Headspace," Weiland half-boasts, "Through a minefield, build to blast/ Will I make it will I last? ... Free my mind, don't let any of those f---ers in my headspace."
Velvet Revolver's Contraband may not be particularly positive or hip-sounding, but its musical turbulence more than makes up for that. In fact, the friction and candid volatility make it one of the most honest records to come along since Alice in Chains' self-titled final offering. Like that band's late frontman, Layne Staley, Weiland is a gifted but tragic figure whose addictive personality and vulnerability color his music. Only time will tell whether Weiland will be able break the chain and truly enjoy all he has created.