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Contraband
Artist: Velvet Revolver 
Label: RCA, 
Length: 13 tracks, 56:55 minutes

Okay, let’s see what we have here. Former bad-boy members of late '80’s gargantuan hard-rock band team up with convicted drug addict ex-vocalist of popular '90’s grunge outfit to form a rock supergroup for the new millennium. They put a gun reference in their name, a drug reference in the album title and a shapely female silhouette on the cover. Sounds like the typical “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” cliché, doesn’t it. They should be filed under bands for good Christian kiddies to avoid, right? 
 
Wrong. There is hope and redemption evident throughout this debut album from Velvet Revolver and one should not assume that just because the stereotypical rock imagery is there that the message is a negative one. 
 
For starters, read the liner notes on this album and you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the latest Promise Keeper’s compilation. Former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland, who had his share of drug busts before going straight, writes: “To Mary, the only woman for me. It’s been a rough yet wonderful journey that God has lead us through and laid out before us, but I am so incredibly grateful for where we are standing today.” Weiland is not alone. The rest of the band -- of which the majority are former members of Guns’n’Roses, long since estranged from perfectionist former vocalist Axl Rose -- also extend heartfelt tributes to wives, children and extended families who have supported them through personally difficult times. 
 
It’s not quite the “F*** you!” attitude towards morality that we expect from our rock stars, is it? Granted, it’s that very attitude which has arguably produced the best rock’n’roll. However, neither should one assume that because Slash, Duff, Matt Sorum and Weiland have grown up and got some family values that they have lost all the musical fire that took them to the top a decade and a half ago, fuelled by youthful rebellion. As James Hetfield (Metallica) and Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction) have demonstrated in recent years, admitting and dealing with one’s weaknesses is the real proof of strength. 
 
So, do the new songs match the pedigree? To be honest, after hearing the first single “Slither” on radio I was expecting a little more from the rest of the album. This track is, hands down, THE best rock song of 2004. With its pounding intro - bass and drums thumping over scraped echoing guitars, lurching into a deadly riff – the song is reminiscent of Tool before it explodes into the perfect marriage of grunge and glam metal. The tempo changes that alternate with the classic Slash wah-solos bring the best of both worlds, and form the perfect meaty meal for any old school headbanger. The only mistake with “Slither” is that it is buried at number 10 on the album’s play list. It should have been the opener. If it had been, it might have made me more forgiving of the first five tracks of Contraband. Some good moments are scattered here and there, but on the whole, they fail to grab me in any compelling way, despite repeated listening. I find myself wanting to like them more because of track 10, but really, it’s a bit of a lolly scramble. 
 
Lyrically however, there are bright spots amidst a slurry of bitter post-divorce and post-addiction verbiage which reflect something of Weiland’s spiritual journey since going on the wagon. It might be just an old rocker’s desperation to offend, but his invocation of religious and apocalyptic imagery seems more like a catharsis of the soul to me. 

Hands are shaking / Got your finger on the trigger
Jesus ain’t complaining / Gonna figure it out
Brain and body melting while there’s roaches multiplying
It’s the alien infection / It’s the coming of Christ
All these sentimental halos and these consequential angels
When I’m runnin’ with the devil / Don’t deliver the fight
(“Sucker Train Blues”)  
In any case, the reflections of an ex-drug addict musician are probably always going to be somewhat garbled as he finds his feet again. Recovery happens one step at a time and has its share of frustrations. Take this for example: 
I say we’re all grown up now
And sex ain’t so safe now
It’s all in the groove they say
It doesn’t matter anyway
Showtime for strangers
Went too fast, I’m outta luck and I don’t even give a f***. 
(“Do It For the Kids”)  
Nevertheless, for any nostalgia that remains for the hard living days, there is equal conviction that the old life has passed and the new one is worth living well. “All that first-class drug s*** just brings me down” sings Weiland on “Big Machine”. He seems to admit that there were probably more important things to be concerned about in the past than partying and drugs. Now that he finds himself a “slave to the big machine / New World Order” he reflects “I guess I chose to be”. The final lyric looks to the future with a new wisdom:
Hope I teach my son how to be a man now before he hits 35
Comic book lives don’t really have any real life do they now 
By the time we get to the album’s first power ballad, “Fall to Pieces,” we’ve heard what are some fairly standard riffs and solos. With this song however, the music finally starts to transcend the clichés with a surging chorus and emotive solo from Slash that brings to mind some of the Gunners best moments. Weiland’s lyrics again express a heartfelt quest for salvation.  
It’s been a long year since you’ve been gone. 
I’ve been alone here, I’ve grown old
Every time I’m falling down, all alone I fall to pieces
All these years I’ve tried, with more to go, will the memories die? 
I’m waiting. Will I find you? Can I find you?  
From track six onwards, the songs get a lot better. “Headspace,” “Superhuman,” and “Set Me Free” all boast more gutsy riffs, while lyrically they scream for the same redemption as before, straining to exorcise the demons of the past and break the destructive cycles.  
I’m a man who is trudging through a minefield built to blast.
Can I make it? Will I make it? Will I last? 
Burn the rest of them that try to keep me enchained. 
Living taking chances isn’t all that it’s meant to be. 
(“Headspace”) 
 
A man is a destination never known. 
Cocaine / Alcohol / Lady-Lay / Withdrawal
I’m traveling on now / I’m making plans now
(“Superhuman”)  
After another decent ballad, “You Got No Right,” we come of course to that awesome aforementioned track number ten, “Slither.” In its title and poetry, it evokes a Jacobian struggle with the devil for the soul of a recidivist, suicidal sinner man. He’s hit rock bottom and got his redemption, but acknowledges that getting clean inevitably creates a burning temptation to get dirty again. (The time changes in this song brilliantly parallel the three-steps-forward-two-steps-back pattern of addiction recovery as they seesaw between plod and quick march tempos.) There is also the impression that he’s not alone in his struggle and a friend or partner is keeping him accountable. 
When you look you see right through me
Cut the rope I fell to my knees
Born and bloodied every single time.
Always keep me under finger
That’s the spot where you run to me
Might see some type of pleasure in my mind. 
Here comes the water; it comes to wash away the sins of you and I
This time you see, like holy water, 
It only burns you faster than you’ll ever dry 
How’s that for a powerful reminder of baptism and dying daily to self! This is followed by one more great song dealing with personal demons; “Dirty Little Thing”. This time the narrator, while admitting his own failings, pleads with another whose life is also self-destructing.  
Get away from the life you’re living
Get away from the man that’s stealing your life
Get away from the drugs you’re taking
Get away from the film of sex in your life 
At last we come to the closing ballad, “Loving the Alien,” which, by the way, is not a cover of the David Bowie tune. It’s an honest love song at the end of what has been a rugged road.  
Sometimes I think I’m scared
Sometimes I know I feel like making love, sometimes I don’t.
I feel like letting go. Maybe not. And I’m moving on. 
Am I still the man who makes you who you want to be?  
So there you have it; a modern, secular hard-rock album full of anti-drug messages, faithful married love and sobriety. It also looks like a UK import edition of this album contains an explicit, ardently anti-abortion song called “Bodies.” So, what more is there to say? 
 
The name Velvet Revolver is a contradiction, describing something metallic and hard which packs a mighty punch that is also sensual and soft to the touch. Perhaps the album title is also a riddle. This is a contradictory band; thus a _Contra-band_. Maybe I’m trying to dig too deep now. Whatever the real meaning is, I’m looking forward to album number two from Velvet Revolver, when time has healed the wounds of these musicians’ associations with their previous bands and made way for a new identity. So, in the meantime we should probably just return to the surface and enjoy this album for what it is; some damn fine rock’n’roll with heart and soul. Thanks guys! 
 

Brendan Boughen  9/6/2004
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