"A lot more fun than Chinese Democracy": Supergroup Velvet Revolver mostly live up to the hype on Contraband

Did Velvet Revolver produce an album to do the legacy of Guns N' Roses proud? Or was it just another under-achieving and short-lived side-project?

Velvet Revolver: Contraband cover art
(Image: © RCA Records)

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Velvet Revolver: Contraband

Velvet Revolver: Contraband cover art

(Image credit: RCA Records)

Sucker Train Blues
Do It for the Kids
Big Machine
Illegal I Song
Fall to Pieces
Set Me Free
You Got No Right
Dirty Little Thing
Loving the Alien

The most eagerly awaited album of 2004 came from a grizzled gaggle of Gunners and a frontman whose CV read like a toxicology report, but Velvet Revolver's Contraband avoided the curse of so-called ‘supergroup’ records in that it wasn't indulgent. There was a palpable desire to deliver on their promise, and a feeling of edge that couldn’t be faked. 

It was Slash who offered frontman Scott Weiland the lifeline of joining Velvet Revolver when the singer was at an all-time low. The guitarist’s former Guns N’ Roses bandmates Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum were already in place, but when an initially ambivalent Weiland came on board he immediately raised the game. 

Slither and Set Me Free (hurriedly written for the Hulk soundtrack) made the mosh pits explode while Fall To Pieces gave Velvet Revolver their very own Sweet Child O’Mine moment: a lighters-aloft anthem, complete with melodic bassline and skyscraping solo. As muscular and wiry as a featherweight boxer – or Weiland himself. The singer was back.

Did they produce an album to do the legacy of Guns proud? Or was it just another under-achieving and short-lived side-project? Classic Rock magazine named it the best album of 2004, so perhaps it succeeded on both counts. 

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Other albums released in June 2004

  • Auf der Maur - Melissa Auf der Maur
  • Once - Nightwish
  • Outta Sight/Outta Mind - The Datsuns
  • Rewired - Mike + The Mechanics
  • Asshole - Gene Simmons
  • The Empire Strikes First - Bad Religion
  • Sonic Nurse - Sonic Youth
  • Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge - My Chemical Romance
  • Dark Matter - IQ
  • Disclaimer II - Seether
  • Hot Fuss - The Killers
  • Undermind - Phish
  • Gettin' in Over My Head - Brian Wilson
  • A Ghost Is Born - Wilco
  • Houses of the Molé - Ministry
  • Inferno - Motörhead
  • Power of the Blues - Gary Moore
  • Unbreakable - Scorpions
  • Will to Death - John Frusciante
  • The Cure - The Cure
  • The Eye of Every Storm - Neurosis
  • The Gorge - Dave Matthews Band
  • Hollywood Potato Chip - The Vandals
  • In Between Evolution - The Tragically Hip
  • This Magnificent Distance - Chris Robinson
  • Mojave - Concrete Blonde
  • Revival - The Reverend Horton Heat
  • Watch Out! - Alexisonfire
  • We Are Not Alone - Breaking Benjamin
  • White2 - Sunn O)))

What they said...

"Contraband is, in fact, tighter and hotter in construction and attack than we had any right to expect from a band that started out auditioning vocalists while being filmed for a VH1 reality show. Weiland and the emeritus Gunners are not shy about flashing pedigree: Sucker Train Blues opens the album with zooming-underwater bass, pneumatic gallop and flying chunks of superfuzz guitar – Appetite for Destruction in miniature – while Weiland pulls out his police-bullhorn-style bark from STP’s Sex Type Thing." (Rolling Stone)

"The GN'R core – guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Matt Sorum – blare as if unleashing all the energy for which they've had no outlet since splitting with Axl Rose. Like a refurbished Corvette tearing down Sunset Strip, they're determined to ROCK, dammit, and they go about their job with a revved-up efficiency." (Entertainment Weekly)

"Contraband sounds pretty much like you'd expect of such a collaboration. Lead single Slither is an immediate highlight, its gasoline-drinking cocaine strut staining it as the offspring of Big Bang Baby and Nightrain, while the album's detours – Fall To Pieces, the gorgeous Loving the Alien – are painted in dusty reds and browns, like idealized fever dreams of escaping to the desert with the one you love." (AllMusic)

What you said...

Mike Canoe: The early aughts (or noughties) were a very bad time for hard rock and heavy metal, arguably even worse than the nineties. The kids were listening to indie bands that would have been labelled "soft rock" in another decade and the music critic establishment was still hung up on getting us to like The Strokes. The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Kasabian, and TV On The Radio all released their debut albums in 2004 but they all rocked in that ironic post-punk way.

What was a rock fan in their mid-thirties to do? Embrace Green Day as classic rock?

In swaggers Velvet Revolver, ready to make sleaze and decadence cool again. With the average age of the band members pushing forty, here were the older brothers we needed to bring back the rock and, just as importantly, the fun to music.

And, for one album, it worked.

Contraband (Interesting title, that, suggesting that this kind of hard rock had to be smuggled in illegally) works. Yes, it is more Stone Temple Pilots (and, by extension, three of the four major grunge bands) than Guns 'n' Roses, but it still rocks. Covers little to no new ground, but it still rocks.

Big hit Slither is still a bop. The band hits their stride early with a nice trifecta of rockers with Big Machine, Illegal I Song, and Spectacle and in case you have the urge to wave your lighter (or cell phone), ballads Fall To Pieces and Loving The Alien are there for you.

It was fun while it lasted. Since most of these guys were not known for their stability, I’m honestly surprised they managed to release a second album. For all I know, that album, Libertad, might be as good as Houses Of The Holy but like most of the world, I never listened to it.

Still, Contraband was a lot more fun than Chinese Democracy which was still two (or a million, as far as we knew) years away.

Adrian Bolster: This is a very good album and I enjoyed rediscovering it. Better than I remembered it.

Greg Schwepe: Being a huge fan of both Stone Temple Pilots and Guns N' Roses, of course I snatched up Velvet Revolver's Contraband when it came out (heck, I even had both Slash’s Snakepit albums and a Scott Weiland solo album). Yet another “best of both worlds” supergroup combination featuring members of platinum-selling bands who left their former group, got kicked out, or any other myriad of reasons. Audioslave beat Velvet Revolver to the punch in the 2000s with the “hey, let’s take a big-time vocalist and stick him in a band with a big-name guitar player!” idea. “Hey Scott, it’s Slash and I’ve got Duff with me. Hear me out, I’ve got an idea…”

And when you get this combination, what can go wrong? Well, nothing really in the case of this debut. I’ve always really liked Slash’s guitar, Duff’s ringing bass tone, and Scott Weiland’s swaggering vocal style.

Best song? For me, hands down, it’s Slither. That chugging repetitive riff seems to be the defining song for this band. So, what does a band sound like with former GN'R and STP members? Slither… end of story. And yes, the rest of the album is chockful of nice hard rock gems. For me, there was no real filler as Do It For The Kids, and Dirty Little Thing kept me reaching for the Volume Up button.

But supergroups like this always seem to be short-lived for the most part. They either implode, their former bands decide to get together again and take back a formerly scorned member (Scott Weiland, I'm looking at you), or someone decides to make a true solo album (Slash, I'm looking at you). And while this is a decent hard rock album, would anything they made ever surpass albums their previous bands made? Not by a longshot, but it provides some great listening in the meantime.

8 out of 10 for me on this one. And I get a bonus point for not trying to come up with some silly name combo using their former band names.

Velvet Revolver - Slither (Official Video) - YouTube Velvet Revolver - Slither (Official Video) - YouTube
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Chris Elliott: You wonder quite what they were using as speakers when they mixed it - dustbins? It's a muddy mess – not lo-fi – just muddy.

Then given I thought Stone Temple Pilots were about the largest travesty possible. This is worse. For this song I'll be Eddie Vedder. Now I'll be a truly awful Cornell. It's monumentally awful. Every second wasted, you're thinking you could just listen to Black Hole Sun and enjoy it.

Musically it's fine, derivative and completely lacking fire, but compared to the vocals it's great. Sorry, I've been trying not to write negative reviews, but this deserves a kicking. AI Grunge.

Clay Miller: I don't know what everybody is talking about. I thought this album was amazing. The second album was good but not nearly as good. There wasn't a bad song on this debut.

Tony Bickerdike: Pretty decent album. Fall To Pieces is one of the best rock songs. Then we have Slither. Awesome. An amazing intro that I’m not sure can be bettered. You Got No Right. A delicate song, when, listened to now, has clear indications of the struggles Scott Weiland was going through. The remaining tracks are strongly GN'R influenced and could find themselves at home on an expanded edition of Appetite For Destruction. Definitely an album worthy of inclusion in any hard rock fan’s music collection

John Davidson: Contraband arrived with a lot of expectations and, at the time it almost seemed to satisfy them. Why then has it fallen into relative obscurity?

Sucker Train Blues arrives like a lost track from the late 80s, full of sleazy guitars and a pummelling energy, but like most of the tracks on the album it becomes too repetitive and doesn’t develop into a classic like it promises to. Big Machine does much the same, as do the softer songs like Fall To Pieces and Loving The Alien.

Even though they are all under six minutes (and most of them under five), many of the songs hang around for longer than they need to. Almost as if fade-outs were out of fashion but the band couldn’t think of a way to finish off the tune.

The overall tone of the album is a melange of influences. The grungy mix matches the vocal styling but the song-writing is more classic rock and I’m not convinced that it works as well as it should.

Weiland is a capable singer but somehow lacks charisma. He can mimic a number of styles and that brings versatility, but it makes the vocals less distinctive than say a Chris Cornell or even an Axel Rose. How good would Loving The Alien be if it was actually David Bowie singing it rather than Weiland nodding in his general direction?

Overall this is a good rather than great album - as so many 'supergroup' efforts tend to be.

An interesting experiment, and definitely worth a few listens but I prefer Slash’s work with Miles Kennedy to any of the songs on Contraband.

Evan Sanders: Listening to this 20 years after release, knowing the fates of the band members as well as the ongoing Axl Rose drama, really makes it a refreshing listen. Unlike others in the thread, I find it to be more of GN'R feel with a different lead singer. I was even imagining Axl singing lead on a few songs, such as Sucker Train Blues, Headspace, Slither, and Dirty Little Thing. To my surprise, I didn't enjoy the power ballad Fall To Pieces as much, finding it more formulaic than something like November Rain or Creep. It's not the best that any of these musicians put out, but it's a solid option for those who were yearning at no end for Axl Rose to rejoin his mates or for those mourning what could have been with Stone Temple Pilots. 6/10

Velvet Revolver - Fall To Pieces (Official Video) - YouTube Velvet Revolver - Fall To Pieces (Official Video) - YouTube
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Philip Qvist: I can't believe that this album was released 20 years ago, but I guess it's true - time does indeed fly.

I remember when I first saw Velvet Revolver on MTV, when the Slither video appeared on their channel in mid 2004. I initially thought it could be a GN'R reunion once Slash, Duff and Matt Sorum appeared in the video - but the appearance of Scott Weiland and Dave Kushner put that thought to rest. Still, I was impressed with what I had seen and heard, and within weeks, after some quick research on the net, I had purchased the Contraband CD.

As I have already mentioned, it's an album that picked up a lot of acclaim at the time but it now seems to have slipped into the forgotten category - possibly overshadowed by Scott Weiland's difficulties and subsequent death.

Enough of all of that though; what do I think of the album? The musicianship is top-notch, the songwriting is relatively strong and we have an album that sounds more like the STP rather than GN'R. It certainly rocks - although I doubt it broke new ground, other than to announce that rock was still very much alive in the 2000s.

My favourite tracks are Sucker Train Blues, Fall To Pieces, Slither, Set Me Free and Loving the Alien. Although there are no duds on Contraband, my one minor quibble is that the album is too long - and that a couple of tracks should have been culled from the final product.

Despite that, I still like the record; it's definitely on my list of Top 20 Albums from that decade - and if Classic Rock named it as their Best Album for 2004, then who am I to argue? An 8/10 from me.

Hermen Dijkstra: Some solid songs. To me it’s dated, time was harsh for the hype.

James Southard: Fantastic album.

Brennan Davis: Sucker Train Blues, Big Machine, Slither... awesome! Combines some of the best of GN'R with STP.

Brian Hart: Let me start by saying I am a huge GN'R fan and always loved STP. That being said, I find this album good but far from great. Slither is a monster and Set Me Free is incredible. Fall To Pieces is one of the best ballads of the 2000s. Big Machine rocks as well. After that, I the album falls into mediocrity. 

Slash is my all-time favorite guitarist and I love everything he has ever produced. However, I find his SMKC and Snakepit releases far superior to Velvet Revolver. For unknown reasons (although addiction did rear its head during VR), I just don’t think this band or album ever clicked on all cylinders. And Libertad was a huge disappointment and much more inferior than Contraband. It’s a solid debut and extremely listenable but when you have talents like Slash, Duff, and Weiland in one band, I just feel like this one fell short of expectations. I’d give this album 3 out of 5 stars.

Martin White: I remember being excited to hear this album when it was released, as I loved the single Slither. However, I was really disappointed with it, thinking it was generic and dull. I never bothered listening to it again until this week. I don't know what I was thinking back then. This album is excellent, and I ended up listening to it three times back to back.

Final score: 7.43 (89 votes cast, total score 662)

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