It’s been over six years since Scott Weiland’s split from Velvet Revolver, and it doesn’t seem like the band is even close to finding a replacement. So it’s natural for most fans and critics to write off Velvet Revolver as a rock n’ roll supergroup who at first glance didn’t contribute much to music. Yet there was actually a time when Velvet Revolver mattered to hard rock, when their existence was actually welcomed to those fans and critics who may now be quick to write them off. Why? One word: Contraband.
Before I delve into why Contraband is a hard rock album worth remembering, let’s first remember why the album’s existence is a miracle to begin with. It was in 2002 when Slash and his former Guns N’ Roses bandmates Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum regrouped to play a benefit show to the late Randy Castillo, playing with members of Buckcherry and Cypress Hill. The one-off show ignited a fire for the three former GN’R members to keep playing, leading them to spend the next two years attempting to find a singer (later joined by guitarist David Kushner, though Izzy Stradlin came pretty close to joining as well). At the time, it seemed like they auditioned everyone without much luck, as documented in the TV special VH1 Inside Out: The Rise of Velvet Revolver. It wasn’t until finding Weiland, who didn’t officially join until after recording a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Money” for the film The Italian Job and “Set Me Free” for the first Hulk film adaptation, that things finally start moving.
Yet even with Weiland onboard, expectations for a new band featuring three-quarters of GN’R weren’t exactly high. Sure “Set Me Free” was a fine straight-forward rock tune, and fans were certainly rooting for Slash and co. to pull something great off while Axl Rose was still taking his good old time with Chinese Democracy. However, it wasn’t as if each member’s post-GN’R project exactly blew the masses away (though I personally always did have a soft spot for Slash’s Snakepit). Could Velvet Revolver actually make an album that sounded relevant to 2004, let alone sounded good? Right as the masses began pondering that question, Velvet Revolver unleased “Slither.”
Sure, it had elements that fans that grew up on ‘80s metal could dig their teeth into, but nothing about it sounded “nostalgic.” With its soaring build-up of heavy riffs, Slash’s playing in fine form, and a strong sounding Weiland leading a rather catchy chorus, “Slither” served as a strong introduction to what Velvet Revolver was: a hybrid of in-your-face rock n’ roll swagger with a melodic modern flair. Velvet Revolver further backed that description with such heavy-hitters like “Do It For The Kids,” “Headspace,” “Dirty Little Thing” and “Sucker Train Blues.” And sure, the album had a few rock ballads meant to help Velvet Revolver cross over from hard rock to mainstream success. However, these weren’t typical love letters for the sake of being sappy. Songs like the mega-hit “Fall To Pieces” and “You Got No Right” reflected the personal struggles Weiland was facing at the time (prior to Contraband’s release, Weiland had once again been arrested for drug possession and was going through an ugly divorce).
Contraband quickly became the hard rock album that took the mainstream by surprise. Upon its release in June of 2004, Contraband debuted at #1 with 256,000 copies sold in its first week (eventually going on to sell over 4 million worldwide). The album’s success would lead to massive arena tours, hit singles, awards and notable television attention. It was the type of attention the hard rock scene hadn’t seen in a while (especially during a time when the music industry was dominated by Usher and Lil’ Jon). Unfortunately, Velvet Revolver’s follow up album, 2007’s Libertad, didn’t fare as well, proving to be a disappointment both critically and commercially (you could even make the argument that it was the straight-forward rock album many expected Contraband to be). And it only took another year for Velvet Revolver to implode, with Weiland’s departure leaving the band in a state of stagnancy. Yet at the time, Contraband proved Velvet Revolver wasn’t a supergroup of has-beens trying to relive its glory days. It was the creative reboot needed by each member of Velvet Revolver, and arguably gave an entire hard rock scene the boost it needed at the time.