GUNS ‘N’ ROSES… we can call them rock legends, at least if we think retrospectively about the original “classic” lineup, even if they were only together for a relatively short time. There’s a sweet sort of privilege to have been exposed to the joys of this older generation in one’s teenage years, when amazing albums like “Appetite for Destruction” were released. Not only was it a successful album, but it was something completely new and refreshing for that time period and added a lot of beautiful diversity to the hard rock scene. They followed this up with “Lies“… which did not ever really feel like a proper album. The band then waited 4 years, with the success of “Appetite for Destruction” still resonating. They could have easily released another album in that time, but instead, they punched the world in the face with not one but two “Use Your Illusion” records on September 17th, 1991. Today we’re celebrating 30 years since its release!
Once again, all stars aligned in the making of these two albums, with remarkable songwriting from duo Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin. Both artists had a different approach to songwriting, but they compliment each other, even when some songs were sung by Izzy Stradlin. The punk vibe from Duff McKagan on bass added a punchy, snappy sound that creates a perfect layer to support both guitarists. Matt Sorum on drums brought a new dimension with his powerhouse playing; there was nothing he couldn’t do with his kit. Slash skyrocketed with his heavy-blues style, playing and getting even more emotional and expressive with his solos, with the riffs sounding like vocal lines in many songs. Izzy Stradlin, besides being a great vocalist, was also a great support player to Slash. Everyone had their special role and style that contributed to the overall soundscape of the albums.
Both albums use the same cover art, but with different colors, using Raphael’s painting, The School of Athens, as done by artist Mark Kostab. “Use Your Illusion I & II” show how much the band had matured, even compared to the classics from “Appetite for Destruction.” They grew and expanded their sound with elements of country, blues, and progressive hard rock, while keeping their recognizable edgy GUNS ‘N’ ROSES hard rock style.
“Use Your Illusion I” starts immediately with three songs full of energy and anger, letting it all out with a song that Axl intentionally aimed at his neighbor in Hollywood who had sued him, with the song “Next Door To Hell“; the same subject was used with “Back Off Bitch” and “Bad Obsession.” “Bad Obsession” features the harmonica, giving a nice bluesy/country -style blend with the slide guitar, all wrapped with high gain sound to give flavor. The big radio hit was “Don’t Cry,” a calm song with a steady and unforgettable Slash solo. Axl‘s sharp vocals give the ballad some power, though the climax drags on unnecessarily long, with Axl singing until the end. Another version with alternative lyrics was introduced on “Use Your Illusion II,” though I wasn’t so sure what the purpose of having two versions was, as both albums are already quite fresh, material-wise.
“Live and Let Die” is a strong cover, adding some symphonic and hard rock punch, but not straying overly far from the original Paul McCartney version. It was nice to hear Slash playing the melody as a solo instead of the saxophone. “The Garden” has a bluesy beginning with a moderate acoustic accent, featuring a long slide guitar. This song kicks in more intensely with the heavier and doomier chorus sections featuring Alice Cooper on vocals.
One track that is commonly underappreciated is also the longest track, “Coma.” It is a rather theatrical song, with the use of a circular repeating chord progression. There are a couple of other interesting songs on the album that are the punk-influenced, like fast and furious “Garden of Eden” and the slow country/waltz with a heavy slide guitar of “You Ain’t the First.”
“November Rain” is a well-known hit. It’s a joyous wedding celebration through most of it’s playtime, but eventually morphs into a surreal funeral. There is a reason this is among the best rock songs of all time, such as Axl‘s piano ballad, the orchestration, and some of Slash‘s finest emotional guitar work.
“Use Your Illusion II” is then the first album’s twin brother. Starting with the political commentary of “Civil War,” they immediately grasp the listener with an interesting chord progression and use of the wah pedal with melodramatic lyrics. Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is a nice progression from the original again, with Slash recognizable in the guitar solos.
Terminator II: Judgment Day included “You Could Be Mine,” which naturally made it a big hit; in reality, this is an average GNR song at best, with an interesting main riff. The video had a main part propelling the song featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Estranged” is one of the most beautiful rock epics ever recorded. Sadly it has never really gained the reputation it deserves, but the song itself is a masterpiece. Between the gorgeous piano melodies, Axl‘s emotional vocal delivery, and one of the most melancholic yet unforgettable solos in GNR history, this song leaves every sense aroused.
“Use Your Illusion II” also includes a few interesting pieces. Izzy Stradlin, who wrote several songs on both albums, sang solo lead on “14 Years.” “Yesterdays” is a highly reflective song, which is a welcome reminder in life from time to time. Bassist Duff McKagan gets some time on the mic in “So Fine.” Provocative “Get In the Ring” has Axl getting personal and calling out several members of the music press by name. The second album concludes with the weird and distorted kind of rap in “My World,” which is an unfortunate filler track that feels tacked on the end to meet the high demand of thirty tracks per two albums.
It took these guys 4 years to release these two albums and the anticipation was enormous. Receiving two full (or arguably overly full) albums at once provided an amount of music that was staggering to digest. Surely, listening to the two albums over and over becomes repetitive, but at the time of its release, it was innovative. While surely including some of the band’s most bland filler, it also includes some of their best hits and most fabulous hidden gems. It remains an innovative blend of ’90s hard rock with country and blues, all the wrapped in distinguished heavy GUNS ‘N’ ROSES flavor. Long as they are, they remain remarkable albums from their own time.
Written by Peter Jerman
Use Your Illusion I
- Right Next Door To Hell
- Dust N’ Bones
- Live And Let Die
- Don’t Cry (Original)
- Perfect Crime
- You Ain’t The First
- Bad Obsession
- Back Off Bitch
- Double Talkin’ Jive
- November Rain
- The Garden
- Garden Of Eden
- Don’t Damn Me
- Bad Apples
- Dead Horse
Use Your Illusion II
- Civil War
- 14 Years
- Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
- Get In The Ring
- Shotgun Blues
- Pretty Tied Up
- So Fine
- You Could Be Mine
- Don’t Cry (Alt. Lyrics)
- My World
Axl Rose – lead vocals, piano, choir, synthesizer, programming, backing vocals, acoustic guitar, sound effects
Slash – lead guitar, rhythm guitar, slide guitar, acoustic guitar, dobro, classical guitar, talkbox, six-string bass, backing vocals
Izzy Stradlin – rhythm guitar, backing vocals, acoustic guitar, lead guitar, lead vocals
Duff McKagan – bass, backing vocals, acoustic guitar
Matt Sorum – drums, percussion, backing vocals, choir
Dizzy Reed – keyboard, backing vocals