We’re now five years and change into the Guns N’ Roses “reunion” – either three-fifths of the Appetite for Destruction lineup or two-thirds of the Use Your Illusions incarnation. Rumours have abounded for years with this latest version releasing new material but we’ve not actually heard anything of substance. In the meantime, both Slash and Duff McKagan have released albums under their own names and toured them. Recently, that all changed with the release of the aptly-named “Absurd”, a re-working of “Silkworms” from the Chinese Democracy era. And well, it had roughly the same quality. Which is to say, not good.
“Hard Skool”, however, is a breath of fresh air. Whilst their London show in 2017 was as lethargic and unimpressive a self-confessed hardcore fan like me knew it would be (because they weren’t fucked up on all sorts of substances with the hunger and vigour of youth, even if Slash does still show that in his solo efforts). At this point, it meant I had exceptionally low expectations for this new song but I’ll admit – it’s great. It’s strange and borderline inconceivable that in 2021, Guns N’ Roses have released a song which stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their golden era of the late 80s and early 90s.
As the song opens with a gnarly punk-fuelled bassline from Duff McKagan, he’s joined by a signature Slash riff, containing hints of Conspirators and Ain’t Life Grand-era Slash’s Snakepit. But it’s also charged with the thrashy aggression of Appetite and the complexity of Illusions towards the solo. There’s also some fairly simple yet elegant drum work in the vein of Steven Adler, albeit here it’s provided by Frank Ferrer but it still provides that layer of authenticity.
While “Hard Skool” is easily the best song in almost three decades from the band, the elephant in the room is Axl Rose’s vocals. Mainly because they’ve been lifted from a demo some twenty years ago when his voice was in much better shape, rather than his current effort (seriously, this sounds like he’s asking Minnie Mouse to be his). Sure, it might be cheating but combined with the “fuck you” theme of the lyrics, it helps anchor the song into that classic era that every fan holds in high regard. With its rough, ragged and sandpaper-y rasp and howls, the song takes on a raw and gritty feel reminiscent of the Hollywood Rose days and a sharp reminder that when it was at full tilt, Axl Rose had one of the most powerful and captivating voices in rock.
“Hard Skool” may have been knocking around corners of the internet for several years in various fashions but to have a new song with the ingrained chemistry and danger found on those classic records is something I never thought we’d hear. After these five years, they’ve finally pulled off the impossible – delivering on the nostalgia this line-up was meant to evoke.
Header image by Katarina Benzova