Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion I & II Super Deluxe (UMe/Geffen, 7 CDs + Blu-ray). This is one heavy box set, weighing about seven pounds. It contains the band’s third and fourth simultaneously released albums remastered from high-resolution 96kHz 24-bit transfers from the original stereo 1/2-inch analog master tapes. In addition to the original 30 songs, there are 67 more songs, 63 of which are unreleased audio and video tracks. The set includes two complete live shows, one prior to the albums’ Sept. 17, 1991, release and one afterwards. The discs are housed in a 100-page hardcover book, containing unreleased photos, memorabilia, archival documents and lyrics. There are also numerous replicated artifacts.
The original albums rightfully come with a parental guidance sticker, as singer Axl Rose lets loose with some particularly frank language, especially in his rapid-fire yelps on the speed rockers, such as “Right Next Door to Hell,” which opens the first album, and “Perfect Crime.” Female targets are hit particularly hard, including his mother in “Bad Obsession,” while “Back Off Bitch” has disdain very up front. The lyrics also stab at music business “sycophants,” organized religion and bad elected officials in the speed rocker “Garden of Eden.” Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin offers “Double Talkin’ Jive” and sings “Dust n’ Bones,” which sounds greasier. The first album’s sole cover is a steroid version of Paul McCartney and Wings’ James Bond theme, “Live and Let Die.”
Throughout, Stradlin and lead guitarist Slash, especially, play standout guitar. The ballad “Don’t Cry,” from the band’s L.A. club days, is enlivened by Slash’s loud guitar solo, but for some reason, Slash plays a classical-guitar bit at the end of the otherwise galloping “Double Talkin’ Jive.” The album includes the nearly 9-minute “November Rain,” which has electro-orchestration and a cool coda, highlighted by Slash’s melodic playing. It charted for 30 weeks. “You Ain’t the First” has more of a down home on the porch sound. There is lots of harmonica on “Bad Obsession.” Alice Cooper offers guest vocals on the slower “The Garden.”
“Don’t Cry,” which also shows up on “Use Your Illusion II” with alternate lyrics, became a Top Ten hit. The album’s ten-minute closer, “Coma,” is about suicide dreams and troubled resurrection.
The second album reduces the number of tracks from 16 to 14 and includes the hits “Civil War,” a power ballad with pounding piano that uses some dialogue from the film “Cool Hand Luke,” and “You Could Be Mine,” which was featured in the “Terminator 2” film. There is more piano in “14 Years,” one of several love-gone-wrong songs, as is the long and lonely “Estranged.” This album’s version of “Don’t Cry” is bittersweet. The cover this time is of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” itself from the film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”
Live crowd sounds open “Get in the Ring,” during which the band criticizes its detractors by name. Rose again is foul-mouthed. The following “Shotgun Blues” is in similar style. Stradlin wrote and plays the opening sitar on “Pretty Tied Up,” while “So Fine” is a ballad.
Two CDs and the Blu-ray feature the complete show, “Live In New York” (126 min.), taped at the Ritz Theatre on May 16, 1991, with sound newly mixed from original multi-track tapes. The performance was one of three warmup shows for the “Use Your Illusion Tour” and features Stradlin on guitar, as well as the original version of “Don’t Cry” and “You Ain’t the First” both of which feature the late Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon on guest vocals. Stradlin jumps into the crowd at the end of “Paradise City.” Slash plays little bits of covers, namely Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” before “Civil War,” Rod Stewart’s “I Was Only Joking” before “Patience” and Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed” before “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The 18-song show includes 10 songs from the then-yet-to-be-released albums, as well as solos by Slash and ex-The Cult drummer Matt Sorum.
The concert film is newly transferred from 35mm film prints to 4K UHD and presented in 1080p 24fps HD, along with audio mixed in Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround, and PCM 48kHz 24-bit stereo. The Blu-ray menu also features a brand-new live music video of “You Could Be Mine.”
Another three CDs contain the complete audio recording of “Live In Las Vegas,” recorded at the Thomas & Mack Center on Jan. 25, 1992, and newly mixed from the original multi-track tapes. Here, guitarist Gilby Clarke has replaced Stradlin. Among the covers during the show are “Live and Let Die,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” “Speak Softly, Love (Love Theme from ‘The Godfather’),” Queen’s “Sail Away Sweet Sister” and a combination of The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” “Only Women Bleed” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” This is the first release of any complete audio and video concerts from the “Use Your Illusion” era. (I saw the band March 8, 1993, in Portland, part of their “Skin N’ Bones” tour, with Queen’s Brian May as the opening act.)
The bonus material includes a Conspiracy Inc. replica fan club folder with a membership card, four Conspiracy Inc. 1991/1992 “Use Your Illusion” era replica fan club newsletters, 10 double-design lithos that reveal one of two unique images when inserted into the supplied red & blue reveal sleeves, seven band 8”x10” photo prints, four “Use Your Illusion” tour replica cloth sticky backstage passes, a Ritz Theatre 5/16/1991 replica concert ticket (with the original misprinted date of 5/15/1991) and a new 24”x36” band poster.
The set comes in an anamorphic illusion box, showcasing each of the two covers at different angles. There also is a 12-LP box, pressed on 180-gram heavy weight audiophile black vinyl with six premium tip-on gatefold jackets. Grade: box set A+
The Tubular Bells 50th Anniversary Tour: Live at The Royal Festival Hall (Cleopatra/MVD Visual, 2 Blu-rays, 195 min.). It does not seem like 50 years, but it has been that long since Mike Oldfield, then 19, released his historic “Tubular Bells” album, 55 minutes of intriguing instrumental music that went where no one else was going at the time. Oldfield, who performed most of the 20 or so instruments himself, was the first artist to release an album on Virgin Records. A section of the work was used as the theme for the film “The Exorcist,” helping it gain popularity. This release includes a complete show, arranged by Robin Smith, who has worked with Oldfield for 30 years, and featuring acrobatic dance performances by the Australian Circa Contemporary Circus during the main piece. Other than giving his approval for the project, Oldfield had nothing to do with the show.
The show opens with “The Gem,” a new, melodic, four-part, 18-minute piece by Smith, followed by “Summit Day” from Oldfield’s “Guitars” album, here with vocalizing by soprano Sophie Rohleder, then Oldfield’s famous “Moonlight Shadow,” sung by Lisa Featherston, who also plays bass throughout the show.
The rest of the 86-minute show is dedicated to “Tubular Bells,” which begins on the piano (Dominic Ferris) and is picked up by the glockenspiel (percussionists Kevin Earley and Sophie Hastings). Modulations are gradually built in, first with a soprano voice (Sophie Rohleder) and cello (Kuêsi Edman), followed by rich orchestration that includes acoustic and electric guitars, reed and pipe organs, percussion and mandolin. There is a shift to the insistent beats of rock, including the haunting sounds of slightly distorted guitars (Jay Stapley and Maxime Raguideau-Obadia), before the tubular bells themselves … and that is only the first half of the piece.
Choreographed by Yaron Lifschitz, the Circa performers move to the music in ways that convey the piece’s mysteriousness and joyousness. Initially, the athletic performers do not add much, but they become more interesting when they incorporate aerial movements. On a screen behind the stage, an ever-changing glowing sphere rotates, suggestive of the Earth but never definitively becoming it until near the show’s end.
The second disc is a documentary (103 min.), partially narrated by actor Bill Nighy, of the preparations for the show. The documentary also focuses on the original album. While there is no Oldfield, Thomas Newman, who co-produced and engineered the original album, talks about the origins of the famous Manor Studio and making the album. A bonus segment, “Turning Back the Clock” (6:22), features interviews with Oldfield and Richard Branson, head of Virgin Records. Grade: film B+; extras B
Tom Von Malder of Owls Head has reviewed music since 1972, just after graduation from Northwest-ern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has reviewed videos/DVDs since 1988.