on April 15, 2013
I wrote this review back in 2008 but wanted to append to it.
I have often wondered what it would be like to review Guns N' Roses mythical album Chinese Democracy (2008), an album that has existed purely in imagination and in demo-form in file-sharing websites for most of the 00s. Honestly, while the album has been out for nearly two months as of this writing, it's still kind of amazing that it's here...Chinese Democracy is honestly here...
The question to obviously ask is does the album live up to the hype? The answer of course is obviously going to be no; I mean, how could it? How could the actual music live up to the legend behind the album, the story of the mad genius, the recluse who has devoted a decade of his life to create his magnum opus and spent millions of dollars in the process, etc. How could the actual fruit of that labor live up to the legend? In order for Chinese Democracy to possibly live up to the hype surrounding it, it would have to be Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper, Appetite for Destruction, Queen II and Led Zeppelin IV combined...and it isn't...
That said Chinese Democracy is still a great album.
Some have said Chinese Democracy is more of an Axl Rose solo album than a GN'R album, but I would strongly disagree with that assessment. Guns N' Roses is not, nor have they ever been a band like the Smashing Pumpkins, where it's just been about one guy. The greatness of GN'R, like the greatness in any legendary band, lies in the chemistry of its members, the stew of the combined forces. Without Slash's metallic blues playing, Izzy Stradlin's Stonesy feel or Duff McKagan's injection of punk and melodic bass lines, how could GN'R survive?
Axl Rose obviously knew that it would be a daunting task to rebuild a once great band from its' ashes and to his credit, assembled a terrific Frankenstein band of amazing players--including Buckethead, Ron Thal, Tommy Stinson and others to reach his vision. Years and years went by, sometimes with replacements replacing replacements, but in the end, all eleven musicians combined (Axl Rose, Tommy Stinson, Buckethead, Robin Finck, Ron Thal, Dizzy Reed, Chris Pitman, Paul Huge, Richard Fortus, Brian Mantia and Frank Ferrer) contributed to what can be considered Guns N' Roses version 3.0, a band that is different than earlier incarnations, but still worthy of the GN'R name. In fact, in many ways, a majority of the songs on Chinese Democracy sound like the natural progression from Use Your Illusion (1991).
While Izzy Stradlin's signature classic grooves are missed, it's amazing how much Chinese Democracy still sounds like a Guns N' Roses album. Personally speaking, while Slash is one of my favorite guitar players, his absence here isn't really all that missed. The exquisite guitar playing on this album, ranging from Buckethead's flamenco solo in "If the World," to Ron Thal's thunderous shredding in "Shacker's Revenge" to Robin Finck's soulful presence in "This I Love" is as good (or in some cases better) as anything Slash could have laid down. While some may have been expecting a Nine Inch Roses album (in part because Finck is a touring member of Nine Inch Nails), Chinese Democracy is most definitely a guitar rock album, and with so many talented players, a hodge-podge of greatness is formed from so much diversity and so many styles. And while the push-pull groove of McKagan/Adler from Appetite for Destruction (1987) is missed, the rhythm section offered here from Tommy Stinson/Brain Mantia is still quite exciting.
Another question to ask is, is this album overproduced? I guess if you're expecting something very organic, you could say it is, but really, the whole "overproduced" tag has been overplayed. While these songs have been tinkered with for ages, the end product is completely satisfying. With Axl at the helm, GN'R knew what they were doing, as every solo, every loop; every note in every nook-and-cranny in each and every song has its' place. The end result is an album that is extremely dense, so while the album sounds good from the very first listen, additional listens (with preferably good headphones) are required to fully appreciate the richness of this album. Axl Rose still sounds terrific, in all his varying vocal inflections, and his melodies seem to have gotten better with age. Lyrically, Chinese Democracy treads the same territory as Use Your Illusion, with themes concerning lack of meaning in life, loneliness, estranged love, etc.
It's ironic that such an ambitious, grand album begins not with monster guitars or effects or anything of the sort, but simply with chatting. Subtle guitar work, slowly building up over the sound of voices speaking in Chinese leads into what many thought the world would never hear again, the powerful wail of W. Axl Rose. Most definitely a rocker, the album's title track is a good way to begin the album. While the song lacks a distinguishable hook or chorus, it still seems to work as the epic scope of the song and its killer guitar solos carry it through.
What will no doubt sound great in concert, "Shacker's Revenge" is probably the best rocker on the album. Axl Rose's demonic baritone growl, the semi-industrial pounding disco beat, the melodic, metallic-yet-lush chorus, the rapid-fire shredding rivals anything from GN'R's glory days. Already a fan-favorite, "Better" has been making the rounds at GN'R shows for the past few years. A great groove, hook and plenty of twists and turns make this a refreshing, completely original song. "Street of Dreams" (originally known as "The Blues") has a sort of November Rain/Elton John feel and should please anyone who enjoyed any of GN'R's past ballads. The orchestration works really well here.
"If the World" is probably going to be one of those "love it/hate it" types of songs. With its' hip-hop beats, cool synths and flamenco guitar, some may be thrown for a loop, but it works beautifully. One of Axl's more personal songs "There Was a Time" opens with a children's chorus before a mixture of chimes and guitar. In some ways this song doesn't know if it wants to be a "rocker" or a balled, and the song lacks a clear chorus. It's reminiscent of Use Your Illusion II's "Breakdown," but "There Was a Time" seems to be a little more on target, a little more focused. The grand nature of the song, the "Lord of the Rings" false ending after ending after ending, the melodrama, etc., may not be for everyone, but those that loved the more soul-searching songs from Use Your Illusion will relish this.
I was very pleased to see that "Catcher in the Rye" made its way on to Chinese Democracy as I really liked the demo, but was disappointed to see that Brain May's (of Queen) parts were not included. Still, this Beatles-meets-Queen song is quite strong and also sort of has a Use Your Illusion flare. "Scrapped" is another song that fans seem to be divided on. The bizarre vocal alterations and demonic background vocals may throw some off, but others may love its' challenging, but rocking sound. "Riad N' The Bedouins" opens with a sort of "Blade Runner" futuristic intro, before the listener is thrust into a punkish/industrial spiral.
Perhaps the best song on the album, "Sorry" has a sort of Pink Floyd/Black Sabbath feel and seems to be aimed at his no-talent critics (that means you Mick Wall). Sort of grinding along, Axl's low-key venomous delivery over Finck's acoustic playing is beautifully vindictive. Sebastian Bach's (of Skid Row) background vocals work very nicely here. Another rocker, "IRS" would not have sounded a bit out of place on Use Your Illusion (or GN'R's "greatest hits" for that matter). "Madagascar" is another love it/hate it kind of song. You will either find this "Kashmir" like song to be over-wrought and ridiculously melodramatic or love its uncompromising intensity. "Madagascar" includes clips from Casualties of War, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and Cool Hand Luke. The presence of these clips could have made the song sound pretentious and overdone, but the song manages to avoid sounding that way.
Possibly Axl Rose's most personal song "This I Love," has a sort of Andrew Lloyd Webber feel. A touching balled concerning an estranged love, fans of "November Rain" should like this and Finck really shines on his solo. Perhaps the most underrated song on Chinese Democracy, the melancholy "Prostitute" makes for a terrific closer. Asking if he should prostitute himself for "fortune and fame," Axl seems to be answering those fans that have been critical of his long absence. The long fade-out following Buckethead's killer solo is one of the finest moments on the entire album.
Speaking as a long-time fan that has waited forever to hear this album, I feel completely satisfied with the end result and feel that this album deserves a proud spot on my CD shelf next to Appetite for Destruction, GN'R Lies (1988) and Use Your Illusion. If you never liked GN'R or think AFD is all that matters, Chinese Democracy probably won't win you over. However, if you liked the more ambitious songs and the ballads from Use Your Illusion, this album is definitely worth giving a try, and then a few more to fully appreciate.
After nearly five years (wow!) since the release of Chinese Democracy, I feel that the album has held up very well. Next to Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth (2012) I feel that Chinese Democracy is the best hard-rock album to be released by an established act in at least the past decade. If you didn't buy it in 2008 or bought it and didn't take to it--consider giving it another spin sometime.
on June 1, 2010
There's a reason why some people can't quite get their minds around Guns N' Roses' latest offering: Axl Rose didn't make a traditional rock n' roll album, he made a movie soundtrack. And the movie is the version of Axl's life that's playing inside his head.
Like other folks, I didn't know what to make of Chinese Democracy the first couple listens. My initial response was, "Take a familiar GNR album, Appetite for Destruction for example, dial down the guitars, drop in layers of pianos, strings, choirs and all manner of excess, splice in a kitchen sink's worth of odd background voice and sound bits, then compress the mix until it's almost unrecognizable as a GNR product." No wonder many folks' reaction upon release was, "What a disappointment." Upon the third or fourth listening, however, it dawned on me: movie soundtrack.
Approach the album in that context, listen to it a few more times, and after a while you'll conclude, "Wow, this is a pretty good album. In fact, this is a pretty good Guns N' Roses album." Listen to it eight or ten times and you might even conclude, "Wow, Axl's lyrics are much better than people gave him credit for. There's some brilliant songwriting here." That's because in the context of a movie soundtrack, songs that initially don't make sense become standouts, both musically and lyrically: "Chinese Democracy" opens the film with explosive action, a sonic and verbal kick in the teeth: "...all I got is precious time". After "Shackler's Revenge" we settle down for some serious drama: "Better" is a powerful examination of an individual's inner heartbreak, pain, and eventual self realization, Axl singing, "No one ever told me when I was alone. They just thought I'd know better, better." "Street of Dreams" explores a similar theme of loss and bitter disillusionment: "What I thought was true before were lies I couldn't see. What I thought was beautiful is only memories."
Many reviewers have raved about "If the World" and rightly so - it's a good song, but they slough off "There Was a Time" as too long and derivative. I beg to differ; the last 2 ½ minutes of this 6-minute opus make the build-up well worth it. Axl wails "There was a time I would do anything for you..." as Buckethead lays down guitar lines just as good as anything Slash put on a GNR record (sacrilege!)."Catcher in the Rye" and "Scraped" I can pass on, a spot where the movie gets a little bogged down if you will, but "Riad and the Bedouins" is a nice return to film action. "Sorry" is a kind of opposite of "Better" or "Street of Dreams", an outward emotional reveal, if a little obvious: "I'm sorry for you, not sorry for me."
That out of the way, the movie rocks to its conclusion, with Axl threatening in "IRS" to not just fight back, but to stomp you out. "Madagascar" is the movie's climactic scene: a declaration of newfound strength, dignity, and optimism for the future. It is a brilliant song, kitchen sink and all.
Then it's over - or at least you think it is. "This I Love" is the song playing as the credits roll and you fish for your coat and keys. A bit sappy and overdramatic, it could easily fit into one of Tim Rice's bombastic musicals ("Didn't I hear that in Phantom of the Opera?") It's okay, though, `cause you're leaving and it's just music over the credits. You're already several feet out the door when you realize that Axl didn't leave. He has one more thing to say in "Prostitute": "Ask yourself what would I choose: To prostitute myself, to live with fortune and shame? Oh, yeah. When you should have turned to the hearts of the ones that you could not save?" YOU can go now, but the movie plays on in Axl's head.
Sorry, I really tried. If Axl Rose needed 14 years (give or take) to get this album ready for his public, I figured I should give him the benefit of the doubt and listen to it carefully. But this awkward and laborious collection doesn't remotely live up to its many years of production or the legacy of Guns n' Roses. Even if this album actually presented a lineup approximating the classic GnR, so much time has passed that nobody should expect it to sound exactly like the hungry band of old. Regardless, what we've got here is... failure to deliver. It's the sound of an incomprehensible self-obsessed recluse who thinks he's a messiah with rapturous followers, rather than a once-influential entertainer with extremely patient fans.
Rockers have been known to spend a couple of weeks and a few thousand bucks in a studio and deliver an all-time classic. Axl is real far gone if he thinks that obsessing for years over gimmicky studio minutiae leads to perfection. The severely over-produced hodgepodge of sounds is painfully obvious, like the slapped-on lead guitar squiggles in "Chinese Democracy," the unlistenable vocal multi-tracking in "Scraped," or the low-tech drum programming that opens several tracks. The production irons out the contributions of many musicians to the point of over-processed dehumanization. And Axl ended up being far more dependent on the musicians here than he would probably care to admit, given the fact that long-gone contributors are presented in the booklet as full members of the band, like Buckethead (a fascinating virtuoso now back where he belongs in the avant-garde underground) who hasn't even been involved for four years. A loosely-knit gaggle of journeymen and hangers-on, making piecemeal contributions over several years, will never be a coherent working band - and it shows.
Axl's many years of misguided perfectionism also could not save unmemorable songwriting. The album is overloaded with mid-tempo dirges that resemble the progressive epics of Use Your Illusion, and they're mostly competent but bloated and directionless. The worst example is a bizarre experiment in some sort of southwestern techno blues in "If the World." The few hard rockers here are overproduced and underwritten imitations of the fake angst of the late '90s, bottoming out in the horrendous "Shackler's Revenge," a pathetic imitation of the semi-techno industrial metal that even Korn left behind a decade ago. Granted, the lyrics are somewhat illuminating and Axl's voice is still the wide-ranging assault weapon that scared the bejeezus out of the rock world back in the day. But Axl loses even more points for being so disconnected that he thinks it's insightful to co-opt Martin Luther King (in "Madagascar") for his own self-obsessed attempts at big statements.
It's been 14 years of silence, 14 years of pain... with nothing to show but a thin portrayal of obsession and seclusion. Farewell, William Bailey. [~doomsdayer520~]