Released: 2008, Geffen/Universal
Reviewer: Lord of the Wasteland
One would think that after waiting eighteen years for a new Guns n’ Roses album, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to come up with plenty to say about CHINESE DEMOCRACY. The length of this review is proof to that. But obviously the expectations are sky-high, so keeping this overblown, over-hyped beast in perspective without resorting to hyperbole and gross exaggeration is tricky. This is, after all, one of the most eagerly-anticipated hard rock releases not just of 2008 but of the last decade. However, after leaving the album on continuous rotation for four days straight and letting the initial thrill pass, I think it’s safe to say the sprawling, dynamic package has finally rooted itself properly.
The release of CHINESE DEMOCRACY is an “event”—a pop-culture phenomenon—that has been mired in controversy, false starts and bizarre rumors since at least 1996. In that time, Axl Rose has seen the departure of every one of the members of the “classic” Guns n’ Roses lineup, as well as several more that have come and gone during the recording process. As it is, this fourteen-track, 71-minute epic is little more than an extravagant Axl Rose solo album. Calling it a Guns n’ Roses album is ludicrous at this point, but why beleaguer the point. It is what it is and CHINESE DEMOCRACY could never live up to the reputation that the name carries with it. It has been too long, too expensive (rumors have notched the cost at a staggering $13 million) and too hyped to ever live up to what anyone could possibly expect from an album. That being said, anyone going in blind should not expect USE YOUR ILLUSION III—and, please, let go of any hopes for a return to the sound and style of APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION—because this is an entirely different lineup and a different time. To put things in perspective, when USE YOUR ILLUSION I and II dropped in September 1991, grunge was not even a twinkle in Seattle’s flannel-sporting eye, George W. Bush’s father was still in the White House and no one had even heard of the Internet or debit cards. In a nutshell, what we have in CHINESE DEMOCRACY is an album of almost inconceivable diversity highlighted by Rose’s immediately recognizable stratospheric shrieks and soulful crooning. Of course, that capsulated summation cannot do justice to what Rose has delivered here…
Many fans will go in wanting a straight-forward, “classic” sounding Guns n’ Roses ripper and the title track satisfies wholly. Opening with a monstrous, arena-ready guitar lead and a face-peeling scream from Rose, the song rocks and grooves with a sizzling solo from Robin Finck and Buckethead. “Catcher In The Rye,” “Riad n’ The Bedouins” and “I.R.S.” follow a similar pattern with a familiar underlying vibe that is immediately forged with Guns n’ Roses stamp. As he did on “November Rain” and “Estranged” from the USE YOUR ILLUSION records, Rose’s epic compositions are brought to light on several occasions here with mixed results. The piano-based “Street of Dreams” and “There Was A Time” are awash in strings but avoid becoming schmaltzy, while “This I Love” goes in the opposite direction. Rose’s overwrought vocals and the sweeping orchestration take the song down a path of no return, simultaneously hitting the lows of a Broadway musical and drawn-out ego of a deluded rock star. “Sorry,” on the other hand, sits right in the middle. Part songwriting tour de force and part overblown experiment, the slow, moody tempo, bluesy guitar and biting lyrics make this track a “grower,” one that leaves the listener a bit unsure at first but will surely come to be cherished down the road. “If The World” will prove a real test of fans’ open-mindedness as the flamenco/funk hybrid and slinky riff would make it a perfect soundtrack song for a gritty 1970s cop movie or even a lead-in for the venerable Agent 007, James Bond. The album’s high point sits in “Better,” with an especially intriguing vocal performance from Rose and a catchiness that is immediate. The strutting groove within the verses just ooze with an obvious hit factor and the subtle modern touches lying underneath everything really add to the overall appeal. Likewise, “Madagascar” (a song that has been around for years and even played live) is the sound of the new millennium version of Guns ‘n Roses with sampled drums and French horns sharing space with sound bytes taken from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches, as well as several films (nice nod to the clip from COOL HAND LUKE that opened “Civil War”).
While “Scraped” and “Prostitute” still do little for me in an otherwise positive landscape, the song that carries the most contention is “Shackler’s Revenge.” The distorted, industrial guitars that open and close the track are painfully dated, sounding like they were recorded in 1999 and never looked at again (looking through the sprawling album credits with its laundry list of studios, producers and engineers, they probably were). Fans who remember “Oh My God,” the soundtrack cut that Guns n’ Roses released back in 1999 for the Arnold Schwarzenegger bomb END OF DAYS, will find many similarities between that song and “Shackler’s Revenge”…and the almost unanimous contempt launched then certainly doesn’t do the new material any favors nearly a decade later.
The guitarwork on CHINESE DEMOCRACY is nothing short of remarkable. Employing five players (and Rose himself even gets credited on two tracks), the songs crackle with fluid expressions of each musicians’ individual style while fitting into the cohesive sound of the respective songs. One would think so many players would create a muddled mess of riffing and soloing but considering the diversity that each track on CHINESE DEMOCRACY possesses, things never feel disjointed or awkward. No one tries to “do” Slash’s sound either, which is refreshing to hear. And, good God, does Axl Rose sound absolutely phenomenal everywhere on this record. His voice, while certainly given more than its share of studio finessing, is centre-stage at every second, unleashing impossibly high screams, gorgeous, cleanly-sung serenades and a newfound lower register that has undoubtedly arisen with age. Gone, too, are Rose’s raging epithets that peppered past songs like “Get In The Ring,” “Back Off Bitch” and “It’s So Easy.”
CHINESE DEMOCRACY is an unusual album because of the legacy that it carries. Attaching the name Guns n’ Roses to the project leaves it open to an unfairly subjective outlook which has the potential to sink the record right out of the gates. Maybe Rose is deluded enough to think that his assembled stable of hired hands actually possesses a shred of the street-wise attitude and rock-and-roll sensibility that the original lineup had, even after they become bigger the world by the time the bloated USE YOUR ILLUSION albums were released. Had he released the album under his own name, a lot of slack would have cut but as it is, under the Guns n’ Roses moniker, expectations can never possibly be met. It is difficult to step outside that mindset, too, both as a fan and as the supposedly objective voice of a writer. That being said, CHINESE DEMOCRACY is flawlessly produced and delivered in such a lovingly, believable way—Rose pored over each and every nuance of this record from start to finish for over a decade—that one cannot ignore the perfection that lies within every note of the album. It is simply stunning what Rose has created here and despite a few very brief missteps, CHINESE DEMOCRACY is the album that Guns n’ Roses fans have been waiting for. Many will pick apart the record with a fine-toothed comb and highlight what they feel are glaringly obscene extravagances by a megalomaniacal control freak but the truth is that Axl Rose has finally green-lighted the record that an entire generation of music fans have been waiting for and he has done it on his own terms and no one else’s. That is the signature of a real artist. While the delays have been frustrating for everyone—for Rose himself likely more than anyone—CHINESE DEMOCRACY is not the bomb that many cynics were hoping for but, as best as it could, delivers in its long-awaited promise of being a landmark release that Rose can be proud of.
KILLER KUTS: “Chinese Democracy,” “Better,” “Street of Dreams,” “If The World,” “Riad n’ The Bedouins,” “Sorry,” “I.R.S.,” “Madagascar”