[The following is a review of the most recent GN’R album Chinese Democracy, originally self-published on the blog Hand Grenades and Olympic Flames in 2008. This is one of the first long-form music reviews I attempted, and it proved a difficult album to review. But I’ve kept my original thoughts in tact, and the original perspective of the album I had in 2008.]
15 years the release of the perplexing punk rock cover album Spaghetti Incident, Guns N’ Roses have returned with the long-overdue Chinese Democracy. Or rather, Axl Rose has returned with an album featuring no original members, except for Dizzy Reed who joined in 1990, five years after the band’s inception.
And just as the original members have all gone their various ways (Duff McKagen is one-quarter shy of earning a Finance Degree), so have Guns N’ Roses fans. Most of them may now enjoy a glass of Merlot but recoil at the thought of waking up to a Nighttrain n’ cigarette hangover. The fans no longer smoke “grass,” but they enjoy planting grass and flowers in their garden.
Nonetheless, the expectation still exists that GN’R will unleash a sequel to their iconic Appetite For Destruction. The possibility of that happening, however, is as unlikely as in 1992, when Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II were released. Even if the original band were still in tact, they would have an impossible time of trying to recreate a period in their lives when they shared a rattrap studio apartment in Los Angeles and lived for booze, drugs, and loose women.
Without the original band and without tales of life on the Sunset Strip, how does Axl’s Guns N’ Roses stand up? Thankfully, the Axl Rose Show delivers in spades and leaves no doubt that he was and is the creative force behind the band. Chinese Democracy manages to maintain cohesion despite the revolving door of producers and musicians that contributed. 14 years to create an album with 14 songs, recorded in 14 different studios; that does not sound like a promising formula, but in this case, they pulled it off.
Starting with the familiar, there are several songs that could have been on one of the Use Your Illusions: “Street of Dreams,” “I.R.S.,” “Better,” and “Madagascar.”
On “Street of Dreams” Dizzy Reed channels Elton John for the song’s honky-tonk feel. Of all the songs, this is a favorite to be a radio or video hit due to its high production values, including orchestral elements, memorable bassline and seamless guitar work. Axl’s upbeat vocals are the icing on the cake.
“Better” offers a bittersweet take on the dissolution of a relationship. The song has been played live for years, and for good reason. In this song Axl has crafted a beautiful ballad with heavy industrial rock interludes and a dash of punk rock attitude. It’s even possible to imagine Slash delivering the bluesy closing guitar solo.
“Madagascar” is this album’s overblown epic of “November Rain” proportions. The song is built on a dirge-like bed of synthetic French horns and a dying hop-hop beat. Axl offers up his most soulful vocals of the album, but the lyrics are vague. The centerpiece of the song seems to be the layering of samples from two separate Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches with samples from the films Cool Hand Luke, Mississippi Burning, and Se7en, among others. If you can figure out why these samples are interspersed, perhaps you can unlock the hidden meaning to this song.
Appetite For Destruction fans get a brief glimpse at the band’s older sound and attitude with “Riad N’ The Bedouins.” It’s a tad difficult to fully make this claim, however, due to the frequent use of electronic elements. Among the songs that can be considered at least partially industrial rock, this would be one of them.
The rest of the album doesn’t sound like Appetite For Destruction or Use Your Illusion I or Use Your Illusion II. “If The World” could be the soundtrack to a 70’s porn movie, or maybe CBS’s Swingtown, and features flamenco guitars and liberal use of echoes and pans. “Sorry” has a Pink Floyd psychedelic feel to it until the bridge, when a towering wall of processed guitars come crashing down, a la Ministry in their “Psalm 69” days. Ex-Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach contributes background vocals, but the song has so much going on musically that he is lost in the mix.
The album’s biggest surprise, “This I Love,” is also the only song credited solely to Axl Rose. At first blush the track comes across as so many other power ballads. The song differentiates itself with Axl’s soaring vocals, thoughtful lyrics, and impeccable musicianship. If there is one hidden jewel among the songs here, “This I Love” is it.
Overall, Guns N’ Roses have delivered an album worthy of their respected name. The playing throughout is solid, if not impressive. Axl’s vocals are phenomenal and expertly recorded. The album’s shortcomings lie in some of the production decisions.
Why, for example, did Axl choose to rely so heavily on electronic beats and effects he clearly knows little about? The flatlining beat of “Madagascar” nearly kills the song, what should be the centerpiece of the album. “Better” is also nearly derailed by primitive bleeps and bloops near the end. The electronic elements of the album sound as if they were recorded a decade ago (which they probably were), and no one bothered to rerecord them.
If Guns N’ Roses wants to pursue a more electronic sound, that’s fine. Hire Pharrell or another gifted producer to handle some of the production duties. Can you imagine Guns N’ Roses as produced by Dr. Dre or Trent Reznor?
With such a long gestation period and with such a large number of actors, it’s remarkable that Chinese Democracy is as consistent as it is. With a little less nitpicking by Axl and a slightly fresher production, Guns N’ Roses is poised to reclaim their hard rock heavyweight title.
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