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Sunday, December 21, 2008

CD Review: Guns 'n Roses - Chinese Democracy

Guns 'n Roses - Chinese Democracy
2008 Geffen Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

First off, I want my free Dr. Pepper as I've been a consumer since my early childhood and Axl Rose finally made good on what has been a suspicious rock 'n roll swindle over a decade in the making.

At the very least, Chinese Democracy has carried a stigma of both mystery and condemnation. Ever since Axl and the quintessential Guns Guys drove the iron spike of separation between themselves, everything related to the name Guns 'n Roses has been the punchline to a grossly unfunny joke, beginning as far back as 1993's uninteresting The Spaghetti Incident. It was apparent at the time that one of modern rock's most gifted and debauched acts was going to end on a queef, as well as a live retrospective and greatest hits album that kept the tinder flowing but did nothing to stimulate the possibility that Guns 'n Roses was going to do anything substantial ever again. Funny that the mere inclusion of guitar phenom Buckethead as a roster member on an album that had become for all intents and purposes, a rock 'n roll myth, launched himself a tidy career in the underground by gift of assocation. If Buckethead hadn't played some of the Guns gigs (the ones where Axl wasn't at a basketball game instead of onstage), the legend of ol' KFC Noggin might've really been something to talk about, most notably the implication of being a part of something that never was.

Suffice it to say, when the news was released earlier this year that Chinese Democracy was at long last going to surface on the market (or at least in Best Buy and online peddlers), rock and metal fans met it with the same sequestered distrust as Metallica's Death Magnetic.

Equally sequestered and reclusive has been Axl Rose, who has spent well over a decade mulling obsessively over these songs. When I interviewed Sebastian Bach earlier this year, I asked him bluntly what he felt was the delay with Chinese Democracy since Rose came out of exile to wail overtop three of Bach's songs from his recent album Angel Down. In Bach's opinion, label red tape was the impeding culprit to Chinese Democracy's release, which you can take to heart or you can listen to these 14 purgative songs where Axl Rose not only seems intent on rectifying the album's long recording process but also the band's reckless demeanor on the path towards fame.

For Rose and Chinese Democracy, there is no Spaghetti Incident or Lies. Chinese Democracy dwells straight back into the Use Your Illusion sessions which remain to this point Guns 'n Roses' high artistic statement as a band. In particular, the album is mostly like an extension of "Estranged" and "November Rain," filled with an isolated conundrum of expressionism not so much concerned with kickstarting the fast and furious Guns 'n Roses that blitzed their music and their audiences with "My Michelle," "Think About You" and "Nighttrain." Those days are gone, even if Chinese Democracy does kick at times with the uptempo rockers "Shackler's Revenge," "Scraped" and the title song.

Despite the street-fused beatdown these songs deliver (each bearing a cyber upgrade courtesy of a massive Pro Tools layering job), Chinese Democracy is by and far, an open diary testifying Axl Rose's addled need to create art instead of pure rock 'n roll. Perhaps Appetite for Destruction was Rose's necessary evil to draw himself closer to the two Use Your Illusion albums since the mindset between these two periods of magnitude in the band's history couldn't have been more diverse than The Beatles' Please Please Me and The White Album. Even when "Riad N' the Bedouins" seeks to recapture that bluesy cock rock essence of Appetite for Destruction, Axl changes the melody to something of a more plying nature, not to mention swerving his vocals as if in an inner city Baptist church.

You get one impression that Axl has tried to create The Wall to complement his own Dark Side of the Moon. You also get the feeling Rose has had a Brian Wilson epiphany where the clouds around his head have lifted enough to take inspiration to put the wraps to unfinished business with Chinese Democracy. In some ways, Rose has gotten the monkey off of his back with combined measures of self-cleansing and continued flaggelation with songs such as "Better," "This I Love" and "There Was a Time." For sure, Axl Rose is one step out of his private hell but that foot is missing a shoe and he has to make the cautious decision whether to turn back and retrieve it or to simply let it go and move forward.

Chinese Democracy is painful at times, as in downer painful. For sure, the album's songwriting is largely fabulous and you have to wonder if the adamant refusal to let the maudlin vibes of "Estranged" drift away is one of the primary separating factors between Axl and Slash, much less the rest of Guns 'n Roses. As Slash and the remaining ashes of G-N-R have gone on to create one straightfoward rockout endeavor after another (the most notable obviously being Velvet Revolver), Axl Rose has been wallowing rebelliously to himself and against himself. As if exorcising the laced-out devil that controlled Rose at the height of Guns 'n Roses' popularity, Chinese Democracy serves almost to answer in atonement for the temerity of the past.

The danger element to Guns 'n Roses is so far remiss on Chinese Democracy you either have to appreciate it or lament what once was. This may not be a true G-N-R effort since the bands' stage occupants are as indecisive as a Floridian head count. Put together on the same stage, Buckethead, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal and Nine Inch Nails' Robin Finck would be one hell of a spectacle, so we have to settle for what is delivered on record. Despite the proficiency of each and the exciting chops we're treated to on this album such as heard on "Prostitute," "Riad N' the Bedouins," "I.R.S." and the morose "Street of Dreams," let's face the facts: Slash's reputation on guitar is largely due to an instinct you either have or you don't. On Appetite for Destruction Slash went on his gut. On Chinese Democracy, Buckethead dazzles at every turn, but his licks are simply part of the machine that turns this thing, and as long as it took to process this album, that machine has been refined to a point that is less interested in pure rock 'n roll as it is finessed melodrama.

The Guns 'n Roses of the past would hardly settle for the soul and funk syncopation of "Sorry" (which Sebastian Bach lends a vocal hand to) and "If the World," much less the latter's flamenco intro by Buckethead that lends the track further elegance. Even as "If the World" turns a heavy trick, the song is slinky and feels like an edgier soul cut of the eighties featuring a singer belting out the majority of his vocal range. G-N-R of 1988 might also not be quite as interested in the coldwave and trip hop laces Axl fuses into Chinese Democracy, but they fit snugly in place now better than they would've on say, "Rocket Queen."

By all means Chinese Democracy is The Axl Rose Show despite the hiring of a plethora of studio musicians, arrangers and engineers to help him realize this rock symposium. Honestly, without the caliber of Buckethead, the zone-ready Brain on drums, Tommy Stinson on bass, a willing string section and G-N-R holdout Dizzy Reed, Axl would've been left to daydream further along on his piano, which he brings to life explicitly on Chinese Democracy on the Illusion-reinvented "This I Love," "Prostitute" and "There Was a Time." In turn, Axl shows he still has severe mike fortitude, even if he turns syrupy at times on "Street of Dreams."

You can hear Axl almost pleading for a benevolent touch of redemption on "Riad N' the Bedouins" as he scrapes the ceiling with piercing falsettos begging for "sweet salvation" and a declarative end to his frustrations. That's the dominant aesthetic to Chinese Democracy, coming up with a rock opera texture grand enough to live up to a voice seeking to restore its authority.

Chinese Democracy could've been the cold turkey most people expected it to be. No longer "The Most Expensive Record Never Made," Chinese Democracy does indeed sound like as much money was invested into it as time and ego. This is the direct antithesis to Appetite for Destruction, but give it some credit; Chinese Democracy is a very fine, if internally confusing, rock album left independent of its gutter-courting past.

Rating: ****


Metal Mark said...

I like ths album as well. Spaghetti Incident was actually 1993. I just got my Dr. Pepper coupon in the mail the other day.

bob_vinyl said...

I think Axl spent the last 15 years listening to Elton John and the results were way better than I expected. It was also a lot more of a GnR album than I expected.

I got my Dr Pepper coupon the other day too, but I'm not gonna use it. I stuck in the LP sleeve. One thing is for sure. Dr Pepper dropped the ball. They made an offer in the hopes of getting some free advertising. When it didn't work out, they were totally ill-prepared to make good on it. We're a household of four and we were only able to get one coupon, because their servers were overwhelmed. I thought it was a brilliant promotion, but in the end it was so poorly executed that Dr Pepper should be embarrassed.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Thank you, Mark. I've been a real slackass lately, sometimes because I'm in such a hurry to get done with the baby making noise or what-not. What do you do to get that coupon anyway? Free is free and I've always loved Dr. P.

Bob, I would say that the faster songs are more trad GNR while you're possibly right that there's a seventies Elton John element to the album, but one thing's for sure, this was a genuinely pleasant surprise. I actually smiled as it went along, even during the depressing parts, becaues there's some damned good songwriting and while I like Velvet Revolver a good bit, this album has more substance. Axl may have waited longer and made himself a butt end joke, but at least something substantial if not not earth-shattering came about.

I think the Dr. P folk either had a news leak about the album and did the promotion or whomever created it as a joke for something they figured would never come about was shitcanned for their marketing miscue.

Hard Rock Hideout said...

Initially, I did not like this album very much. I like the classic Guns N' Roses sound, but I have not given up on this album. I have been replaying it quite a bit as of late. I am glad I didn't write this one off so fast.

gearsofrock said...

The slower non-radio tunes seem to be the only decent tracks on the record. Next time Axl should have the respect to release his material as a solo record. I think this album would have gone over much better that way.

bob_vinyl said...

Prior to hearing it, I also thought it was kind of absurd to call it a GnR album. After hearing it though, I changed my mind. It really feels like a GnR album. It's not much like Appetite at all, but it seems like a worthy successor to the Illusions albums, taking that big hard rock bombast a step further. I do think it would have gone over better with fans had it been called the Al Rose Experience, but I now think it really is a GnR album. It is very unusual for me feel this way about albums with one key member, but this one is an exception.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

HRH, worth sticking around for, eh?

Gears, I think at this point the hype and mythology behind this album had gone on for so long it was almost mandatory it be released as GNR. I get what you're saying totally, but leading into what Bob last said, I think this album reveals much about the contributions Axl brought songwriting-wise during the quintessential least Dizzy was around to make it what 2/6 of the lineup, lol?

Now perhaps in the future Axl might want to consider doing a solo album but if he took this much time to refine and finesse CD, then don't count on new stuff for quite a long time...the man's obviously a perfectionist to the extreme