Chinese Democracy‘s opening title track could be a metaphor for the album itself. The song’s intro builds tension with nothing but faint shrieks and vocal rumblings that come from the other side of the world — a solitary world populated by Axl and his vision. The music comes in dribs and drabs, slow and creeping before the bass drum kicks in and sharp riffs cut the air, joined by Axl’s signature yowl. The song’s refrain, “All I’ve got is precious time”, is a telling admission of Rose’s recalcitrant attitude towards putting this album out in a timely fashion.
Tallying in at an estimated $13 million to produce over a 15-year period, Guns N’ Roses’ first album since 1993’s “The Spaghetti Incident?” isn’t so much a Guns N’ Roses album as it is Axl’s long-awaited solo disc. It’s also been the longest-running gag in the rock/metal genre owed to its mythical status as “the most expensive album never made.”
Now that Chinese Democracy is finally here, it’s up to fans to debate whether the album lives up to 15 years of hype and if it was really worth the wait. With nearly two decades in the making, it would be easy to assume that Chinese Democracy would be one big ball of amazing from start to finish, the culmination of years of meticulous effort and perfectionism. As much as I wanted that whacky rapscallion Axl to prove the naysayers wrong, to insist that Chinese Democracy is anything more than just your average rock album would be like playing a game of The Emperor’s New Clothes, pretending it’s something it’s not. Don’t get me wrong. Chinese Democracy doesn’t suck, but it’s not the Holy Grail of rock. Not even close.
If the album was the same exact disc you hold now in 2008, Chinese Democracy would have been revolutionary if it was released when it was originally slated in 1994 or ’95. It would have provided the bands that dominated the ’80s with a legitimate spot next to the Nirvanas and Nine Inch Nails who set the pace for the latter half of the ’90s. Axl would have been ahead of his time, meshing industrial clanging alongside hip-hop and ’70s funk on tracks like “If the World” and the flamenco-infused “Sorry.”
All “could haves,” “would haves,” and “should haves” aside, that was then and this is now. In 2008, when the music world has come full-circle, embracing the so many comeback kids of the ’80s, Chinese Democracy comes across as your average album. There are no risks to be taken. Rather, Axl takes a lot of elements from the old GNR formula, updating them slightly for the new millennium.
All of the usual Axl Rose vocal tricks are on full display, splayed out like a peacock’s feathers: The ominous lower register that sounds like a threatening, whispered growl. The aforementioned yowl that usually bookends a given song. The nasal self-bantering between verses. The blues-metal falsetto. They’re all here.
Brace yourself for even more déjà vu. Even some of the songs sound strangely familiar. “Street Of Dreams” desperately attempts to be “November Rain” Version 2.0. Even one of the power-chording riffs contains the exact same notes and tone as the major riff in “November Rain” (and possibly “Paradise City”). You’ll know it when you hear it… Again
The similarities are uncanny from the orchestral string arrangements to Dizzy Reed at the keys to Axl employing the same vocal techniques and song structure as GNR’s 1991 magnum opus. Only “Street of Dreams” isn’t nearly as majestic as “November Rain.” Instead, it gives the impression that Axl went digging through the kitty litter box, found, and then dusted off the old Guns N’ Roses song manual and cobbled this bastard together. That said, even Shakespeare hacked himself, rehashing all those themes of mistaken identity and chicks dressing in drag. Chin up, Axl!
Adding to the litany of sounds that invoke a sense of Groundhog Day, “Madagascar” samples Cool Hand Luke yet again. This time, that familiar sound byte from “Civil War” stands alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. These samples seem a bit gratuitous, taking away more from the song than contributing to it. Aside from these distractions, “Madagascar” is an otherwise solid track, even if it does feel a bit bloated.
Chinese Democracy‘s average status is further reinforced by its mixed bag of songs. A few reach out and grab you. Others still don’t grab as much as they grow on you. And there are a few songs that just plain stink on ice.
As for the good: An industrial cacophony of clanging that strings together a melodic chorus with pulsating strobes of sound, “Shackler’s Revenge” heavily channels Marilyn Manson. A pissed-off open letter to anyone and everyone who doubted Axl Rose, it’s not entirely clear if this is directed towards ex-bandmates, former lovers, or just Axl farting in the general direction of anyone who happens to be within a 500 mile radius.
“Better” is another of the standout tracks on the song. Axl is lyrically lucid, almost poetic as a tragic lover burnt by a flame and subsequently forged into something stronger, angrier, and more wizened by this personal holocaust. He shrieks, spits, and squawks — swinging from an almost innocent vocal that “reminds me of childhood memories” on the bridge before serving up a slab of angst-riddled emo in the way only Axl Rose can deliver.
Emblematic of the songs that fall somewhere the middle is “Catcher in the Rye.” Musically, the track is dynamic. It’s an emotional rollercoaster whose sound structure is the equivalent of swapping Xanax for Speed and then switching over to Percoset. Lyrically, however, “Catcher in the Rye” feels rather obtuse. Although he sings every word clearly, Axl is far from being J.D. Salinger as a wordsmith. The thoughts expressed aren’t very coheren and feel like stand-alone notepad scribblings of well-worded randomness loosely strung together into a song.
For all the good and mediocre moments provided, Chinese Democracy offers up some real clunkers, too. Enter “Scraped,” as a shining example of what is bad about the album. Contained within the word “Scraped” are four letters that accurately sum it up: “crap.” Axl scream-sings his way through an intro that’s almost as unlistenable as it is wordless. Musically, it rehashes some of vintage GNR’s best licks in a mediocre impersonation of the original.
None of this is an affront to the cadre of guitarists on Chinese Democracy lined up to simulate Slash. Of the revolving cast of axemen, Buckethead is perhaps the best known, having accompanied Axl’s 2002 incarnation of GNR on the ill-fated (and riot-inducing) tour in support of Chinese Democracy‘s rumored release.
Although Buckethead may be the most easily recognizable name, the album’s liner notes list no less than three guitarists (sometimes more) contributing to each song. Included in this illustrious turnstile are NIN’s Robin Finck, Paul Tobias, Richard Fortus, and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. Through the miracle of ProTools, post-production, and a combination of the electric-organic pre-exiting skills of the musicians on deck, the guitar sound on Chinese Democracy comes close to replicating that of Slash.
Given the staggering amount of guitarists listed on each track, it’s a mystery as to whose parts begins and ends where. Was there a deliberate attempt to stitch together some sort of a sonic Slash-like Frankenstein? It’s hard to tell for certain, but it sure sounds that way.
While Chinese Democracy doesn’t live up to its mythic proportions and 15 years of hype, it’s still a good album. It’s not in the same category as Appetite For Destruction, but then again, very few albums are. What made Appetite one of the greatest rock albums of all time was that you could hear a young, talented band creating a brutally raw sound that kicked you in the nuts right out of the gate and kept assaulting your ‘nads for the duration of the album.
As for Chinese Democracy, well…Taking 15 years between albums doesn’t hit the reset button and turn back the clock, magically transforming you into a brand new band. It just creates an aura of hype that you cannot possibly live up to. Then again, it also generates a lot of curiosity resulting in tons of people buying an album. Maybe Axl does get the last laugh after all.