Ten years too late, Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy is FINALLY released! Can this long-awaited album by the greatest rock band of all time SAVE ROCK N' ROLL, or will the best part about it be a free Dr Pepper? I guess you'll have to find out, in the only music review column you'll ever need - Can Jude Terror SAVE ROCK N' ROLL?!
I've never been a fair-weather fan of Guns N' Roses. I laughed when Axl ruined that GNR/Metallica tour by refusing to sing after pansy-ass James Hetfield lit himself on fire. I stuck with the band through the mid-to-late nineties, when alternative rock made it uncool to like Guns N' Roses, before the 2000's brought a resurgence of posers who acted like they didn't spend the last ten years pretending to hate the band while extolling the virtues of Space Hog or the Gin Blossoms. I continued to anticipate the album even after Axl drove away all the original band members. I dealt with the plastic-faced, braided-hair Axl at the MTV VMA's. I even went to see them on their reunion tour, at the MSG show, and dutifully yelled "Where's Slash?! Where's Duff?! Where's Izzy?! (No one cared where Matt Sorum was)," and I'm glad I did because Axl self-destructed the next night, no-showing Philly and canceling the tour. However, when Axl got beat up by Tommy Hilfiger at Rosario Dawson's birthday party, even I had to wonder: is Axl done?
If any album ever had a chance to save Rock N' Roll, it was Chinese Democracy... if it had come out even ten years ago. As time went on, however, as at least five musical movements passed Axl by while he was making this album, as he went through dozens of silly band members with sillier names, the chances of the album saving anything got slimmer and slimmer.
Hearing a leaked or live track or two over this time, I lost more and more faith that this album would be in any way tolerable. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this album was either going to be a decade late attempt at industrial metal, or an entire album worth of the song Estranged, à la Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick. Luckily, this album is neither of those things.
Unfortunately, it's not great either. Gone is the badassedness that made me fall in love with this band in the first place. Gone is the excellent, natural song construction of the Use Your Illusion days. What's left is Axl's pitiful attempt at being relevant, an impossible task for an out-of-touch, egomaniacal recluse.
Don't get me wrong, there are three or four very good songs on this album, and half of it is entirely decent. There are also, however, quite a few stinkers, and even the good songs are flawed in one way or another. It's sad to see a band that had so much good material for Use Your Illusion that they had to put out two albums at once fall so far that, after fifteen years of recording, they don't have enough good material to fill one full album, and have to add filler.
Of course, when I say they, I mean Axl. We all know this is an Axl solo album, and it certainly feels like it, as if Axl were singing over tracks recorded by a bunch of guest bands. Of course, with all the turnover in the band, that is exactly what it is. What's most sad is when Axl tries to ape bands like Linkin Park, who aren't fit to lick his rock star boots.
When I saw that this album was actually going to be released, I downloaded it right away, and though I like to give my thoughts in real time as I listen to it as I first hear it, because really, if an album is going to save Rock N' Roll, you'll know it on the first listen, I cheated and listened to it twice before writing this. In any case, I'm going to listen to it again and give my thoughts track by track.
Are you ready to rock, BludNet and the Outhouse?! I said are you ready?! Well too bad, because here's Axl Rose's Chinese Democracy.
Track 1: Chinese Democracy
Starts off with about a minute of ambient noise. Hasn't anyone told Axl that people use intro tracks for this stuff nowadays? This track is a good opener. The tune itself is a Use Your Illusion type rocker, and Axl's Mr. Brownstone voice is familiar here. At the same time, the production is more modern, and Axl breaks out a deep, nu-metal voice on the chorus. This is pretty much what you'd expect GNR to sound like if it were 1999 or so. Of course, it's 2008, but who knows when it was actually recorded.I like the guitar solo on this one, and it sets a nice precedent. The solos here, when done well, keep the grandeur and excess of a Slash solo while showing a unique personality.
Track 2: Shackler's Revenge
The nu-metal meets techno riffs in this song aren't exactly what I'm looking for from a Guns album, but I can't say it's unexpected. This song feels more modern than the first track. However, that's not necessarily a good thing. It's very poppy, and not in a good way. It's like... nu-metal bubblegum. I'd probably have a better frame of reference for this if I paid the slightest bit of attention to musical trends of the last decade short of knowing that they fucking suck.
Track 3: Better
I've never listened to a Linkin Park song, except for that first one with the video where they look like the punk rock backstreet boys in a parking garage that I used to catch on MTVX while waiting for another obscure Slayer Video (and on a side note, wtf MTV? Why did you take that channel away from me?). However, this is exactly what I imagine they sound like. Unnecessary guitar and vocal effects, particularly in the bridges between the verse and chorus. It's not horrible. What the fuck is up with the 80's synth pop refrain in here? So far, this album is sounding very nu-metal. Axl Rose and Vince McMahon are the only two people in the world that don't realize nu-metal is over.
Track 4: Street of Dreams
Here is a piano power ballad, straight off Use Your Illusion. This is a safe way to go for Axl. He does it well, and oddly enough, this is one of the tracks on here that don't make it obvious that the original band is long gone. The riffing during the verse and the ringing notes before the choruses sound very familiar to a GNR fan. Axl's voice, here and throughout the album, confuses me though. Sometimes he sounds like he hasn't lost a step, and other times he sounds like he's trying to add new voices for his repertoire, as if the Mr. Brownstone voice and the "nuts caught in a meat grinder" voice weren't enough, and they just sound odd, like he has an accent or a slight mental retardation. You get used to them though. The choruses to this song, with the orchestral arrangements, remind me of bad Aerosmith, but that's my only complaint about it really.
Track 4: If the World
Hang on a second. Somehow the theme song to the new James Bond movie slipped onto my playlist, let me just... what the fuck? Ok, so Axl is doing electro-funk. Oddly enough, this may be one of my favorite tracks on the album. It's not revolutionary, but it's different hearing Axl do it. This sounds like it should be sung by some kind of diva, which I guess it is, actually. The guitar solo is enjoyable, but could have been played by anyone. I'm guessing this isn't Buckethead? I don't know what the fuck Buckethead is supposed to sound like, but apparently it's distinct, and this isn't that.
Track 5: There Was a Time
Another strange synth opening, featuring more of what I think Linkin Park sounds like. Mentioning cigarettes in song lyrics is a direct appeal to coffee-house poetry nerds, and sure enough, that seems to be the purpose of this song. The lyrics are used to paint imagery, the kind that sounds vaguely romantic and profound, if you're into that sort of thing. The chorus is the best part of this song, hard and angry amidst what is a very smooth, poppy song overall. The guitar solos here do a decent job of aping the feel of a slash solo while having their own identity as well. Axl gets some good yowls in too. I don't mind the pianos, but why are there so many synth orchestras in these songs? I suppose the goal is to make the songs feel more epic, but more often than not it takes away from them. Good for you Axl - you discovered Fruity Loops. Welcome to 1996.
Track 6: Catcher in the Rye
When Axl isn't experimenting with the various musical genres that passed him by in the time he was making this album, he reverts to Epic Rock. Epic Rock is the art form Axl perfected on the Use Your Illusion albums with songs like November Rain and Estranged, seemingly endless in length, with pseudo-philosophical lyrics, and a vague sense of meaning, though you'd be hard-pressed to actually define it, unless of course you're a hipster of the same tortured rock god mold as Axl himself, and don't get me wrong, I do know people who find these types of things to be very meaningful. However, while it worked on Use Your Illusion, this is undoubtedly the direction Axl wanted to take GNR in from that point, and probably contributed to the breakup of the original members. Also, twenty years later, it doesn't sound so revolutionary; it sounds like the tired rehashing of older, better songs. The only positive thing I can say about this and other songs of it's ilk on this album is vthat I expected even more of them.
Track 7: Scraped
What the fuck is up with the intro here? Did Axl clone himself to create a boy band? Nevermind, time for some more nu-metal. It's a welcome break from the posing of the last two songs though. Still, nothing sets it apart from the other songs, and it's over before I can think of anythign interesting to say about it? Is Axl paying Linkin Park royalties for this album?
Track 8: Riad N' The Bedouins
More ambient noise. We must be in for a real treat here. The song starts out like an electro-pop Immigrant Song, and quickly slips into more of what I assume Linkin Park sounds like. It slips back and forth between these two modes, with a "thrashin'" guitar solo thrown in for good measure. This song emphasizes what's wrong with this album. It's not horrible, but it's not memorable either. I can listen to it, and it's basically inoffensive to my tastes, which is saying something for music created after 1995, but I don't feel the need to hear it again after I've heard it once.
Track 9: Sorry
My favorite track on the album here, without a doubt. It's a modern blues ballad, with a slow beat, and good rhythm guitars. Unfortunately, Axl's voice is noticeably overdubbed on the verses here, and it hurts it a little. That shit works for Ozzy, because lets face it, he sings like a retard, but Axl shouldn't need to do this. The heaviness of the chorus is an awesome contrast to the verses though, and it makes up for the shortcomings, as do the slowhand guitar solos. This is one of the rare songs on this album that does a good job of reminding the listener of how great Axl once was and at the same time avoiding the ten year old carbon dating that so many songs on here fall victim to. This song feels fresh, yet familiar. If Axl could have delivered this more often, the album would have been great.
Track 10: I.R.S.
This song isn't bad, despite having a corny title and chorus. Nothing special, nothing terrible. It almost falls victim to the Epic Rock syndrome, but barely avoids it. Meh. At this point, I'm ready for the album to be over, which isn't a good sign. The album climaxed with the last song, and nothing else is going to live up to that. Ripping but short guitar solo saves this song from mediocrity.
Track 11: Madagascar
Well, I guess the album is over, because iTunes just skipped to the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar... wait, wrong again, it's Madagascar, the epitome of the Epic Rock that I was expecting this entire album to sound like. If this were the only epic rock song on this album, it would have been ok, because this one is the best of the bunch. Unfortunately, it comes after three or four mediocre ones that already aroused my distaste for the genre. Again, unnecessary synthesizers detract from rather than add to this song. This is definitely Estranged Part II, which again, would be ok, if the earlier songs on this album didn't turn it into Estranged Part VII. Samples of MLK along with samples from Cool Hand Luke recall Use Your Illusion once again. Axl references those albums a lot during this album, but for some reason doesn't deliver once on the old attitude of Appetite for Destruction. Axl has entirely lost his balls. What the fuck is up with these lyrics? More of this typical vague, deep and fucking meaningful bullshit.
Track 12: This I Love
Two more songs, thank god. It appears Axl has allowed a jewelry store to put an advertisement for diamond rings on his album. Nope, it's another piano ballad. Axl's overdubs sound hilarious here, as if he actually believes he's two people singing a duet. Actually, he probably does believe that. I'll bet Axl's entire life is like the video to Megadeth's Sweating Bullets. He probably talks to himself frequently. Epic guitar solo time, but it's all build and never delivers.
Track 13: Prostitute
The climax of this album was Sorry, so by all rights, at least two of these last four songs should have been cut. They should have kept this and Madagascar, and either gotten rid of the other two or stuck them in the middle of the album as the filler they are. This song is a decent ending, but it comes too late after the climax, and therefore I'm tired of the album before the song starts. Honestly, this album would probably be better if I rearranged the tracks, and maybe cut one or two, which I may consider doing for future listens. Decent guitar solos sprinkled throughout. The piano tinkling feels a little phony, but not as phony as the fucking synthesizers. Enough of that shit. As soon as this song fades out, iTunes goes right into Reckless Life, which depresses me.
Well, there you have it. After all this time, Chinese Democracyis... meh. Yep.
Axl was one of those rare singers that had several different voices he could sing in, and there's no doubt about it: Axl can still pull it off. When he feels like it, he hits all the old notes, and does a good job both in his Mr. Brownstone voice and his "nuts caught in a meat grinder" voice. In addition, he adds a few new voices to his collection, including a deeper one that sounds odd at first, but grows on you. Occasionally, he tries to pull of a soulful diva thing, which is disturbing. What really hurts the vocals here are the songs where the overdubbing, which is present throughout the album, becomes too obvious, taking you out of your enjoyment of the song so that you can laugh at Axl. He hasn't lost step in the vocal department though, which is a good thing for a guy his age.
When the guitars are good, they're really good. I guess this is Buckethead's doing, but I don't know for sure because I have more dignity than to purchase and listen to an album by a guy who wears a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his head, so I don't know what he sounds like. However, it's obvious that some of the solos on here stand out, with a unique identity, and those are probably his. The others try for the epic feel of Slash but feel too generic, like anyone, albeit anyone very skilled, could have played them. They all have talent, but only some have heart. I think this album could have totally overcome the absence of Slash if Buckethead had been able to stand Axl long enough to stick around for the whole thing, but since he didn't, the wannabe Slash solos just sound forced and depressing.
Axl had what, fifteen years to make this album, and millions of dollars? With all that time and money, he should have been able to produce it better than I could have on my PC with Sony Acid, but apparently he chose not to. Instead, he chooses to throw in synth orchestras on what seems like every single song, in what I suppose is an attempt to make them sound more epic, but only succeeds in making them sound cheesy. The overdubs on the vocals, as mentioned are too noticeable in many places. When Axl is singing in two different voices for effect, it's ok. When he's singing in the same voice, but slightly off time, it just makes you picture two Axl's standing next to each other in the studio, with headphones, swaying gently in front of the microphone they're sharing. The guitar production here is great on the (alleged) Buckethead solos and on the heavier guitars, but totally lame when it's designed to sound like my vision of what Linkin Park must sound like. This album is schizophrenic in it's attempt to fit in
It could have been worse.
Posted originally: 2008-11-22 00:22:52