REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy (2008)

By request of reader Johnny Sixx: A review of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy so long that I split it into two installments. For the first part, click here.

GUNS N’ ROSES – Chinese Democracy (2008 Geffen)

Chinese Democracy, over a decade in the making, became both the biggest joke in rock and the most anticipated album of all time. It polarized music fans as expected. Was it worth the wait? That’s a pretty hard question to quantify. Ultimately it’s up to the individual. Did I expect more, personally?

No. I didn’t expect more. I got what I expected. I did hope for more, but by and large I was very happy with Chinese Democracy.

My first exposure to these songs came in 2001, after the Rock In Rio concert. I downloaded all the new tunes from Limewire. (Remember Limewire?) My favourite of the new tunes was “The Blues” (later renamed “Street of Dreams”) but I also loved “Chinese Democracy”, “Madagascar” and a track called “Silkworms”. Those of us who had heard the songs in advance of the album release were much more likely to enjoy the new GN’R for what it is: Axl attempting to keep the GN’R name going, and stay current. For better or for worse.

For Axl, staying current meant incorporating more electronics. It also meant replacing feel-based guitar players like Slash with shredders.  No, this does not sound like the dirty, blues-based majesty of Appetite. Yet, it does rock. Hard. Add in some samples, lush ballads and some cool lyrics and we have a modern followup to Use Your Illusion I and II. It has the same diversity and experimental bent, even if it sounds nothing like those two albums.

I won’t sit here and defend Axl’s decision to keep going with the name, that’s a dead horse that’s been flogged over and over again. It is what it is, and at least Axl has chosen musicians that are at the top of their fields. The Rock In Rio lineup was already long gone by the time of this album release, but all those guys contributed to Chinese Democracy. That means you will hear guitar solos by ex-members Robin Finck (an underrated player) and the incredible Buckethead. You will also hear drums by Brain, and Frank Ferrer too. You will have contributions from everybody. Hell, you will even get one song that dates back to the Slash n’ Duff years called “This I Love”, another epic ballad. It was written way back in 1993; it’s most likely the oldest song here.

The album is chock full of riffage. The title track itself (written by Axl and ex-drummer Josh Freese, yes that Josh Freese) is a monster. That riff is infectious, as are the verses. Axl loads the whole album full of vocal hooks, piano hooks, guitar hooks — this album may pack more hooks per minute than any other in history, who knows? He certainly had time to come up with and perfect them.

This is an even more dramatic Guns N’ Roses than anything before. Some might say over-dramatic. You thought “Estranged” was epic? This is even more so. Yet, boiled down, “Street of Dreams”, “Madagascar”, and “Better” are all emotion-drenched tunes and extremely well written and executed. The production, as expected, is thick and sweet. Maybe too sweet. A tune like “If The World” for example might have been better served with more basic guitar oriented production? Who knows? I’m sure Axl has done a thousand mixes of each of these songs, before selecting these final versions.

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Highlights: “Better” for its angry, awesome riffage. “Street of Dreams” as the natural successor to “November Rain”. The title track, for anger and aggression. “Madagascar” as the next “Civil War”.

Lowlights: Wasn’t much into “Scraped”, “If The World”, and the overly-techno “Shackler’s Revenge”. Illusions had filler too, y’know.

Most of all I love the playing. These are some of the best players in the world, bar none. Plus a guy like Tommy Stinson is a rock veteran with a history longer than Axl’s. With these kinds of experienced rockers on board, Chinese Democracy was bound to be impressive. What Chinese Democracy lacks are two things:

1. Band chemistry. You can’t fake it.

2. A suitable predecessor. If Guns had even one interim album to bridge the sounds and introduce new members gradually, Chinese Democracy wouldn’t sound like such a shock to the old-time fans.

It may turn out that Chinese Democracy is as close to a “bridge” record as we will get. Axl claims the next two albums that he’s written are even more extreme departure from the Guns sound.

Hopefully, those next two Guns N’ Roses records will eventually materialize.  They should include “Silkworms” a great punky synth-rocker, and a song that Sebastian Bach raves about called “The General”. Whenever Axl feels motivated enough to finish them.

4/5 stars

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35 comments

    1. I think it will. Axl definitely likes to take his time. I’m sure he’s a perfectionist. Not that there is anything wrong with that! But with him in charge, the albums won’t come until he says so.

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  1. Great review, think you pretty much nailed it! I’m a big fan of this one (although I wouldn’t really say I’m a huge fan of G n’ R in general). I think, from Rhiad and the Bedouins on, the album is pure gold. There is a bit of a lull around If The World and There Was A Time. I don’t think any of the songs taken on their own are bad though, it’s probably just an album sequencing thing. That’s why the vinyl is so great. One small side at a time is perfect!

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  2. Hahaha Limewire. Oh man, I’d forgotten that.

    You know something, I never did buy this. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard a track? Maybe, but if I did I don’t recall. Does… does this make me a bad rock fan?

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    1. Seriously, you never heard a single track? Well there’s no time like the present!

      Start with Chinese Democracy, Rhiad N’ the Bedouins, Better, IRS, Madagascar and Street of Dreams!

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  3. I love that such an epic album with such a bloated incubation would naturally require two days to properly review it, and still, could use more time!!! Really, this album takes me back to a time when, sadly, I realized the music business was losing its grip on the buying public. Granted, here in the USA, we were reeling in a recession, but it used to be entertainment would be a great escape. I just remember the day this was released, I expected a mad rush of rabid consumers at my local big-box retailer (BB, if I recall correctly, had the exclusive rights to the physical product release here in the USA), hungry for the Axl’s long-gestating tracks. The store possessed no buzz, no vibe, no excitement of a New Release Tuesday, especially for such a mammoth release and running up to the upcoming holiday season. I realized then, Axl had missed his window of excitement (by several years), and that physical product music and media was becoming a shrunken market.
    Nevertheless, I love this album, and the story behind it: the absolute LAUNDRY LIST of contributors, undoubtedly both credited and uncredited, that came in and toiled in Axl’s studio lair(s), the names and cross-section of genres they came from is mind-boggling. The mad scientists, aka “Producer(s) Of The Moment”, brought in to bring focus and current panache to Axl’s work, while trying to deal with a megalomaniac control freak who was gonna do it his way, even while soliciting outside opinions. The studio hangers-on and yes-men, the fringe characters: the hairdresser in charge of Axl’s cornrows and weave, and the personal chef(s) that kept Axl fed (very well)! I mean, there is a several hundred-page book to be written about “Chinese Democracy” and it’s creation.
    Thanks Axl and LeBrain, for taking me back to this time not so long ago, where production decadence, debauchery and excess ruled the hard rock work!!!
    Now, it’s off to spend some time re-acquainting myself with these 14 tracks! Bring on “Vol. 2 & 3″…hopefully not in 2022 or so!

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  4. I never really gave this LP a fair chance because I just got so bummed out by all the shenanigans that preceded it. I have a bit of a mental block about it.

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  5. This has nothing to do with G N’R whatsoever. This is an Axl Rose solo album no matter what the cover says. Velvet Revolver are more G N’R than this. I think many people would have respected Axl lots more if he put the G N’R name on hiatus and went solo. Not that this album would be any better of it, but at least he’d gain some respect.
    The problem with this album – apart from the things you mentioned above and the fact that many of the songs just suck – is that it’s over produced. I love the riff of the title track, but it lacks bite, attack and power. The old band could have made that track awesome. Now it’s just the least crap song on the album. I’ve given this album a bunch of chances, but I just don’t think it’s any good. I would have given it 1/10.

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    1. Hehe, well Jon this is one of those times we’ll have to agree to disagree!

      One thing we do agree on is that Velvet Revolver is more GNR than this. Numerically, spirit-wise, that is true. However I had one big problem with VR – I didn’t like them. I tried, I have the first album here (import with bonus track) but I do not like it. Might be 2/5 or 2.5/5.

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      1. The old chainsaw must come out a little now and then. ;-)

        I thought VR were an ok band. They were never G N’R in quality or sound, but they had some really good songs, however, I hardly ever listen to their albums. But I’d take VR over Axl N’ Roses anyday.
        Boy, would I love to see G N’R reunited.

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        1. I really didn’t like VR much at all. Weiland just wasn’t the front man I wanted to hear with that band. His voice hasn’t been very good in years and I’m glad Stone Temple Pilots ditched him for Chester. I have their EP — it’s decent.

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        2. Yeah, I agree. Weiland kinda blows. They would have been way better with another singer. Like anyone. Except for Vince Neil. Or Mike Tramp. Or Phil Lewis. Or Ron Keel. Aaawww, what ever…

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        3. There were rumours about two guys they auditions — Lenny Kravitz, and Royston Langdon from Spacehog. I would have liked either singer being in Velvet Revolver. Langdon would have been a great choice, his voice is somewhat Axl-ish.

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        4. Haha. Yeah. Or maybe Axl Rose should have joined Stone Temple Pilots.
          What is a stone temple pilot anyway?

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  6. Yep Jon u nailed it it is beyond produced over tweaked and tweaked like I said yesterday !!
    But I did like some it….I’d give it 2.5/5……
    Kudos to Mike for bringing yet something back from the archives to review and making me go dig it out and give it a spin again…..

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  7. You do something absolutely amazing with this review in that you actually make me interested in listening to Chinese Democracy. I’m not saying that I will listen to it, just that you’ve made me interested in listening to it.
    Good Job!

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  8. Not that so-called critics opinions should mean too much but found it interesting many of the big-name websites and reviewers gave this one huge props while it seemed the average pair of ears kinda thumbed through the booklet without much care for the music!?

    And glad to see Chinese Democracy get thumbs up here too.

    Appreciated plenty of old Guns tunes but never considered myself a fan as such. Never thought Appetite as hot as the majority and was always one of those who felt had the Illusions been condensed into one record it woulda blown Appetite outta the water. Hey loved a number of tunes but the band were never a necessity back when it all made more sense is all ;)

    So of course didn’t give a hoot whether Chinese Democracy got released or not. That was until I heard the leaks which quite simply blew the mind! (Gotta say that turned into one of the biggest and best marketing ploys ever right!? Sure as heck likely wouldn’t have acquired the album had I not heard those leaks).

    If ya go in open minded accepting this is Axl’s baby ignoring the band name and history (no doubt the biggest hurdle for most old fans, can’t argue that either!), appreciate this record for what it is, there really is little filler and lots to like IMO. I mean the already mentioned This I love is HUGE and is worth the price alone. Better is possibly the highlight, the brilliant If The World shoulda been the feature song on a new James Bond movie and There Was A Time plays out like the soundtrack of Axl’s life, lyrically and musically it’s epic without needing to bash the old eardrums. If Street Of Dreams sounds like the missing single from Illusions then IRS is its worthy B-side, I mean late or not, and overproduced sure, but Axl turned in one hell of a record.

    To my ears Axl really is the Elton John of the rock/metal world.

    Agree the vinyl sounds great (don’t hear the couple audio blips evident on the CD so much on the vinyl – to think 15 years and end product is still not quite right is unforgivable hmmm) and shout out for the cover art too, thought it quite bloody cool \m/

    Another of the albums failings IMO was a lack of promotion ‘after the fact’ Axl choosing not to do interviews (think there was one or two online interviews and those forum visits?) and do think the lack of interviews and promo hurt any chance of the album gathering momentum for the casual buyers who had yet to investigate? I recall many magazines such as Kerrang that other than an album review, without supporting interviews etc chose to ridicule the ’15 years in the making’ and if that’s all the kids see and read, why would they bother?

    Anyway, let’s hope we get the followups way sooner than later.

    GOOD REVIEW!

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    1. Wow thanks again for all the thoughts! Yes, promotion was pretty weak on this album, but I don’t think any amount of interviews or live gigs would have changed history too much. Maybe he would have pushed a few more units, I don’t know, but by today’s standards did it sell all that poorly? In the 90’s you could have released 6 singles and promoted the shit out of it for 18 months straight. Today, I don’t know how you sell millions of albums anymore except by fluke.

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      1. I think though the year it came out is very different to this year. I reckon with more touring, pr, magazines and music videos he could’ve really made a difference to the result (and public opinion of him as a stroppy workshy tosspot).

        I also think the delay and the lawsuits after it was actually finished really hurt it. Imagine, if part 1 came out in 2005…. how much units it could shift. Then part 2 and 3 a year after eachother in 2006 & 2007.

        I’m no expert by any means and I know the decline had started, but he’d be on the high end of the nose-dive rather than three-quarters of the way down it.

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        1. Yeah I have no doubt that lawsuits hindered Chinese Democracy. They can’t help that’s for sure. I hope Axl does release the trilogy as envisioned.

          I was watching some GN’R live footage from 2001, and they are much tighter now. They sound and look a hell of a lot more like a band than they did in 2001.

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