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.
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.