Friday, November 21, 2008

Review : Chinese Democracy: Axl 's Folly Or Magnum Opus?

Guns 'N' Roses
Chinese Democracy
Geffen Records

Review by Nightwatcher

Well, it's finally here. This mythical creature, a white elephant of an album, one which many believed would never come out. Namely Guns 'N' Roses' over 14 years in the making, costing over 13 million U.S. dollars funded by several record labels - yes you guessed it, the highly anticipated 'Chinese Democracy'.

So, I suppose the question is : Was it worth it? Well, if you're talking about whether or not it was worth taking so much time and money creating, there have been better albums, even by Axl Rose, which have taken considerably less time and significantly less money to make. But having said that, the album, contrary to being a bloated monstrosity, is actually a fine rock album. Is it a Guns 'N' Roses album though? Well, seeing as Axl Rose is the only original member left, it's akin to if John Lennon or Paul McCartney would've hijacked the name and went on as The Beatles. Funny how that most certainly wouldn't have flown back then, but people are more than willing to accept, and pay for this, but I digress. In this day and age, yes, it is, as much as one person can be, I suppose.

Having heard many of these songs either live or through leaks throughout the years has prepared most of the contents, the real mystery was how the final mixes were going to turn out, and whether or not this song or that song would actually make the final cut.

The album kicks off with what may be the sound of Chinese voices declaring democracy (Or perhaps protesting they aren't eligible to get a free can of Dr. Pepper?), before launching into the heavy groove rocker that is the title track. The closest of all the heavier tracks to sound like vintage Guns, there's also a slight Thin Lizzy vibe to the verses before descending into bleeps and blips of guitar scronk not too far removed from an old video game soundtrack. All in all not a bad start, but it doesn't kick with the same sort of urgency as the earlier openers, but it's better than say, Nickelback or the majority of the faceless modern rock out there, so not all is lost.

The second track, "Shackler's Revenge" was the first single released on the latest version of the 'Rock Band' series of video games, begins reminiscent of something Rob Zombie might come out with before Axl's trademark screech signifies the main portion of the song. Rather forgettable, this is one of the weaker tracks, and was an odd choice to be the first music to be released under the band name in almost a decade."Better" is, well...a lot better, and after some almost trip hop beginnings morphs into one of the better songs of the album. Featuring a great melody, and now slated as the second single, this should get a lot of airplay in its final form. "Street Of Dreams," which until recently was known as "The Blues," is a classic sounding ballad, and if it weren't for a moment or two where Rose's vocals sound similar to pulling a cat's tail, ala the original band's cover of Wings' "Live And Let Die," this would be a great track. Beginning with acoustic Spanish styled guitar and keys, "If The World," another mid tempo track, simmers for awhile before building in intensity and is another strong track. More modern sounding, it still shows Rose to be in fine voice. Containing a fine guitar solo, this works in a different vein than what has come before. "There Was A Time" is heralded by choral vocal work before opening up into one of the best rockers on the whole album. The multiple layers of production working in its favor, making this epic sounding, making this track one of the highlights. "Catcher In The Rye" continues the strong streak of tracks, and could've easily fit on 'Use Your Illusion'. Another mid tempo offering, this is sure to appeal to fans of the old band, and could quite possibly be another radio hit, if released as a single.

"Scraped," with it's straight forward grind is yet another punchy, classic sounding rocker that is needed after the grandeur preceding it. Recalling an updated version of the 'Appetite' era, which in that incarnation would've hit deep to the bone, the multi layered production here softens the punch. But it does sound good via a good set of headphones, as does the entire album. "Riad N' The Bedovins" continues the heaviness, containing some of Rose's best wailing on the album, it features a somewhat Zeppelin like groove in the middle, before going off kilter. Just when you think it's going off the rails, it's reigned in, and can be considered another strong track. "Sorry" mines both Pink Floyd and latter 70's Ozzy era Sabbath, not surprising when you consider the original band used to cover "It's Alright" from the latter's 1978 'Technical Ecstasy' album. Great solo on this track, very atmospheric, and not at all showboaty, it's one which actually fits the song, and shows a David Gilmour influence in its restraint. "I.R.S." starts off slowly before erupting into a heavy rock offering, alternating back and forth from an almost fake latin groove to riff rock. Surprisingly it works, and when you add another fine guitar solo on top, you have a winning combination. "Madagascar," the song played at the 2002 MTV Music Awards, is an epic "November Rain" type ballad mixed with "Civil War" styled social commentary. Bringing back once again the samples from 'Cool Hand Luke', which opened "Civil War" interspersed with further snippets of Martin Luther King, this seems like overreaching, and the profanity will likely keep this off the airwaves. But in the studio, with "Kashmir" like synth work at its crescendo, it certainly sounds epic enough to become a classic. In stark contrast lies "This I Love", wherein Rose on keyboards, peels back the many layers of his defenses, laying bare his raw emotions for perhaps the only time on display here, revealing him to be tattered, torn and heartbroken, pleading. It's almost scary, and a jolt, after all the production keeping him safe, for him to lay himself on the line like this, as he wails plaintively "So if she's somewhere near me/I hope to God she hears me/There's no one else could ever make me feel so alive", like a mere mortal. One of the first songs to be written for the album, supposedly brought to ex guitarist Slash back in the early 90's, it suggests that perhaps his self imposed exile could be due to extreme heartbreak, making this a rare, harrowing glimpse into his soul. As such it has to be considered the album's high point, a spot where he can connect with the audience on a human level.

"Prostitute" ends the album on a high note, as it brings the listener down from the journey safely. Settling into a groove, complimented by fine keyboard work courtesy of Dizzy Reed, this is a fine way to end the album.

Lyrically, this isn't by any means the Axl Rose of 'Appetite Of Destruction'. Whereas that was a band from the gutter struggling to get out, this is a Rose who has only seen the world either from the stage or locked away in a mansion the past 16 years, and the songwriting has changed accordingly. Normal everyday rock fans won't find much to identify with say, the Homer's Odyssey-esque lyrics of "Madasgascar", but that never stopped fans listening to and loving Led Zeppelin's rides to Valhalla, and shouldn't detract here as well.

The bottom line here is that you are going to have polarizing opinions of G'N'R apologists proclaiming this a masterpiece, while on the other end of the spectrum you'll have critics stating it's pure shite, when in all actuality it's neither. But what you'll find here is an album that will undoubtedly sell millions, and millions more will download it for free. It ain't 'Appetite For Destruction', and there's not much of the sleazy Aerosmith influenced swagger from that album to be found here - but it's not as weird and out there as the making of would suggest, and one could do much worse than buying this. It isn't going to change the face of rock, but even if this turns out to be the last original music released by the band, it's not going to tarnish the reputation any. Not anymore than its frontman has already done anyway.

Fairly solid, with a few exceptions, if one can get past all the hype and expectation and the fact that this isn't the original band, you'll find this to be a natural progression from the last band efforts 'Use Your Illusion Pt I & II'. Although it can never live up to what has built up, and it would be quite easy to slam this album, you have to give credit where credit's due. Axl Rose has pulled off what many thought was impossible, and that's putting out an enjoyable, at times harrowing album which grows stronger with consecutive listenings. 8.0/10

1 comment:

Septic said...

Thanks for offering a pretty sane review of the album. I've really had it with people who just trash it without having heard it. In my review of the album I basically stated that the only thing 'wrong' with Chinese Democracy is that Axl doesn't perform a full 14 miracles in the space of 71 minutes - the fact of the matter is that even though not all the tracks are incredible - quite a few ARE. Axl remains the genius we've known him to be.

I understand what you mean by the Beatles thing - however, I must say this - none of the Beatles ever put together something (alone) that sounded like a Beatles record - however, after having heard Snakepit, Revolver, etc - I can in all honesty say that it's become very clear to me that the gn'r 'sound' was mostly a result of Axl's vision - his lyrics and voice drove the music, and he did a lot of the writing on the material. That he can conjure the feel of gn'r while evolving the sound whereas NONE of the others could do so makes me think the name is rightfully his.

He's produced a kick-ass album here, people have to give him credit for that - and some owe the man an apology.

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