Review: GUNS N’ ROSES Chinese Democracy

     November 30, 2008

Written by Ben Lauter

How did Axl pull it off?

By all rights, Chinese Democracy, the long-gestating release by Guns N’ Roses (estimated at 14 years in the making), should have been a distant memory by now, a pop, not a minor explosion. Despite its status as the defining rock band of the late ‘80s, there was little reason for anyone, least of all the ardent supporters who might have been left, to be hopeful about any of the promised recordings from its reclusive leader.

By the mid-1990s, Guns N’ Roses, once a lean, mean, snarling machine, was a casualty of excess, most of its band members gone. Principal guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and chief songwriter/rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, and even the replacements, drummer Matt Sorum and rhythm guitarist Gilby Clarke, all of them left to the annals of GN’R history. Singer Axl Rose had agreed to tour for the Use Your Illusions albums a few years earlier, as the story goes, by forcing the rest of the band to sign over rights to the moniker. A tension-filled world tour ensued, followed by a covers album. In 1995, in the midst of another lineup overhaul, Rose tried to put Ozzy Osbourne axeman Zakk Wylde alongside Slash, but the cracks in GN’R were too deep to repair and ultimately the Gunners exited one by one, leaving behind only Rose and touring keyboardist Dizzy Reed.

The band was down to one original member. That kind of thing can be quite problematic, but the resourceful Rose seemed unfazed as he quickly unveiled the future.

Thus began a lengthy odyssey for Guns N’ Roses, a decade-plus self-imposed exile by Rose, speculated to be eyeball deep in a world of rejection, hurt and paranoia. Rumors ran rampant over those years as he professed to be assembling a magnum opus entitled Chinese Democracy and went through a wide range of musicians, some stable members and some hired hands (Queen’s Brian May!), and producers to realize its scope. “Nu GN’R,” “Scab GN’R,” whatever people labeled it, it soldiered on in the background. Rose turned studios into his personal playground, racking up a reported $13 million price tag for what, to most, appeared to be a vanity project. Tours in 2002 and 2006 imploded due to his constant, and occasionally riot-inducing, tardiness. Any other rocker would not have been indulged such seeming arrogance and disrespect by fans or benefactors, but amazingly, somehow interest in Rose and his mystery album remained.

The title Chinese Democracy probably started out as just a lofty concept, a way to set the mood for Rose’s grand ambitions, but as time rolled on, it became somewhat prophetic with each album delay, a monument to the inconceivable. As might have been expected, the album really has nothing to do with the democratization of China, as none of the lyrics appear to deal with the subject, and yet it’s somehow almost as if the album had to be called Chinese Democracy. Any other title just wouldn’t make sense now. Closer to being The Axl Rose Project, even without the original ingredients it still works as a strange and exhilarating detour from the typical Guns N’ Roses sound. Rose has had many of his newer members in the band for so long that it still seems to function as a band.

Stylistically, the album turns out to be a full meal instead of a few leftovers. Though it might have sounded dated in the time the songs were written, the fact that it’s been released a decade after that period surprisingly gives it a stylish, retro freshness. There are several rockers on the disc, but many of the songs represent the next evolution from tracks like “Estranged” and “November Rain,” making it clear this is the direction Rose really wanted to go in. The songs are kind of amorphous, without a specific time and genre to cling to, and as orchestrator of the album’s layered musicality, Chi Dem actually gives some validity to the notion that Axl Rose is perhaps the artist he always claimed to be. The album, taken as is, is way more satisfying than would have been expected.

Of course, having great players doesn’t hurt, either. As talented as Slash, McKagan and Stradlin are, this is a different show. Rose surrounded himself with more than capable team members like bassist Tommy Stinson (The Replacements) and guitarist Robin Finck (Nine Inch Nails), and session whizzes like drummer Brian “Brain” Mantia, but the ringer on the team turned out to be the chicken-tendered guitarist Buckethead, a guitar savant hidden inside a Michael Myers mask and adorned by a KFC bucket. Although his guitar work was later augmented or replaced by Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, the dizzying, hyper-robotic guitar licks sear like laser beams across the CD surface. Each song is also pleasingly awash in long, emotive solos that would certainly bring a smile to David Gilmour’s face.

The sound of sirens echo, with whispered voices and staccato guitar building to an industrial chord progression, blaring out of the speakers alongside Axl’s banshee wail. The title track seethes with discontent from Rose, who’s got nothing but “precious time” to ruminate upon, bridging the old and the new. The solo even starts out curiously reminiscent of one Slash might have played before the whammy pedal gets a workout from Buckethead. It’s a mid-paced powerhouse, the best of the album which includes two additional rock gems, the “Welcome to the Jungle”-ish “Scraped” and the slinky, strangely-titled “Riad N’ The Bedouins,” and two forgettable rockers (“Shackler’s Revenge” and “I.R.S.”).

Strange that the rockers wouldn’t be the highlight of a Guns album, but it’s true. Where Chinese Democracy liberates the ears is in its diversity of rock ballads. The first, the introspective “Better,” is part heavy rocker, part brooder, with a dreamy, detuned chorus and a terrific outro solo. Rose peppers his vocals exquisitely with trebly vocal layers that frame the song’s chorus and final coda. Not similarly, the Illusion-esque “Street of Dreams” (formerly known as “The Blues”), highlighted by guitars, strings and soft piano is terrifically sung by Rose. With beautiful wah-soaked solos and a great fade out that fades back in, it’s a stand-out. It’s a great counterpart to “This I Love,” another tender piano ballad with lyrics that bemoan the loss of love. Assuming there were minimal Pro Tools enhancements in effect, Rose’s vocals have never been better than on this album.

It isn’t all rock and roll, however as Rose experiments with some world and ambient sounds. “If the World” stands out as a very un-Guns-like track, soft drums and bass grooving over flamenco and R&B-styled guitars, segueing into funk, while the closer “Prostitute,” for the most part, sounds like “November Rain” in its harder moments and Dido or Coldplay in its softer ones. “There Was a Time,” formerly spelled out in a cruder acronym, brings a bit of a pop/hip-hop element. Keyboards and strings enhance loose, jangling guitars, as Axl sings regretfully about a former lover (this and other songs have been rumored to be about Stephanie Seymour, Rose’s former girlfriend).

On the other end of the spectrum is the fantastic “Madagascar,” an epic track which starts with rueful horns and builds to an almost “Stairway to Heaven”/“Kashmir” proportion. Quotes from Martin Luther King (reaching excessively) and one from Cool Hand Luke, previously utilized on Guns’ “Civil War,” finds an adrift Rose looking for a way back to a metaphorical shore. “Catcher in the Rye” gets him back behind the piano, while lightly sprinkled electric guitars breezily float by in a song reminiscent of his hero, Elton John. In the lyrics, Rose sings from the perspective of someone unhinged, whereas in “Sorry,” he turns himself into hardened the voice of sanity. Perhaps the one song that most reflects the period of its creation, “Sorry,” Alice in Chains-ish in its delivery, offers a cold shoulder towards a betrayer. The song is cautious and evocative. Most of the album’s lyrics cover the territory of Rose’s damaged love life and emotional wounds, but “Sorry” is probably closer to understanding what his state of mind is these days than any other.

As a whole, Chinese Democracy is a great surprise. The instinct might be to make Rose somehow pay for his long absence, but the quality of his sonic experiment makes it hard to stay upset. Once an inside joke of the music industry, Rose has popped the bubble by delivering the punchline himself. While these are most likely not the results people expected, they’re mighty impressive.

For an album people figured would never even come out at all, Rose has good reason to be, for a change, happy.

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