Review: Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy [2008]

chinese-democBy Peter O’Brien

In 1994 Guns n’ Roses recorded a cover of The Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil,” which was featured on the soundtrack for the Neil Jordan film, Interview with the Vampire. That recording prompted a lot of speculation and anticipation for the next Guns n’ Roses album, following 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident? and 1991’s pinnacle double release Use Your Illusion 1 & II. However, since then “it’s been fourteen years of silence, it’s been fourteen years of pain, it’s been fourteen years that are gone forever, and I’ll never have again.” Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008 marks the release of the most anticipated hard rock album of the past two decades when Guns n’ Roses’ sixth studio album—Chinese Democracy FINALLY gets released on Geffen Records.

The album has been in the works for the past decade, with high hopes for a release in 2000 following the inclusion of the song “Oh My God” on the soundtrack for the film End of Days. It was the first song recorded by the new line-up (at the time) and due to lack of popularity it has subsequently been left off the final track list of Chinese Democracy. After several more line-up changes and cancelled tour dates throughout the early to mid 2000’s the album was finally completed at such a staggering price tag that it was thought the album would never be profitable. As a result, this delayed the release even further while a distribution and marketing deal was worked out. The album will be exclusively available through Best Buy retailers as a compact disc, digital download, or LP with a free digital download.

The album leads off with a string of recently released singles including the title track, “Chinese Democracy,” “Shackler’s Revenge,” and “Better.” From that list it’s easy to say that the album starts off strong. The fourth song, “Street of Dreams” has a very classic GNR feel to it, which along with some other tunes gives the album a good balance of transition and segue to the newer material.

The next song is “If the World,” which was featured on the soundtrack for Body of Lies released last month. There are so many sounds happening in this song that it’s more like an R&B song than a rock song. And for a reason that remains unclear, there is what sounds like a porno guitar riff underlying it all. This leads off a sort of lull of compositions in the middle of the album. The following songs: “There was a time,” “Catcher n’ the Rye,” “Scraped,” “Riad n’ the Bedouins,” and “Sorry” all have their strengths and weaknesses. They just seem to have more of the latter than the opening group of songs. Of these middle of the road (and album) tracks “Catcher n’ the Rye” and “Sorry” are the most enjoyable. “Catcher” falls into that same category as “Street of Dreams,” as their compositions are very similar in tone and structure. “Sorry” leads off with a very tranquil guitar rhythm that gradually becomes enveloped by Axl’s lyrics.

In a way this song leads nicely into the remaining tracks, which are among the best on the album. These songs: “I.R.S.,” “Madagascar,” “This I Love,” and “Prostitute” are probably the closest to classic GNR tracks on this record. While listening to them you can hear how great they could be with the right collaborators. What they all seem to be lacking from, and this includes the rest of the songs on the album, is inventive, passionate, guitar playing. The whole album has this stale, generic guitar work that provides flattened filler, which occasionally compliments the composition, rather than give the songs signature riffs and licks. It is the piano work of both Axl and Dizzy Reed that dominates the majority of the songs on Chinese Democracy, and that is the limitation of Axl as a songwriter. Many, if not all, the songs are multi-layered compositions that are riddled with samples.

That being said, the thing that makes Chinese Democracy great to listen to is Axl’s vocal performance. His vocal arrangements, coupled with his lyrical ability, are clearly his strengths as a songwriter. The harmonies and vocal melodies he displays on this record are the one parallel that can be drawn between the old and new Guns n’ Roses albums. Much like his former band mates: Slash, Duff McKagan, and Matt Sorum’s recent albums with Velvet Revolver sound like they are lacking a vital element to take them from average to superior, the same can be said about Chinese Democracy and their absence on it. The two (GNR & Velvet Revolver) seem to be on par as far as their writing abilities are concerned, but it is clear that they are better together.

The album has a very consistent sound in terms of performance, tone, and production quality. Listening to it you can hear Axl’s influence in the earlier Guns n’ Roses work, which in many (kind of obvious) respects makes Chinese Democracy more of an Axl Rose solo album rather than a collaborative group effort. The replacement of every single band member (with the exception of Rose) doesn’t allow Chinese Democracy to really show an evolution of music growth within the band. Instead the band has been re-contextualized into a new dynamic with a new musical direction that falls short of its previous incarnation. There are no songs on Chinese Democracy that stand out and resonate musically the way tracks from Appetite for Destruction, or Use Your Illusion I & II had in the past. B/B-

Be sure to check out Peter O’Brien’s thrash metal documentary “Riphouse 151: Could’ve Been’s & Wanna Be’s” which is currently on the festival circuit.

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