Guns ‘N’ Roses “Chinese Democracy”
Guns ‘N’ Roses
Notes: Double LP set in a gatefold sleeve
How does one review the unreviewable?
That’s what it comes down to. Guns ‘N’ Roses were once my favorite band – 15 years ago. In that time, I discovered grunge, punk, hardcore, psychobilly and pretty much disassociated myself from the LA hard rock scene, which pretty much perished in the wake of Nirvana. Over the years I’ve dusted off “Appetite for Destruction” and, for the most part, the record still kicks ass.
The same can’t be said for the Illusion collection. What was once my favorite set of CDs that should have been sold together rather than milking me for three week’s allowance, now sounds like a bloated mess of overproduction. Those records pretty much killed the band and some of the best songs on them were not even written by Axl Rose.
Flash forward a decade and a half and Best Buy is actually releasing “Chinese Democracy” – a record that on paper has everything wrong going for it. It’s got a terrible name, rumors of electronica influence, two dozen musical contributors, and – the worst part – full creative control by W. Axl Rose. A man, for all intent and purposes, is still trapped in 1991.
But here I sit, holding a double vinyl set with the name Guns ‘N’ Roses on it. It really, really exists. Am I excited? Probably not as much as I would have been in 1995, but I’m still very interested in hearing the Frankenstein that Axl has created.
The packaging is nothing much. The record label clearly skimped, eschewing a vinyl insert for a basic gatefold listing the tracks. What appears to by the lyrics is actually long lists of every single person that played on each tune. To call the lists ridiculously long is an understatement. Hell, the Vandal’s Josh Freese co-wrote the title track.
So I lay back and take in Chinese Democracy.
The verdict: The record is dense. Gone are simplistic anecdotes of hard life in the big city. They are replaced with introspective verses pondering the past 15 years. Unlike his peers in Metallica, Axl does not cheese out on the lyrics. “You think you got it all locked up inside/ And if you beat them all up they’ll die/ Then you’ll walk them home for the cells/ Then now you’ll dig for your road back to hell,” Rose sings on the title track.
The songs are not easily accessible, and they work far better listened to as a whole rather than singles. Sure, tracks like “IRS” and “Madagascar” rock in that old school way, but “Chinese Democracy” isn’t something that can be easily digested. Some of the tunes that could be dismissed as “November Rain” clones fit stunningly among the mid-tempo rockers, but only when heard in sequence.
A big fear was whether the record would sound dated considering it was started back when chorus pedals were all the rage. The answer is no. “Chinese Democracy” is a hard rock record, but I can’t categorize it as being a throw back to anything. There are tons of ’70s influences on it, and Axl’s Rose sounds more 1989 than 2009, but the record can hold its own against most of the new generation of rock bands. Too top it off, Axl’s voice is still right on – perfectly complementing the wall of guitars provided by everyone from Bumblefoot to Buckethead.
Finally, Chuck Klosterman said it best in his recent review of the record. This album does not sound like it was made for the iPod generation. Today, music is compressed so much that there is no dynamic range or style. “Chinese Democracy” was made for audiophiles who still insist on listening to their records on weighted manual players with $300 headphones on. And to be fair, it makes a difference. Spend a few minutes with the record and pay close attention. During the quiet parts you can make out dozens of instruments flowing together like dancers in a ballet recital. The guitars aren’t a wave of distortion and fuzz, but a fusion of hundreds of strings and sounds. The sound is simply euphonic.
Is this record a masterpiece? Not really. But it is a really good record that is worth the time of anyone who claims to love rock ‘n’ roll. Congrats to Rose for putting together something that actually can carry him over for another 17 years.