Review Summary: Generic and overblown though it may be, Chinese democracy turns out to be a worthwhile record. Give it a chance, and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.Use Your Illusion II
was, in my opinion, Guns n Roses’ masterpiece. Appetite For Destruction
was really just a generic hard rock album with a few great songs, and Use Your Illusion I was a reasonable improvement, though still nothing special. What Use Your Illusion II
did was prove that GnR had more intelligence in their music than the generic-if-fun hard rock that they had produced before. The slump that was “The Spaghetti Incident?”
is rarely looked at as a true successor to the UYI duo, which puts a hell of a lot of pressure on both Axl and this album, especially considering the length of time it’s taken to be recorded and released.
Through his perfectionism, maybe Axl realised what he needed to do with the album, as instead of his usual diva-isms, he appears to really have put some effort into sounding honest. Orchestral backings, classic siren-screeches in the vocal department, near-beautiful piano… This album has it all. Generic though it may sound, Axl has finally learned how to fit everything together without relying on Slash to solo the songs off of their dull, directionless roads. The key catalyst in this change is his vocals. He sounds older, obviously, but his voice now rarely goes through a non-melodious stage, making this possibly his best overall performance yet. It’s so nice to hear his voice in a settled state, no longer sounding like he’s going to rip his vocal chords apart within a few seconds.
In terms of production, some of the songs carry elements of sampling in the dusty-sounding drum machine beats that they begin with, though this is never too important to the songs. The key point of the production is that everything is very crisp and well-layered, just occasionally stepping outside of the box to put flanger-type effects on Axl’s voice. It is pretty much faultless, though sometimes it can sound a little over-the-top. The instrumentation is much more varied this time around, though the loss of Duff on bass has really taken the rhythm section down a notch. The drums are enjoyable and well-done, though often far too simple to keep interest, but the bass is nearly non-existent, and does absolutely nothing of interest. The focus on the guitar has also been shifted, though ridiculous solos are still present here and there. The riffs are generally simple, distorted, typical modern hard rock power chords, even more so than before. They sound good, but get very dull as the album goes on. The soloing, however, is top-notch, showing good technicality and experimentation, using a variety of tones, from classic soaring guitar to complex spanish guitar lines, with no lack of likeability attached to them, and though there are many guitar overdubs competing with the vocal lines, these are careful, never sounding out of place or overused.
What, then prevents this album from getting a perfect, or at least superb, score? It all just feels overblown and overlong. A good example of this is Sorry
, which by itself is a great, moving track, one of the few examples of clean guitar on the album. However, when the previous track, the track before that and the one after also attempts to be epic, it just drags. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t enjoyable, but Axl needs to know when to add a bit of variation into the mix. The title track is another good example, building up with a sample of what is supposedly all the people in China talking. The main riff (probably the most generic one on the album) kicks in, and the song carries on at a reasonable pace, adding everything that it possibly could to try and make it feel epic. This is good for a few songs, but after 14 tracks, the listener is left wondering if they had the repeat button on. The tracks themselves have variation, but this is lost when they all try to be epic, no matter what their specific sound is. Every single one of the final 5 tracks could have closed the album and made it a better listen for everyone.
The final point to make is that, all in all, the album feels generic. Orchestral arrangements may not stray into the realm of cheesy, but neither are they ground breaking. The riffs end up sounding similar, and overused piano and epic guitar solos just bore the listener come Madagascar
, which is a shame considering that it is by far one of the best tracks on the album, showcasing everything an epic songs needs.
Despite all it’s problems, Chinese Democracy is a good record. Hell, I’ll even call it great, as it’s clearly better than Appetite For Destruction
. I would definitely recommend getting it, but you may find it hard to listen to all the way through. In the end, it comes down to this – Axl is back, and he’s released a worthwhile album with some near-classic songs on. Forget your scepticism and give the album a chance, you may well find yourself pleasantly surprised.