Review Summary: The definite case study on the futility of overproduction.
It has to be said that some bands amount to more than the sum of their parts… and one of those bands was the original Guns N’ Roses line-up. When examined separately and objectively, none of the members are particularly dazzling. This is further cemented when one looks at what all the ex-Gunners have been up to over the years. However, back when hair metal bands ruled the world, the quintet found a magical chemistry and created some of the most organic and band-oriented rock to date. Love it or hate it, Appetite For Destruction is a classic record.
Obviously, the original line-up just had to go to hell. How else could it have turned out? Lead singer Axl Rose secured the band name, and soon enough hired cronies ready to do his bidding surrounded him. Years passed, the cronies kept rotating, and eventually a record solidified and hit the shelves. Not surprisingly, it didn’t cause a stir, and now it’s bargain bin fodder. Best Buy, who secured the exclusive distribution rights, must be pretty sorry right now.
No, Chinese Democracy is not a tragically underrated, genre-transcending piece of rock wizardry that people are going to worship in 30 years. For once, the general populace’s album purchasing habits manage to reflect the quality of the record’s material. For you see, the new Guns N’ Roses are the polar opposite of the original version – the band amounts to much, much less than the sum of its individual parts.
Axl’s surrounded by some of the most competent musicians active on the scene today. Instead of going for a new shift of “seasoned rockers” (think whatever band Steven Adler may be in right now), the frontman opted to transcend the convention, branch out and secure players from all over the map. This modified take on creating a band fit very nicely with his new musical direction, as Guns N’ Roses’ old sound went out the window along with the instrumentalists.
The new music direction isn’t a problem in itself, as experimentation has resulted in some truly breath-taking albums getting created. The problem is when one member of a given band, who wasn’t even the main man responsible for its initial success, gets to run around unchecked and impose his musical will on others. Judging by the fact that Paul Tobias (out of the band since 2002) is present on the majority of the record, and a good chunk of the material was played live since the band’s return to the stage, it’s safe to assume that the songs making up Chinese Democracy have been penned years ahead of the record’s release. In a way, it’s good – in retrospect, the interviews with Axl full of proclamations of record releasing are justified. What’s worse, though, is that though all these years nobody had the balls or authority to walk up to the man and try to talk him out of some of the duds found on the album.
For duds are present on Chinese Democracy, in quantity far exceeding what one would expect to encounter when giving a spin to a record that took nearly 15 years to make. The bulk of the album is made up of inane pseudo-pop hooks laced in “modern” arrangements that would have already sounded dated had it hit the shelves around 1999. If there are hours and hours of material from the sessions to wade through, why did something as painfully sleep-inducing as “Better” deserve anything more fleshed out than a rough demo? Who actually endorsed turning the horrid, horrid core that makes up “There Was A Time” into a full-blown, overcrowded moloch? I smell a distinct lack of quality control. Chinese Democracy is filled to the brim with such little “gems”, tracks that would be best left on the cutting floor… but which were special to the lone original Gunner remaining, and as such were privileged enough to make the final cut. Why, oh why did he drag “This I Love” with him all those years? It should have stayed dead and buried with the dissolution of the original band, and not exhumed and exposed to the public with a side of ridiculously bad Robin Finck guitar solo.
Since the songs have been ready for years, why did the record take so long to release? I guess we’ll never know. Axl’s perfectionism (now as unchecked as the quality of his tunes) is probably to blame, as may be various corporate music business hassles. The guys didn’t waste all of the time, though – recording studios made a true killing on this undertaking, as layer after layer of further arrangement tweaks got piled on the original ideas. Pro tip, Axl – hiding a bad song under walls of overdubbed guitars, keyboard shimmers and whatever other aural getaways you may have available does not make it any less bad. If anything, it makes listening to the record even more painful. If there were enough resources to turn each of the songs into a crazy, overproduced mess, why weren’t those resources used to get some better tunes instead?
The overproduced nature of the record brings forth another problem – the heavily mercenary-like nature of the hired cronies. The most obvious culprit is Bumblefoot. A fresh arrival, only in the band since 2006, yet featured on every single track of the album. The man’s specific guitar tone and articulation makes him effortlessly discernable in the recording… and the stuff he did tends to be heavily distracting. The most obvious example is “Street of Dreams”. Yes, of course that piano intro needed your distorted chords on top, it sounds so much better now. And that bouncy, offbeat riffing supplied during the pre-chorus, it totally doesn’t shatter the song’s vibe. Don’t even get me started on his studious vibrato soloing (as if “Catcher in the Rye” wasn’t bad enough without his faux-emotional lead)…
Of course, Bumblefoot is not the only culprit; it’s just that his attempts to mark his territory are the most glaring when comparing the line-up history with the album credits. The most aurally discernible footprints belong to his predecessor, Buckethead. He’s a rather unique musical entity, and he was not willing to compromise it for the sake of Guns N’ Roses (in case the mask and bucket didn’t make that perfectly clear instantly). As such, Chinese Democracy features killswitching, atonal tapping runs and harmonizer skronk abound. Also, the three songs penned in this millennium feature Bucket-to-the-core riffs and drop tuned guitars characteristic to his early 00’s musical output. Just compare the syncopated, nu-metal bounce of Scraped to Somewhere Over The Slaughterhouse. Don’t get me wrong, I have huge respect for both of these gentlemen and enjoy their non-GnR work tremendously.
Obviously, not all is bad about Chinese Democracy. It has its moments. “Street of Dreams” is a charming ballad with some passionate outro fretboard toasting courtesy of Buckethead, and “Madagascar” is the one personal track Axl got right. The problem is that pretty much everything else surrounding it is disposable. Beautifully layered, densely orchestrated, overproduced garbage. As such, Chinese Democracy is the definite case study on the futility of overproduction, where downright pedestrian musical ideas undeservingly turned into the core of a record and had years of orchestration and arrangement camouflage applied to it to make them seem worthy. As stated earlier, no matter how many layers one may try to hide a bad song under, it still remains a bad song. I hope the world has learned its lesson.