Review Summary: Chinese Democracy is comfortably the most consistent product the band has put out since Appetite For Destruction.
The words “Chinese Democracy” conjure up all kinds of images, from Tiananmen Square to rioting monks in Tibet, but surely the most enduring image- for music fans anyway- is of be-braided rock n’ roll recluse Axl Rose slaving over a hot mixing desk in his pimp hat and trackies (OK, maybe some of those details are specific to me). 14 years since what was left of the band assembled to write the follow-up to 1991’s Use Your Illusion I & II
, and a good decade since recordings began in earnest, the big fear was that Axl might have overcooked the eggs- his penchant for big, big
arrangements is legendary, after all, and the band line-up has swelled to a generous nine members at times (it currently sits at a lean seven). Yet reality has never been quite so simple, and those in the know have long painted an entirely different picture: Rose as the perpetual procrastinator, for whom the delay had come about not as a result of overwork, but because he would abandon the project for months on end when things didn’t go precisely to plan. Which brings us to the recorded product itself: something doesn’t sit quite well with Chinese Democracy
, and it’s definitely not because it’s too perfect
kicks off with its title track and lead single- which, true to form, Rose released to radio without a single edit, leaving intact the minute-plus of ambient sounds and Chinese people chattering that bookends the track. Easily datable to the early (read: industrial) period of the album’s genesis, due to its deliciously serrated guitar riff and viciously distorted vocals, ‘Chinese Democracy’ is a co-write between Rose and one-time band member Josh Freese. (To put a timeline on this album, drummer Freese and engineer Billy Howerdell met while recording Chinese Democracy
. They formed a band, released three platinum records, toured the world twice, sold eight million records and broke up- FOUR YEARS AGO.) Unusually for Axl, or at least for this album, the title track seems to be aimed solely at the Chinese government and its tendency to be overwhelmingly filled with ruthless tyrannical bastards and isn’t, as we’ll see elsewhere, a lofty metaphor for the persecution he’s suffered at the hands of x, y and z.
‘Madagascar,’ on the other hand, is
a lofty metaphor for Rose’s persecution at the hands of x, y and z (those tyrannical bastards!). Another track that’s been in the public domain for a good seven years, since being premiered at Rock In Rio III in 2001, ‘Madagascar’ is an uncompromising statement of defiance against those that seek to quell Rose’s spirit by painting him as a helpless exile, cut off from the world at large (and Africa). The track begins: ”I won’t be told anymore that I’ve been brought down in this storm / And left so far out from the shore that I can’t find my way back anymore.”
It kicks off on a sullen note, with mournful, regal-sounding programmed horns gradually giving way to chilling string sweeps and Axl’s world-weary vocals. Rose sounds almost unrecognisable for the first minute-and-a-half, sounding more like a latter-day Chris Cornell, before unleashing his higher register for the chaotic wordless chorus. The arrangement is dynamic, building with each passing verse, setting a pattern for the album that holds for just about every ballad-type song on the album, though ‘Madagascar’ stands out for its extended middle section that features numerous film quotes interspersed through key passages from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. It’s delivered with all the subtlety of a nail bomb, but by God
The two other survivors from those early shows (back when “soon” was the word!) are ‘Street Of Dreams’ and ‘Riad N’ The Bedouins.’ ‘Street Of Dreams,’ introduced all those years ago as ‘The Blues,’ is probably the token piano ballad of the album but, knowing Axl, it’s never quite so simple. Beginning with a simple piano motif reminiscent of Motley Crue’s epic ‘Home Sweet Home,’ ‘Street Of Dreams’ is buoyed by Rose’s singularly most impressive vocal performance and Tommy Stinson’s understated, plunking bassline . The false ending is sublime, and completely unexpected, and really adds to the replay value of the song, while there are echoes of the old band in the way Robin Finck and Buckethead seamlessly trade guitar solos. While Buckethead might grab all of the headlines, the now sadly-departed Finck emerges as the album’s marquee act: his trademark ultra-wide bends on the outro of ‘There Was A Time’ prove more than a match for Slash’s fire-siren finish on ‘November Rain,’ while he shows himself a tasteful heavy blues wailer in the Gary Moore mould on the otherwise tepid ballad ‘This I Love.’
Cracks do appear, however, every now and then. As a lyricist, Rose has always teetered precariously between rarely insightful and what on earth is he talking about?, and Chinese Democracy
has probably more of the latter than the former. Clearly, Axl is still hung up on the broken-down relationships of his past. Slash gets a light roasting on ‘Sorry,’ a fiercely melodic co-write with Buckethead that marries the best of Big B’s Colma
-era material with grandiose, prog-metal guitars, culminating in a show-stopping blues guitar solo reminiscent of Dave Gilmour. That said, it’s hard to see Slash being too shaken by the awkwardly-written chorus chant: ”I’m sorry for you, not sorry for me / You don’t know who in the hell to or not to believe.”
Far more incisive is ‘I.R.S.,’ which appears to be a light-hearted send-up of his former bandmates’ predilection for lawsuits (they’ve sued Axl and his management more than once in recent years), while ‘There Was A Time’ is a deliciously pointed attack at a bed-hopping former girlfriend, ”the one who can’t recall if she was sleeping in another woman’s bed, or the doctor’s or the lawyer’s or the stranger that she’d met”
‘Shackler’s Revenge’ made its debut on Rock Band 2
early this year, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen, with its spine-shaking, rotating drill guitar riff and the best of the tippy-tappy guitar stuff recent recruit Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal has to offer. ‘Scraped,’ on the other hand, bears a remarkable resemblance to the last official GN’R release, ‘Oh My God,’ except instead of the searing industrial tones we’re left with gaudy layered vocals and sub-Extreme funk metal. ‘This I Love,’ which traces its origins all the way back to the Use Your Illusion
sessions, is a gothic piano ballad that could conceivably have been “the song” from Forgetting Sarah Marshall
, while ‘Riad N’ The Bedouins’ calls to mind the original line-up’s Led Zeppelin fetish, reminiscent as it is of the classic ‘Immigrant Song.’ ‘If The World’ and ‘Prostitute’ bear the hallmark of producer Sean Beaven, balancing understated trip-hop beats alongside more conventional classic rock instrumentation; ‘If The World’ in particular recalls the Axl of the ‘80s at his “mm-ma-mm-ma-mm-ma” ba-stammering best.
Still, it’s hard to avoid the impression that, for all its million years in conception, Chinese Democracy
is a rush release, and a worse product as a result. There are at least three audible blips during the course of the album- during ‘There Is A Time,’ ‘Scraped’ and ‘Riad N’ The Bedouins’- that clearly aren’t intentional; in the case of ‘There Was A Time,’ it saws off the entire end of a line and throws the rest off-time. It’s like when CD-writers were just new on the home PC market, and every second song ripped from a CD would be infected with some sort of blip or imperfection (to this day, I can’t listen to Thin Lizzy without anticipating those involuntary skips)- these imperfections are clearly not intentional, so why are they there? Similarly, the accompanying booklet looks like it was cobbled together during a drunken afternoon sesh: there are dozens (as in more than one dozen) of misprints and copy errors in the lyrics section, and some of the images used are of a bizarrely low resolution. This hardly pertains to the quality of the music, but it’s confirmation that, for all the time and effort that’s gone into Chinese Democracy
, the release was always doomed to be a last-minute near-catastrophe.
It’s a shame, it really is, that Chinese Democracy
is such a shoddily-packaged product. With ‘Scraped’ and ‘This I Love’ the only obvious duds, Chinese Democracy
is comfortably the most consistent record the band have put out since Appetite For Destruction
, and proof the ginger midget can put out genuinely great rock music without the blonde giant and the black guy.