Chinese Democracy – Guns ‘n’ Roses
After years of rumor and speculation, shockingly enough, Axl Rose’s Chinese Democracy has finally seen the light of day. With so many lineup changes since Guns N’ Roses inception, and since the beginning of CD’s recording, much time was spent retracking the same parts with new musicians. What finally happened is that Rose decided to use the best of every session with past and present players, and countless producers (all credited), to create something so full and rich that it has almost none of the rawness that made the band’s early work so special. But underneath and above the layers, which have been Pro-Tooled to death (or life?), if accepted for what it is, one will find a hell of a rock record.
Remove from your mind what you originally loved about Guns N’ Roses. Axl could have gone for the sound of original Guns if he wanted to, but obviously he had his direction, not seeming to care whether people agree or not. Granted, there are barrages of incredible guitar shredding (“Catcher in the Rye”, “Prostitute”) and Axl’s signature wails (“Chinese Democracy”). But there are also drum loops on several tracks, other electronic elements provided mostly by Chris Pittman, and endless layers of texture which would be completely out of place on something like Appetite for Destruction.
Because the album was recorded over 15 years, there are reminders of sounds come and gone through mainstream music. The second track and third tracks, “Shacklers Revenge” and “Better,” bring to mind David Bowie’s 1997 Nine Inch Nails-inspired Earthling. Clear influence from Elton John can be heard on “Street of Dreams,” a beautiful sweeping number reminiscent of John’s best work. “If the World” is one of the most interesting cuts and one that sounds the least like Guns N’ Roses, more like an outtake from Beck’s Odelay. Despite it’s non-GnR vibe, “If the World” has a nasty groove that really sucks you in. For that you can thank Tommy Stinson, the former Replacements bassist who keeps a fine pocket on the whole record.
“There Was a Time” is the album’s strongest track, and the most over-the-top in terms of production. The song features a choir, dozens of layers, and separate guitar solos from “Bumblefoot” and “Buckethead.” Despite all of that, it has a dirty rock vibe that cuts deeper and deeper as it builds to an epic climax. The production is over the top, but it doesn’t lose the edge. For what Axl was trying to accomplish on Chinese Democracy, this truly is perfection.
One thing disappointing, not so much about the record, but about future live shows, is the realization that Axl can’t consistently reproduce the album's vocal performance. This has nothing to do with Axl’s age or years of past screaming on stage. On the last tour his voice was in fine form, but few of the songs had vocal parts as challenging as what he captured on Chinese Democracy. Chris Pittman will likely be filling in many gaps.
After 15 years it would be great to have a timeless record that lives up to every expectation, but does having big expectations ever bring satisfaction? Given that, Chinese Democracy is a really great listen and now we can wonder, where do we go now, where do we go?