Guns N' Roses, "Chinese Democracy" (2008) Album Review
Guns N' Roses - CHINESE DEMOCRACY (Geffen Records, 2008)
Guns N' Roses crawled out of the gutters of Los Angeles in 1987 and hit the stagnating hard rock scene square in the face with their debut album, an epic hand grenade entitled Appetite For Destruction. Guns N' Roses quickly became one of the biggest - and most controversial - bands in the world, becoming tabloid darlings and leaving chaos and destruction in their wake wherever they went. Thirty years (has it really been that long?) after its release, Appetite is still a must-have album for anyone who likes their music loud and nasty. It's a time capsule that truly captures the gritty sound of the Sunset Strip at its absolute peak.
Four years after Appetite, the band returned with 1991's double-album set, Use Your Illusion I and II, which saw them expanding their sonic palette far beyond the down-and-dirty hard rock that had made them famous. Some fans were thrown by the overblown balladry of songs like "Estranged" and "November Rain," but record sales remained strong and the U.Y.I. combo kept the band atop the charts for another several years. By the time 1993's hastily-assembled covers album The Spaghetti Incident? hit store racks, however, the band members were at each other's throats, the bloom was off the rose (pun not intended), and rock fans had changed the channel. Guns N' Roses drifted apart under a cloud of drugs, alcohol, and egos, though lead vocalist W. Axl Rose pledged to carry on under the GN'R banner with all new players. Thus began the strange journey that led to Chinese Democracy.
While the ex-members of GnR remained visible throughout the 1990s and into the '00s via high profile projects like Slash's Snakepit and Velvet Revolver, Axl Rose all but vanished for over a decade. Aside from "Oh My God," a new GnR song that was tacked onto the Arnold Schwarzenegger film End of Days in 1999 (to a round of indifference), Rose and his new conspirators remained largely silent. Every so often demos of new songs would "leak" out via the internet, but as the months turned into years, the long-awaited album took on the status of urban legend. Many skeptics (this writer included) were sure that Axl had gone totally Howard Hughes and that the album would never see the light of day. The standard joke became that by the time the album was released China would really be a democracy, but lo and behold...after nearly thirteen years, several aborted concert tours, countless lineup changes, and untold millions of dollars, Chinese Democracy was finally unleashed in November of 2008. Guns N' Roses was officially back in business...and the reaction from the world at large was a resounding "yawn."
From Best Buy...to the Bargain Bin!
Though Chinese Democracy initially debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, it quickly dropped off the charts in the face of mixed reviews and massive fan disinterest. When the smoke cleared, the album had sold far below the lofty expectations that music insiders had set for it. Geffen Records had arranged a deal to sell the album exclusively through the U.S. electronics retailer Best Buy, which quickly proved disastrous. Best Buy had obviously hoped that a GnR tie-in would score them a major hit ala Wal-Mart, who'd brokered several platinum-selling exclusive album deals with big name acts like AC/DC and Journey. Unfortunately, Best Buy's retail presence isn't nearly as omnipresent as Wal-Mart's. (I will leave it up to the reader to decide which side of the equation -- Geffen or Best Buy -- bet on the wrong horse.) The band compounded these difficulties by barely taking part in any promotional activities for the album's release. Touring activity was sporadic (at best), with last-minute concert cancellations being the norm. With no interviews, no music videos and barely any radio airplay to get the word out, Chinese Democracy struggled to scrape past the Gold record sales mark (500,000 copies sold) in America - a far cry from GN'R's gazillion-selling behemoths of yore. By 2011, Best Buy was stuck with so many unsold copies of the CD that they began selling them on their website for $1.99. In 2012, even that hadn't moved their remaining stock so Chinese Democracy was unceremoniously dumped into the hands of bargain basement resellers like dollar stores, which is where a friend of mine found dozens of copies of Chinese Democracy recently. I found it so hilarious when he told me that he'd seen the disc at his local Dollar Tree that I told him, "Dude, grab one for me!" ...and so that's how, nearly four years after the fact, I finally listened to Chinese Democracy for the first time.
First, the good news: Chinese Democracy is a gorgeously played, spotlessly produced album. The bad news? It's simply not very interesting. Rather than digging back into the sleazy rock of old, the bulk of Chi-Dem leans towards the more pretentious segments of the Use Your Illusion two-pack. In other words, if you're looking for the next "Welcome to the Jungle," just upgrade your beat up cassette copy of Appetite For Destruction to CD. Unsurprisingly, given the huge number of people who contributed to this album over the years, Chinese Democracy never feels like a "band" effort. (Check the credits page in the back of the booklet. I swear at least fifteen people are listed under each song!!) By the time I reached the end of track 14 (!) of this too-long-by-half horse pill, I got the feeling that Axl was trying to approximate the vibe of the beloved, highly orchestrated '70s rock albums of his youth like Queen's A Night At the Opera or Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Unfortunately, after a dozen years of overproducing and micro-managing every note on the record the result is something more akin to KISS' Music From 'The Elder.' Honestly, I wanted to like this disc and kept waiting for it to finally "catch fire," but it never really happened. The title song that opens the record gets things off to a great start, with Rose's howling vocals wrapping around a jagged guitar riff that immediately stuck in my head (if only the rest of the album were as good as this track!). "Shackler's Revenge" has its moments as well, but it would've sounded better (and less like leftover '90s aggro-rock) if it had been played "straight" without the needless drum loops and vocal effects. This track was already out of date by 2008. "Street Of Dreams" is another highlight; starting out as a plaintive piano ballad before turning into a full blown, cinematic orchestral rocker. Both this and "There Was A Time" sound like theme songs to a non-existent big-budget movie. "Riad N' the Bedouins" is catchy but weird and ties with the title track for my favorite song on the record (even though Rose's incessant bleats of "Ahh-aahh-aaaahhh" on the chorus become irritating after a while). From there, however... buyer beware. "If the World" sounds like a Sade B-side with its processed drumbeats, acoustic string picking and lush keyboards, and it's saddled with forced-sounding, squawking vox from Rose. "Better" sounds as if it were made up as it went along, with Rose trying to croon (he shouldn't) over a bed of hooky guitar histrionics that are obscured by jammed-in electronic "bleeps" and "bloops" that sound totally out of place. It's got a nice solo at least. (Side note: whether they're being played by Buckethead, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, or any of the multitudes of other six-stringers credited in the booklet, the guitar solos on Chinese Democracy are really the only place where this album truly "sounds" like GN'R, if that makes any sense... you can almost picture Axl in the studio, repeatedly beating his hapless guitarists with a stick, saying, "No, no, NO! You have to sound MORE like Slash!")
After "Riad N' the Bedouins" things take a quick slide. The last five tracks return to the "November Rain" wheelhouse again and again, i.e. overblown, grandiose theatrical mishmashes of rock and balladry that eventually sound like one extremely LONG track. Call me crazy, but I swear I can hear echoes of Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity" in "Sorry." Most listeners, if they make it this far, will likely be crying "Please make it stop" long before the album mercifully ends with the bland "Prostitute."
"Street of Dreams"
Summin' It Up...
So was Chinese Democracy worth the dollar I paid for it? I'd say "yes," with reservations. Its "Heinz 57" approach has moments both gutsy and klutzy (though I'd say that there are more of the latter than the former) and though I probably won't give it much play time once the initial "newness" has worn off, I have to admit that the album is kind of fascinating in a totally bizarre way. Those with more adventurous tastes than I might actually find Chinese Democracy enjoyable, but I remain glad that I didn't buy into the hype and pay full price for this CD four years ago. If you happen to find it at your local dollar store, though, it's a decent enough spin for a buck and worth at least one listen. Lord only knows where Sir Axl and his ever changing musical roundtable will go from here!
(Author's Note: This Hub would not have been possible without the help of Mark H., who picked this CD up for me and allowed me to borrow his "Dollar Tree" photo, and MG71 at the Heart of Metal forum, who inspired the caption to that photo. Thanks fellas!)
© 2012 Keith Abt