Not the disaster it could have been...

Let it be known: ‘Chinese Democracy’ is not the disaster it could have been. Not quite.

Seventeen years have passed since Guns N’ Roses last released original studio material – the two volumes of 1991’s ‘Use You Illusion’ sold by the absolute truck-load, spawned hit singles, and then… then the band hit the skids. But you know the back-story. Everyone knows the back-story. And everyone knows that ‘Chinese Democracy’ is, without doubt, the most eagerly anticipated rock record of the new millennium.

Of the band that formed in Los Angeles in 1985, only co-founding vocalist W. Axl Rose remains; he has guided this 14-track album, GN’R’s sixth, from troubled beginnings through protracted gestation, across internet leaks and label despair, and finally to completion. Assorted contributors – many of them – play their parts, but make no mistake: ‘Chinese Democracy’ is Axl’s album. It is the culmination of too much work, of investment emotional and financial, for it not to be.

Alas, it appears that Rose has spent much of the last 17 years in a bubble, oblivious to the ever-twisting trends of the music world. ‘Chinese Democracy’ is an album living in the distant past. Nu-metal has come and gone, the likes of Korn now a footnote in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, yet the second track here is an explosive echo of the movement – ‘Shackler’s Revenge’ chugs and grunts like drop D is the only tuning its makers have ever cared for. Elsewhere, efforts recall both Meatloaf and Pink Floyd – neither cutting-edge reference points likely to endear Axl’s squealings to an audience fresh of face.

And it’s the vocalist’s contributions that actually comprise this album’s greatest disappointment – whereas once Rose could scream himself shrill and girls would throw themselves at his feet, now his tones are broken, his shrieks decidedly unsettling in their inconsistency. As he switches from a whisper to a roar, words are lost as the noise emitted from his aging throat, one that’s been subjected to its share of poisons, becomes quite unbearable.

The album’s title track, already available to hear online and on radio stations the world over, is among the best efforts on this too-long collection (yes, it was a long time coming, but 14 tracks is two or three too many for a single sitting to be enjoyable… sorry, tolerable). Its industrial crunches come on like Smashing Pumpkins duelling with Marilyn Manson, and Rose’s performance is decent enough – multi-tracked though the vocals are, they drip a drama absent on much of ‘Chinese Democracy’. Fanboy boxes are ticked: over-the-top solo, slightly provocative lyrical content (wow, he said “masturbation”), and the whole thing rocks along with an energy comparable to ‘You Could Be Mine’. It’s an obvious first single.

Of the remaining 13 tracks, though, highs are outnumbered by depressing lows. ‘This I Love’ is the sole effort written only by Rose, and it shows – the song possesses a fluidity missing on the cut-and-pasted heavier numbers, where digital editing combines solos by Buckethead with ones by Robin Finck and ends up making a right mess. Beginning with only Rose’s vocals and a gentle piano backing, ‘This I Love’ comes unstuck when tumultuous guitar is shoehorned into the arrangement – the introspection is shattered, and the veil drops again to guard this colourful musician revealing too much of himself. ‘Better’ finds our protagonist looking back at his life, and his career, as is to be expected thematically; ‘There Was A Time’, the album’s longest track at six-minutes-36, does likewise: “It was the wrong time for you / It was the wrong time for me… Why don’t I go back in time?”

Heavily processed string arrangements add compositional weight to numbers such as ‘Madagascar’, which also features samples of some of Martin Luther King’s famous addresses, and the closing ‘Prostitute’, but rarely do these flourishes fit perfectly with the super-amplified six-string assaults that surround them. Solos soon become distracting, and eventually boring – in the mid-‘90s this style of heavy rock might’ve proved a critical hit, but in 2008 much of ‘Chinese Democracy’ sounds incredibly dated. It’s tired, musically, and while Rose does his best to carry the weakest tracks – ‘Catcher In The Rye’, ‘Sorry’ – his impassioned, if imperfect, vocal takes can’t elevate substandard selections into the realm of the merely mediocre.

“I have to pull through… Look for a new beginning” Axl tells us on ‘Prostitute’. His frustration at being unable to find what he was searching for, musically, earlier than he did no doubt got the man down, but there isn’t much on ‘Chinese Democracy’ to suggest he’s absolutely succeeded in producing a record that’s not indebted to the material he was a part of in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Axl Rose is Guns N’ Roses – literally nowadays – and while he’s the only captain of this ship, it’s sailing a well-known course. You would not mistake these songs for the work of any other band – they are poor-to-average Guns N’ Roses songs, released too late for anyone but the most hardcore admirer to care for wholeheartedly, and inspirationally vacuous to the extent where some efforts can be compared to singles from Britney Spears and Christina Augilera. Seriously – ‘I.R.S.’ is alarmingly close to the latter popster’s ‘Fighter’.

Not a disaster, then, but ‘Chinese Democracy’ is not the perfect product of 17 years’ hard graft. Considering the many millions of dollars spent on its development, it’s impossible to not call it a massive waste of money. Had Axl cut half the staff, trimmed the studio trickery, and made a record that at least tried to sound as if it was recorded by a band rather than a dominant individual with a team of hired hands, it’d be halfway decent. As it’s peppered with clunky progressions, slid into place on a computer screen rather than arrived at through human trial and error, and blighted by banal lyricism (acceptable) and skin-crawling vocal hiccups (not so given the abundance of post-production tweaks evident throughout), the conclusion is thus:

A solid four out of ten, he said with a sigh.


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