Chinese Democracy arrives… too late?

Just about everything has been said, negative or positive (Mainly negative) about the Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy. It’s grown so iconic in status due to its delayed release that expectations are sure to crush it into one final pile of oblivion dust. For many they have already pounded down the death nail on Chinese Democracy with the ever-cynical gavel. This is before even giving it a chance to see the light of day, smothering out a breath that’s not even there. As anyone may have been informed or misinformed it’s all public enemy number one’s fault, authoritarian antagonist Axl Rose. Right? Make no mistake about it, this project is and has always been Axl’s baby. Many chastise Axl for the total implosion of the original incarnation of Guns n’ Roses. For this Axl, should definitely shoulder some of the blame since he had most of (Pretty much all in the latter days) the creative control and owns the actual rights to the name “Guns N’ Roses”. The only thing is people singularly blame Axl for that detonation and not the rest of the band. Axl was rapidly evolving creatively, far too fast for the rest of the original members who were still shackled deep in drug addictions and unwillingness to change their sound. Axl had obtained the concept that none of the other members seemingly could grasp and that was that to maintain longevity in the music industry as a timeless act, there has to be something more progressive. You have to be in a constant stasis of becoming as an artist. People are so adamant that Axl  should not carry on with the Guns N’ Roses name without the original members yet they themselves probably couldn’t name the original line-up in entirety. That’s okay, I’m about to do it for those people and catch them up with the “timeless” work the original/Use Your Illusion era members have been up to since Axl’s hibernation from making records some 13 years ago.
First we start with low man on the totem pole, original drummer Steven Adler. Adler was fired from Guns N’ Roses due to being hampered with a drug addiction that effected his playing at shows and recordings. A task that’s pretty impressive, being fired for drug abuse from a band that indulged the most excessively in drugs, perhaps the most in the history of rock and roll. After being fired from Guns N’ Roses, Adler was in several unsuccessful bands that concentrated heavily on trying to rekindle the glory days with countless Guns N’ Roses covers while touring. Along the way he also suffered two drug induced strokes and now suffers with a speech impediment which is prominently displayed in his new career path, convalescing with other Hollywood wash-ups and burn-outs on the Vh1 reality series “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew”, season two. Then there’s the three headed monster of  Use Your Illusion era drummer Matt Sorum, bassist Duff McKagan, and guitarist Slash. After a series of lackluster solo projects the three reunited for a benefit gig and decided to form a band with ex-Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland called Velvet Revolver. The band went on to achieve moderate success with their first album titled “Contraband”. The band released a second album titled “Libertad” which was a far less dedicated effort than their first and was filled with uninspiring generic rockers. Shortly after the band drifted apart and Weiland quit the band stating that he couldn’t work with Ex-Guns members. The band has decided to go on without Weiland but earlier this month they were dropped by their label Sony BMG/RCA records. Perhaps the second most important member of the original Guns N’ Roses line-up was rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin. Stradlin like Axl was an outcast from Indiana and moved to LA to seek fame as a musician. While in Guns N’ Roses he was a primary co-songwriter on several Guns N’ Roses hits with Axl. Izzy left the band in the middle of the Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion tour citing being unable to perform with a band that volatile that was still deep in drug binges while he himself was trying to remain sober. He also couldn’t quite relate to the bombast of the Use Your Illusion albums and it showed on his solo albums that were stripped back and far less grand in scope. The albums reviews were favorable, but gained very little fanfare. Keyboardist/Pianist Dizzy Reed is the last member from the Use Your Illusion era band to stick with Axl and his current incarnation of Guns N’ Roses. But all of the departures may not have been the central problem at all involving the delay of Chinese Democracy. The problem may be that Axl could never marry the sound he heard in his head to something of earthly substance. So for the past 13 years Axl has been battling with essentially himself and the sounds he had in his mind.
So here it is, the album that was once thought to never surface finally has. It opens with some brooding atmospherics suggesting there is an ominous storm that’s been distant for so many years ready to explode like a powder keg upon its unsuspecting victim of civilization. Ready to crush and blow away the dust of the dull rustic memorials resurrected for a front man, and for a band that was thought to be dead and gone for good from the music industry. Only a sleeping giant unfortunately for those naysayers. Chinese Democracy comes roaring through the front door with its first in the air without wiping its feet on the ‘Welcome’ mat with a crunching riff from the title track. That goes to show that Axl still knows how to tug on the heart strings of a heavy metal fan or a hard rock fan. It’s all about that killer riff and if you can find it. Then there’s the solace of a reckoning as Axl unleashes the sonic wave of his unholy shriek decimating the landscape like the wheat before the sickle as the band kicks in with an agitated frenzy. The song has the punk attitude of a lost nugget off of Appetite For Destruction. Axl’s baritone hits laced with occasional interjections of his sinuous falsetto mixed into the foreground. The layering of Axl’s vocals runs rampant through out the record, but the guy hasn’t lost a step as he can still rip from his soul the banshee demon wail that gave Guns N’ Roses its signature sound. The rest of the production is hard to describe in brief. Industrial would be a word for some of it, but there are variances that distinguish the songs individually. If anything the glitz, the glam, the decadence, the attitude of LA’s Sunset Strip of the mid to late 80’s is still here. It’s polished but it’s been given a 21st century facelift and bodywork to make it sound modern in these times. The muscular gears of industrial beats combined with layered guitars, orchestrations, and Axl’s fluctuating vocals are the primary make up. But the original Guns N’ Roses street walking jive talking mother fucker swagger is still here. The title track is followed by the side-winding thump of “Shackler’s Revenge” that displays interesting vocal takes from Axl including a deep baritone mixed in with a falsetto once more as he gutturally belows, “I got a funny feeling/ There’s something wrong today/ I got a funny feeling/ And it won’t go away/ I got an itchy finger/ An they’ll be hell to play/ I’m gonna pull the trigger/ An blow them all away”. Axl growls with enough spite to bring a world down to his depths sounding like a modern take on “It’s So Easy”. The gritty shitkickers continue as “Better” follows. At first it sounds like a post-grunge ready for radio standard until the first of two blistering solos hit. Not only are they both destined for plenty of air guitar freak outs, but they are different types of solos. The first being a giant helping of warm noodles to dump in your brain played by Buckethead, while the second is a soaring majestic solo played by Robin Finck another signature calling card of the original Guns N’ Roses records. Axl throws so many hooks into this one song that it’s hard to keep track of all of them. Just as you think the tune is about to lay low, Axl hits his stride with his menacing scream as he yelps, “I never wanted you to be so full of anger/ I never wanted you to be somebody else/ I never wanted you to be someone afraid to know themselves/ I only wanted you to see things for yourself/ All that I wanted was”. From there the album peals back the intensity and delivers “Street Of Dreams”. A song that should come as nothing new to die hard Gn’R fans as it has been played for years at concerts under the working title of “The Blues”. With piano dominating the song we’ve hit the stretch of contemporary Guns N’ Roses power ballads. If we were going by eras of Guns with one album, these would be the songs that would fit in with the juggernaut Use Your Illusion albums. “Street Of Dreams” is classic UYI era Guns with Dizzy Reed’s shimmering Elton John piano playing battling with the soaring guitar solos of Finck and Buckethead for supremacy along with blending Axl’s modern fetish of orchestrations that bleed into several of the tracks on the record. Around the bend is probably the weirdest track on the album “If The World”. The intro incorporates hip-hop beats riding side-car with some Spanish guitar playing by Buckethead ala acoustic guitar with more orchestration found in there as well. Then we hit arguably the centerpiece of the album with the epic “There Was A Time”. Complete with a hallowed halls choir to kick things off, the song is one of regret and showcasing Axl singing of times he wishes he could go back and change some of the things he did, probably personally and professionally, but no longer. The towering swirling song ascends to classic Guns status as the beautiful storm of guitars, piano, keyboards, and orchestral arrangements combine to touch the peak of the mountain where Use Your Illusion epics like “Civil War”, “November Rain”, and “Estranged” formerly made their homes. The personnel on this album is nothing short of astonishing with all of the credits, in the door out the door Guns N’ Roses members, and special thanks from Axl Rose, but this track takes the cake as the complete listing of credits for “There Was A Time” goes as follows:


(Rose, Tobias, Reed)

Guitars: Axl Rose, Buckethead, Robin Finck, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Paul Tobias, Richard Fortus
Drums: Brain, Frank Ferrer
Piano: Paul Tobias
Bass: Tommy Stinson, Chris Pittman (additional)
Keyboards: Dizzy Reed, Chris Pittman, Axl Rose
Orchestra: Marcho Beltrami, Paul Buckmaster
Orchestral arrangement: Marco Beltrami, Paul Buckmaster, Dizzy Reed, Axl Rose, Chris Pittman
Synth Orchestra: Dizzy Reed, Axl Rose, Chris Pittman
Background Vocals: Tommy Stinson, Dizzy Reed, Chris Pittman
Mellotron: Chris Pittman
Drum Programming: Chris Pittman
Choir and Additional Horn Arrangements: Axl Rose, Suzy Katayama
Sub Bass: Chris Pittman
Guitar Solos: Robin Finck, Buckethead
Vocals: Axl Rose
Arrangement: Rose, Costanzo, Caudieux, Beavan
Drum arrangement: Josh Freeze, Caram Costanzo, Brain, Chris Pittman, Axl Rose
Digital Editing: Eric Cardieux, Caram Constanzo, Axl Rose, Sean Beavan, Billy Howerdel
Black Frog Publishing (ASCAP), Steiner Tobias Publishing (ASCAP), LOSINGMYMIND Publishing (ASCAP)

After the lengthy credits you wonder how the song can possibly sound anything like Guns N’ Roses had previously done but the end result is fantastic. With songs as meticulously combed over as “There Was A Time” you begin to see how an album like this would take so long to put together. Axl’s vocal range is again impressive as he swings from quivering falsetto to full blown menacing howl. “Catcher In The Rye” is a melodic song that sounds like Axl wrote it as he was holed up in a log cabin in the mountains by himself (Maybe even clutching the novel itself?). It conjures up images of isolation similar to “Breakdown” off of Use Your Illusion II. “Scraped” sounds like one of several anthems Axl uses to possibly reference the world against his new incarnation of Guns N’ Roses. “Scraped” actually kicks off a trilogy of tunes dedicated to this matter, because one just wasn’t enough. He sings, “Don’t you try to stop us now/ I just refuse/ Don’t you try to stop us now/ Cause I just won’t let you” with the snarling conviction that brought him to the dance. The rocker “Riad N’ The Bedouins” follows with an onslaught avalanche of drums, guitars, and Axl screams. Axl assures that there’s no way anyone of his past foes can stop the fury he’s whipping up in the album. “Sorry” then comes prowling along as the finale to the trilogy having the personal agitation of something like a “Shotgun Blues” or “Get In The Ring”. It’s slow burning pace seems to fit right at home with Axl’s twisted lullabye reverberation singing serenading his opponents to sleep before snuffing them out in the slumber. The brooding track is laced with countless accusations to former friends now bitter enemies it would seem. It’s also a track of defiance on Axl’s part as he states, “You don’t know why/ I won’t give in/ To hell with the pressure/ I’m not cavin’ in.” The chorus Axl assures his detractors “I’m sorry for you/ Not sorry for you/ You don’t know who in the hell to/ Or not to believe.” Ultimately Axl confidently sings, “I’ll kick your ass/ Like I said that I would”. “I.R.S.” follows like a run of the mill rocker that Axl may have off handedly wrote during a bout of litigation since he’s sure to have been tangled up in plenty of them before. The album grand scope truly hits with the final three tracks beginning with “Madagascar”. “Madagascar” is another track that has been played live for years and remains similar to what the masses had heard before. The strength of the track rests heavily on a majestic synth line combined with orchestral swoops as Axl again sings of isolation but also extending an olive branch of sorts to ghosts from his past as he sings, “Forgive them that tear down my soul and bless them that they might grow old/ And free them so that they may know, that it’s never too late.” “This I Love” is classic Axl Rose from the Use Your Illusion era as the intro is a lonely Axl with a piano played expertly by himself as he laments, “And now I don’t know why/ She wouldn’t say goodbye/ But then it seems that I/ Had seen it in her eyes.” The track is another epic ballad that holds it’s own with anything off the Use Your Illusion albums. The track builds from just Axl and piano to sweeping cinematic orchestral arrangements and a searing guitar solo from Robin Finck. Even Axl himself climbs several octaves higher with his vocal attack, and as the track hits its zenith peak it’s sure to raise the hair on some arms before retreating back to Axl sitting alone at the piano once more by himself. The final song is “Prostitute”. A deceptive title that would suggest it to be an eviscerating rocker, but it’s far from that. The track is a cerebral closer that has similar manic undercurrents to that of “Coma”. Actually upon listening to the lyrics Axl sounds as if he is giving the last will and testament to the mystique behind the album Chinese Democracy. He seems to be saying that time is needed for his creations to be fleshed out. He would not let it off it’s leash until he felt it was ready. 13 years later, Axl is finally ready to let go. The send off is a peaceful flourish of piano and orchestration. It seems as if it were meant to be a fitting coda for not only to the old Guns N’ Roses, but their fans and their patience for the release of the record. It has been a 13 year voyage and this was the conclusion, the sound of the burning sun setting, giving way to the cooling night. Like you’re out on a boat at sea surrounded by calming waters. The same waters that were fraught with the ferocious turbulence of Axl’s psyche for years are no longer detrimental. The shore that Axl sings about in “Madagascar” being so far from is now visible.
You are now actually holding a hard copy of Chinese Democracy in your hands. This is no mirage and the odyssey is now over, until you play it over and over like you did with Appetite For Destruction, GnR Lies, and the Use Your Illusion albums. Tomorrow a new sun rises in a world that now has a new Guns N’ Roses record, and tangible proof that a band by that name does still exist. Despite the title of Chinese Democracy, the album focuses far less on worldly matters than dealing with the continuing internal struggle of Axl and his demons. Subjects that were prevalent on the rest of the Guns N’ Roses back catalog. There’s a lot going on in the record. Axl’s over indulgences may drive some fans of the original Guns N’ Roses away (If the wait hadn’t driven them away already) that preferred the stripped down bluesy Stones licks mixed with the Sex Pistols attitude that made Appetite For Destruction such a powerhouse. One thing that has been sorely missing in rock is the dangerous presence of Axl Rose and the moniker of Guns N’ Roses. For those fans that spite Axl and have turned their back, I’m sure that if they did briefly turn back around they would be greeted with a giant middle finger from Axl himself, saying he didn’t need them anyway and this record wasn’t for them. This record is for the die-hards that, “Stuck with Guns N’ Roses, through all the fuckin’ shit!” Those die-hard fans that were willing to wait will be rewarded and satisfied with the record. There is a lot here that is reminiscient of the band of misfits on the LA strip they adored 20 years ago, mixed with the epic journeys of Use Your Illusion I and II that made them world stadium superstars. It also has the potential to lure in a whole new generation of audience raised on contemporary rock radio with Axl’s new indulgences. It’s the sound of Axl finally coming to terms with himself (At least temporarily) and finally able to chart out the map of music that he had seen in his mind for so long. Chinese Democracy isn’t anything ground breaking, it won’t cure cancer or stop world hunger. It won’t challenge the likes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Highway 61 Revisited for greatest album supremacy, but it is a great hard rock record. Axl shows what can be accomplished with plenty of time, unyielding passion for his vision of a single album, and uncompromising attitude to have this project see the light of day no matter what the critics and mobs say. And that is with the decks stacked and being pushed in a corner, great music, great art can be produced. Next time though Axl, let’s get another one out before 2021, alright?

01. Chinese Democracy*
02. Shackler’s Revenge*
03. Better*
04. Street Of Dreams*
05. If The World
06. There Was A Time*
07. Catcher In The Rye*
08. Scraped
09. Riad N’ The Bedouins*
10. Sorry*
11. I.R.S.
12. Madagascar*
13. This I Love*
14. Prostitute*

Originally posted November 23rd, 2008