Chinese Democracy

Album review by Drew Kerr.

Chinese Democracy
Almost 15 years in the making and at a reported cost of $13 million, Chinese Democracy couldn’t possibly carry the weight of expectations which accompanied the album’s release last month, self-imposed as they were by singer Axl Rose’s reluctance to stop tinkering with and tweaking the songs. The man has always been an incredibly talented musician and fascinating personality, which has earned him a significant amount of patience and leeway from fans and critics over the years for his erratic behavior, probably more than he deserved. Chinese Democracy finally seeing the light of day marks the end of what surely must be the longest, strangest arc a music release has ever taken.

With all of the original GNR members long since departed (and plenty of acrimony between the two camps still lingering) the group now is pretty much the Axl Rose Project. An apt equivalent is that Rose is to GNR what Trent Reznor is to Nine Inch Nails — all aspects of the sound and vision of the band begin and end with these individuals. This certainly suits Rose’s narcissistic personality. Interestingly, Rose has been a Reznor fans for years (there are definite NIN influences all over Chinese Democracy) and it’s almost as if the evolution of GNR into an autocratic dictatorship (and no longer, ahem, a democracy) became a self-fulfilling prophecy as soon as the “classic” GNR lineup began to fracture in the early 90’s.

Axl Rose
A number of these songs have been played live by the current GNR incarnation for several years. Combine that with the fact that earlier this year a much publicized online leak of seemingly finished studio versions surfaced and the element of surprise has certainly been somewhat diminished. But a proper beginning-to-end listen of the final product reveals a tremendous artistic accomplishment that evokes many strong reactions, not least of which is how much of a shame it is that someone this gifted can deprive the music world of his talent for so long.

Initial attempts at getting the album proved frustrating, although in an amusing way. A couple of weeks before the official release date the “final retail” version started showing up on file sharing sites. I did plan on buying the CD but my curiosity couldn’t wait any longer and the first few attempts at downloading the album resulted in mp3s where the first track played fine and followed with the rest of the songs “Rickrolling” me about 20 seconds in. Wonderful.

After getting hold of a listenable version it quickly became clear as to some of the reasons for the album’s delay. There are so many nuances and layers to each song that one can envision Axl the perfectionist agonizing over the most minute of details. There is a lot going on here sonically - some might (and have) call it over-production. To fully grasp the complete scope one needs to strap on a good pair of headphones, where the jigsaw arrangements of multi-layered guitars and orchestral flourishes work on most levels. Nearly everything has an epic feel to it. Yes, it’s excessive (would we expect anything less from Rose?)…but it’s brilliant.

The album is bookended by the two strongest songs. The first track (“Chinese Democracy”) is probably the most straightforward rock tune, anchored by a buzzsaw guitar riff and Axl’s unique vocal style (including double layered vocals sung at different octaves). The closing song (“Prostitute”) kicks along on a hip-hop drumbeat and follows a quiet-loud dynamic that eventually dissolves into the last 90 seconds of the track, a beautiful instrumental section that brings the album to a fitting conclusion. It may be the best thing Rose has ever recorded. Other standout tracks include “Better”, “Madagascar” and “Catcher In The Rye”. “Scraped”, “Shackler’s Revenge” and “Riad N’ The Bedouins” showcase Guns at their most aggressive and possibly best illustrates the difference between the old and the new GNR. Techno and industrial elements share space with heavily processed guitar sounds that Slash would never have gone anywhere near. “Street Of Dreams” and “This I Love” follow in the tradition of piano-driven GNR ballads like “November Rain”, with Axl’s Elton John and Freddie Mercury influences on full display. Overall there isn’t one truly bad song in the bunch, which isn’t too much to ask considering how long it took to release this. A curious oddity: Rose gives possibly the oddest vocal delivery of a line I’ve ever heard at :37 of the song “Sorry”, where he affects a foreign accent for some reason.

Chinese Democracy was not worth waiting almost 15 years for (no album is) but it’s probably the next best thing. So much has changed on the music landscape over that time and this album might have been immediately rendered irrelevant or obsolete due to the slow, painful birthing process. But just as the polished Use Your Illusion albums were a forward step from the gritty Appetite For Destruction, so too does this feel like the next logical step in the band’s evolution. The music sounds fresh, exciting and anything but dated.

Posted in Music at 12:05 AM