Sunday, July 26, 2009

Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy [music review]

* Released in November 2008
(I wrote the following review for my brother's blog, bombippy.com, in December 2008)
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 this collection of 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 behaviour, probably more than he deserved. Chinese Democracy finally seeing the light of day marks the end of what surely must be the longest and strangest conception-through-birth arc a music release has ever taken in our time.
With all of the other 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 one man. This must certainly suit Rose's narcissistic personality. Interestingly, Rose has been a Reznor fan 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 a, ahem, democracy) became a self-fulfilling prophecy as soon as the "classic" GNR lineup began to fracture in the early 90's.
A number of these songs have been played live by the current GNR incarnation for several years now. 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 definitely been diminished. Throw out all the hype and rumours, though, and give the album a proper beginning-to-end listen and what you're left with is this: a tremendous artistic achievement 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 was going to buy the CD, but my curiosity got the better of me. The first few attempts at downloading the album resulted in mp3's where the first track played fine and followed with the rest of them "Rickrolling" me about 20 seconds in to each track. Wonderful.
After getting hold of a fully listenable version it quickly became clear as to some of the reasons for the album's delays. 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's a lot going on here sonically - some might (and already 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 opening title track is probably the most straightforward rock tune, anchored by a buzzsaw guitar riff and Rose's unique vocal style (including cool 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 stylistic differences between the old and new GNR. Techno and industrial elements share space with heavily processed guitar sounds that former guitarist Slash would never have gone anywhere near. "Street Of Dreams" and "This I Love" follow in the tradition of grand, 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 wasn't too much to ask considering how long it took to release this. A curious oddity: Rose gives possibly the strangest delivery of a song line I've ever heard at the 37 second mark 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. Just as the polished Use Your Illusion albums were a step forward from the gritty Appetite For Destruction, so too does this feel like the next logical step in the evolution of the band's sound. To paraphrase Kool & The Gang, the music sounds fresh, exciting, and anything but dated.
Rating: 9/10

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