Guns N’ Roses “Chinese Democracy” Review
Published in Blog, Culture Bully. Tags: Album Reviews, Music.
“Chinese Democracy” opens with a shrieking Axl Rose whose voice overwhelms a surprisingly sharp rhythm section. The song ignites the near-mythological album, also tossing aside any preconceived notion of what Chinese Democracy should sound like. But at this point in time, any interested listener has had access to various bits and pieces of the album for not simply weeks, but years – questioning not why it has taken 17 years to release a follow up to the brilliant Use Your Illusion albums, but rather why has it taken so much time to release tracks that sound essentially like they did a few years ago?
The dramatics behind Chinese Democracy are more than enough to suggest that there is some sort of credence behind its drastically prolonged release date, the band’s constantly changing lineup and Axl’s own perfectionism barely skimming the surface of the album’s history, but as a listener, a fan even, it’s hard to not initially feel like Chinese Democracy isn’t really worth the wait. Such a feeling first springs up with “Shackler’s Revenge,” which churns out a thumping “Dragula“-like riff before breaking into one of the album’s many solid choruses. Despite the solid composition, there’s an awkwardness in the transition to the next song that results from the puzzle-piece reality of Chinese Democracy; on an individual basis, each song is at the very worst, good, but as a whole, the album is a culmination of parts pieced together over the course of well over a decade. It’s there that the initial feeling of disappointment sets in.
The street glam feel of “Shackler’s Revenge” is followed by the album’s first stand-out, “Better,” but lost in that transition is the previously mentioned feeling of solidarity between the album’s unique parts. Then again, forget 17 years, how is a recording that has taken five years to compile supposed to reflect a consistent focus or artistic goal? In 2003 when the first rough demo of “I.R.S.” began circulating, the song presumably reflected Axl’s focus as a musician in 2003 – is it even possible to suggest that 13 more songs, added over the course of five years, would hold any sort of consistency? In that respect, Chinese Democracy is one of the most unique rock & roll albums ever recorded – not only has Axl had to overcome personal and public expectations of the music, but he’s had to combine nearly two decades worth of rough drafts into something fluid. Despite the awkward transition between “Shackler’s Revenge” and “Better,” when consideration is made for the process behind the transition, it’s amazing that the tracks sound as good together as they do.
“Street of Dreams” continues by rining true to the Guns N’ Roses of the past. Like “Catcher in the Rye” does later in the album, “Dreams” finds a balance between a daunting mountain of sound and that horrible armpit of a niche known as a “rock-ballad.” It’s in “Dreams” that Axl becomes a victim of his own creation, because at about a minute and a half into the song, a guitar comes crashing in, attempting to rip it in half, and the resulting feeling is that… well, Slash could have destroyed this song. Though the solo that later materializes easily stands up to anything else on Chinese Democracy, the song unleashes a shadow of past-successes that casts a cloudy feeling of sentimental longing for a band that no longer exists. Here, the idea of living in the moment and appreciating what it is that Guns N’ Roses have turned into becomes secondary to the what-ifs, if only temporarily. But the eventual reality of the situation isn’t that the songs could have been better if performed by the original band members, but rather that they sound just as good now as it probably would have in 1995 – no matter who’s performing them.
There are a few exceptions, “Scraped” in particular, that sound out sightly of place, but as the album continues ahead those sharp transitions become softer and Chinese Democracy starts to sound like something complete. Questioning at first why the album took even a few years to “perfect” becomes superficial as the album rolls on – the key to Chinese Democracy isn’t that it’s a culmination of 17 years, but rather that no song on the album stands as something entirely out of place. Any song could effectively have been released during the past 15 years and it wouldn’t have sounded any better or worse at any point time than it does now. Hearing “I.R.S.” and “Madagascar” two years ago for the first time, I can’t say that I’m any less impressed by them now than I was then. How many albums from any of rock’s giants can the same be said for? Think of the bands that have been releasing mediocre albums since 1993, U2’s Pop or Metallica’s Reload for instance; chances are that time will prove those albums even more dated sounding and stuck in the moment than they sound now. Such a reality is one that I don’t believe Chinese Democracy will have to face.
In his review, Chuck Klosterman began by questioning the relevance of even attempting to review the album, “Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn.” Summing up a few words in reflection of the music pales in comparison to the epic release and the history behind it. Putting aside all thought on expectation, what the demos sounded like, why the album has taken so long to release, and if the final product sounds remotely good all becomes secondary to the fact that Chinese Democracy is finally a reality. For what it’s worth though, when considering the obstacles faced prior to its release, it’s nothing short of remarkable how good the album sounds.
[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]