I was a huge Guns N’ Roses fan, back in the day. In 7th grade, in 1988, I got introduced to G’n’R, and I just loved it. I swallowed up every song on Appetite for Destruction and Lies. Hunted down Live Like a Suicide. Found all their demos like “Crash Diet.” I stuck by them through Use Your Illusion I and II – got them both sight unseen on opening day. Saw them live in ’92. I even bought The Spaghetti Incident?! in 1993. As the next album delay began, my interest began to wane. I went from superfan to fan to casual fan to indifferent to hating Axl’s winded comeback performance to casually interested to seeking out Chinese Democracy. And now I have it. I’ll spare you the reading: I’m a fan again.
I could’ve told you well ahead of time how much this album was going to suck. After all, it’s been 14 years in the making. Axl has gone through several line up changes and at least 3 lead guitarists since Slash. All of them have some appearance on the album, I’m told. 14 years of nonstop revision has got to lead to the inability to be objective. And it’s gotta be overproduced as all hell as Axl does nonstop tweaking.
So when I got my hands on the album and gave it a listen, I was surprised to find that it was actually… pretty damned good. Read on for the full treatment.
The album starts with the title track, which, I have to say, is one of my least favorites. The good news is that it rocks. It starts off with a long build, and when it kicks in, it has a nice rhythm, but sadly, the whole thing builds to an expected chorus that just never arrives. It’s a decent track, but only that: decent.
Track 2 is Shackler’s Revenge, which many might recognize since it was included in Rock Band 2 (or Guitar Hero, one of those) pre-release. This is another heavier song with a good rolling guitar line and a fun dancing hi-hat chorus. It’s got Axl’s signature self-harmony in the verses and some creative overdubbing in the chorus, which is both memorable and catchy. The main guitar line riff almost sounds like 1990’s Ozzy Osbourne (Zak Wylde era), because of the harmonics.
Better, a several years-old track, was leaked long ago. Although at first you might find it foreign, it’s a great song. This song sounds like the most natural progression of Guns N’ Roses so far. It has a very nice riff which serves as the chorus melody and overlaps the verses nicely too; good song writing. Also, the band teams up to deliver well on this. The drum line and the stringed instruments work very well on this to deliver a complete, seamless song. This version is definitely better than any previous iteration.
Track 4, Street of Dreams, starts like an Elton John song, but rapidly develops a very familiar GNR feel. It has a nice Use Your Illusion II vibe, sounding quite a bit like Estranged, but ultimately really taking a place as the Yesterdays of this album. The song used to be called “The Blues” in previous performances, and I suspect there’s a little bit of autobiography in it. When Axl says, “What this means to me is more than I know you believe,” a part of me thinks maybe it’s his confession that he really wants us to love this album after he’s slaved over it so long.
If The World, the fifth track, begins with an almost Middle Eastern flavor. But it’s deceptive, because it actually mutates into a funky power ballad. Again, it feels like a natural, more relevant Guns N’ Roses. The drums and rhythm are really nicely recorded. They have a very nice electronica feel, without getting cheesy, and yet, seem in place. Good track.
There Was a Time is, in my mind, straight outta the GNR songbook. It feels like a cross between a song of Appetite and Use Your Illusion I. The chorus is not nearly as melodic as I’d like, but the verses are really nicely done and it’s very typical Axl. Ultimately, this song’s bridge makes up for the lack of melody, and it remains a solid, familiar GNR song.
I like Catcher in the Rye, although, I can understand why many won’t. This is not your typical GNR. In fact, if it weren’t Axl singing it, it could almost be a pop song. It’s a nice interlude, not bad, a touch out of place, but probably reflective of the fact that Axl isn’t the same songwriter that he was 20 year ago(!).
We’re rocking again with Scraped, and I have to admit, I haven’t yet connected with this song. I get it, I’ve heard it several times now, and other than the “ah-ah” Immigrant Song-ish section, I’m just not feeling it. It kind of meanders around as a rock song.
The next song is Riad N’ The Bedouins. Admittedly, I don’t know the backstory here, but I’ve seen references to it being based on a Arabic or Moroccan story. Interesting that the song contains the line “somewhere in time,” which is an Iron Maiden album, and the term Bedouin, whic, according to one Internet comment, “are a group of Arab nomads who were partly the inspiration for the Fremen in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune.” Maiden did a song called “To Tame a Land,” which was all about Dune. Either way, it’s a great song.
The next song is Sorry, which is a very non-GNR sounding power ballad. It sounds more like Seether or some other modern band. But – you know what – it’s a great song. I like the chorus especially, it’s immediately memorable, and it’s got great harmony. Those familiar with metal might liken it to Anthrax’s Black Lodge in tone.
I.R.S. was also released on several pre-release leaked copies of Chinese Democracy. I like it now as I did then, it’s definately GNR, definitely Axl, and definitely a typical GNR guitar line. It’s one of my favorites on the album, but that may have to do with the fact that I’ve known the song for a few years now.
Track 12 is Madagascar. I hesitate to call it a power ballad, but it’s certainly a slower tempo rock song. Decent, also present on previous leaked releases.
Certainly, This I Love is a ballad. It’s nice, the first half isn’t much for me, since there is no drum track, and therefore, it never gets the power it should have until about 3 and half minutes into the song, at which point there’s a nice guitar solo, and the song takes shape. It’s got a good flavor, but not necessarily as memorable as other tracks.
The album closes with Prostitute, which, like Catcher in the Rye, could be a pop song. If this was performed by Hannah Montana, it would absolutely be standard pop fare. I actually like the song well enough, but I recognize that it’s just metal-ed up pop.
In the end, Chinese Democracy holds its own surprisingly well. In fact, all of the things I would have expected did not come true. The production is nice and not overdone. The songs are clean and not overlayered or overly engineered. The same old Axl is there, but the sound is oddly current feeling.
If you liked GNR before this album – particularly if you liked the Use Your Illusion albums, I think you will be very satisfied with Chinese Democracy. And while you might think this is really just an Axl solo album, it feels an awful lot like classic GNR.