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Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy - Stingley's Review

By Mick Stingley, Contributor
Tuesday, December 2, 2008 @ 11:56 PM

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The specter of Chinese Democracy has been lurking around for some fifteen years. If Axl Rose hadn't announced the title of the album so long ago, one wonders whether or not the excitement would be so ramped up at this point: this album might just have been "Forthcoming Untitled GNR Release;" yet something would have been missing. To have an album title as haunting and incongruous, as dangerous and epic as "Chinese Democracy" purports something majestic. Given the current state of world affairs, Mr. Rose could have dragged this on for years.

So what exactly is "Chinese Democracy?" What does it mean and what was the artist's intent? A swipe at China? The hope for a communist country's attempt to wash itself from its sins and allow human rights and a free market economy to take shape in a society where Maoist philosophy and state-legislated business-models, behavior, and "morality" is the norm? Is it a flint-eyed knock on the question of real and true freedom? A nod to Falun Gong? Was Axl merely looking to ape Hanoi Rocks with his Asian-fusion rock metaphor cuisine? Or did it just sound so fucking rad? ("Saigon Kick" sounds pretty rad...) Was the notorious rock recluse merely ranting about overly long delivery times from ordering in pork-fried rice and crab rangoon? Given that this is, now and forever, the very first Guns Ní Roses studio album without its original/classic lineup (Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler - later replaced by Matt Sorum), it's fair to wonder about the title's origin... but what's in a name?

In the beginning, there was Live, Like A Suicide!, Appetite For Destruction, GNR Lies, Use Your Illusion (I & II), and The Spaghetti Incident? Cool titles, each with its own majestic impact; and now forever written in history as epic tomes of rock and roll. The band that once followed in the footsteps of The Rolling Stones, The New York Dolls, Aerosmith and Hanoi Rocks was a band which scuffed its heels in the grime of Sunset Strip 80s glam only to crush stones and leave Walk-of-Fame cement impressions upon the world.

Ultimately, Chinese Democracy sounds fucking rad, but something greater is at stake.

The Guns Ní Roses which released "Appetite" and "Use Your Illusion" is long gone and what remains is Axl Rose. Slash, Duff and Izzy (and Steven and Matt) are long gone, onto other things, and (unless LiveNation steps in with a big fat bag of cash), the seminal LA band of yesterday will never return. Stacking Chinese Democracy against the history of the band, while salient and important to many, is a losing battle. What remains is a fourteen-song offering, years in the making, which marks the single most important transition in the history of the band. Time, and the world, popular music and the way in which it is delivered has changed, and changed many times over. Here is Guns Ní Roses, now. This isn't a great rock record: this is a good rock record for here and now. Axl Rose has delivered a soundtrack for The New Post-Modern Cold War.

As David Bowie moved from his Thin White Duke character into his Berlin phase (the trilogy, Heroes, Low and Lodger); as U2 transitioned from The Joshua Tree/Rattle And Hum into Achtung, Baby!... as Ministry moved from With Sympathy into Twitch, and later into Psalm 69, Axl Rose has moved forward, unforgiving and uncompromisingly so.

Chinese Democracy is the evolution of the artist/character W. Axl Rose and nothing more: nothing less.

The album, which should be considered as an entity given it's much-hyped legacy, opens with whispering and sirens and the furtive plucking of guitar strings. As the sirens fade and the voices become more prominent, in comes the riff. It is a big riff, heard against blowing winds which welcomes a screech and then the punch of Axl's voice and a fat guitar. As Axl runs down his place in the world ("watch my disenchanted face") and some notions about China, the listener is given the new GNR: angry, personal, informed, concerned and frustrated. Guitars wash over the song with ripping, perhaps overly-processed leads and still there is an excellent song at hand.

Unlike say, Metallica and AC/DC, who released long-awaited albums this year which somewhat harkened the sound of past glories; Mr. Rose seems largely unconcerned with reliving his past. This point is made clear by the changes in song-by-song style approach: moving from the bombast of the title cut comes "Shackler's Revenge." Clearly, likely inspired by the changes in aggressive pop-rock styles from glam to industrial to nu, this song catapults the listener from noise to noise - sequencers to samples to guitar to chorus - to achieve a different kind of pomp and bluster Guns Ní Roses is known for. The song is strong and attacks, hard; it is a Guns Ní Roses song...it just relies less upon tradition than the band has been known for.

Still, GNR was always a bit schmaltzy. From day one, songs like "Paradise City" to "November Rain" featured a tortured singer against a wall of sound, singing of love and such... there were always ballads in the GNR quiver, to go soaring through the air with the piercing arrows of its' better-known harder-rocking material. With the first three songs on Chinese Democracy, Rose waves the flags of rock; and despite the strange falsetto and machine-dependent opening, "Better" (which seems poised to be the real big "hit"), Axl keeps the mid-tempo song charged with his raging voice. A simple song at heart, Axl seems (lyrically) to still be searching for something greater...

And while Axl demonstrates in this three-song arc his strengths (voice, still in tact; lyrics, still a bit angry; riffs, still strong): it is immediately after this that the album returns to the schmaltz of the balladeering which marked the pomposity of the "Use Your Illusion" records. And just after the album starts rocking, it begins to sway in the other direction. From rock into ballads...more Elton John than Elton John and more Michael Kamen than the late arranger could imagine.

"Street Of Dreams" seems destined for "American Idol" as Axl reaches for the skies, if not the rafters of your local arena. As the piano and neo-Slash leads give way, Axl belts it out like he always has in this vein...one can almost imagine him wearing tinted glasses and a brocade jacket as he cries "I don't know just what I should do/everywhere I go I see you...What I thought was beautiful don't live inside of you... anymore..."

For all of the new sounds and changes in line-ups, Guns Ní Roses is still very much an Axl Rose vehicle. Which isn't always a great thing: too many ballads soften the impact during the long middle section of Chinese Democracy. While there are truly excellent moments, there are pitfalls; though such is the pitfall of unrealistic expectations. The Who and The Rolling Stones suffered and stumbled throughout their respective careers, and Axl Rose isn't immune to the pitfalls of unmitigated excess and time. "If The World" is as forgettable as its hopeful premise and artist-as-activist poetry. If "There Was A Time" has any weight, it merely resonates as a homily to the previous song. So too, does "Catcher In The Rye."

After three songs buried in heavy production, a rocker would be welcome and Rose offers "Scraped." This one song seems almost out of place as it could easily fit somewhere between "Think About You" and "You're Crazy" on AFD and it is a welcome addition this far in. A taut rocker, "Scraped" wins out if only because it's not trying to be anything more than a straight rocker amidst a thick blanket of heavily-produced ballads...

And here the album turns back upon itself. "Riad N' The Bedouins" rings with the sound of electric guitars and (sort of) pointed lyrics about the Middle East, which, given the colorful chorus, evokes a plain rock song befitting the GNR legacy. It certainly is catchy and that should be enough for anyone who waited fifteen years for GNR to rock again.

Yet the album turns again. "Sorry" is lush with soft guitars and lyrics about defiance...whether of love or war, it hardly seems to matter. "I'm sorry for you...not sorry for me!" Axl sings and this song seems as if it should be the coda to the album; perhaps he is singing to his record company and/or fans, though it hardly matters. Slow and "bluesy" (eg, the lead guitar), the song begins the denouement of the excitement of the run-up to finally having Chinese Democracy to listen to.

"I.R.S." steps up the energy somewhat with stronger guitars and Axl's energetic voice. Still angry after all these songs...promises to exact vengeance on...someone. But what's clear is that there's still some rocking left on the disc before the finish line, as he sings, "There's not anymore that I can do..."

"Madagascar" sounds at first like it might have been produced by Puff Daddy; though there is nothing like rap to this song. It just hovers slightly above, with its plaintive synths and strings. As Axl wanders around from low voice to wail, singing that he "won't be told anymore." Towards the last third of the song come vocal clips of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Strother Martin (the guy from "Cool Hand Luke" sampled at the beginning of "Civil War") and others to further Axl's vision/tale... "that we have the strength to choose."

This curiosity, however bloated, is nowhere out of line with previous GNR efforts. "Civil War," and other things in this vein from "Use Your Illusion." As such, "This I Love" feels like the same familiar territory Axl has walked before... another ballad, piano and longing all in check. "Prostitute" concludes the album, somewhat hopefully, somewhat desperately... with more balladeering and bombast.

At this point, the urge to repeat certain songs takes over: the title, "Shackler's Revenge," and "Better" stand out and stand tall on the album. After this comes "Street of Dreams," "Scraped" and "Riad N' The Bedoiuns." After that... well, there are many ballads to choose from.

Yet taken as a whole, Chinese Democracy is a mood-piece for our times. Sad, lonely, aching, desperate and angry; frustrated and equally baffled and concerned with the state of the world; the album reaches for a glimpse into one man's mind coping with love, life, loss and conflict in a media haze of white noise and feedback, of explosions half a world away and right next door. Chinese Democracy is not a sequel, but rather a prologue to a new story. it runs long and it seems overwhelming at times; but so is the state of the world. Like watching a twenty-four hour cable news show for an hour and a half... there are highlights and plenty of lows, but it is strangely addictive.

For all of the talk and hype and message-board meandering, Axl Rose has brought the brand forward (if not the "band"). GNR remains as epic as it ever was and even if the old fans forsake the name and the man behind it, a new era has begun and it starts here. Fanatics can still hope for that unlikely reunion; but with Chinese Democracy it seems that Axl Rose is back. And he better stick around: "Street Of Dreams" is gonna be huge...

* * * 1/2

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