Guns N’ Roses
Label: Black Frog/Geffen
To my college roommate who I promised that I’d run circles buck-ass naked around the Arch if Chinese Democracy ever saw official release: I sure as hell hope you aren’t reading this. After a 17-year tease that left many Guns N’ Roses fans with a serious case of rock ‘n’ roll blue balls, what’s left of the band best known for Appetite for Destruction and a seemingly single-minded focus on self-implosion and legacy dry humping has finally expurgated the oft-rumored album. And the music world yawns and scratches itself. Cue up the indifference.
What its primary conspirator, Axl Rose, probably envisioned as a grand musical masterpiece that would set the music world aflame is instead a dull, monotonous and intensely bland album. To be sure, the album was probably hyped and spoken about in hushed tones far more than it should have been. In the comedy of errors and false starts that has been the history of Chinese Democracy, it was mythologized and elevated into some sort of aural Holy Grail; the only problem is that this grail is filled with backwash. I wanted to like this album, but there’s no other way to say it: Chinese Democracy is an overproduced and overwrought wreck.
Those GNR fans who want to disavow this as a genuine GNR release would be well served to speak up now, or, in deference to Rose’s vocal approach, shriek their objections like a helium-sucking hooligan. Certainly they have plenty of ammunition to support this argument: Rose was the only original GNR member who, um, nursed this tubercular wheezing child along, countless musicians as well as an orchestra are “credited” as having contributed to it, and a small army of people were involved in engineering and ProTools tasks. I guess it’s like Elephant 6 but with far worse results.
Surveying the wreckage that is Chinese Democracy, the album’s major flaws are in its production. Songs like – oh hell, take your pick – are suffocated under layer after layer of ProTools add-ins, vocal distortions and treatments, mid-1990s industrial clichés and vintage 1980s power chords. It sounds like the strategy employed here was to throw a bunch of shit at a wall and see what stuck, and in a sense I suppose a lot of shit did stick. Without careful attention from the listener, songs like “Shackler’s Revenge,” “I.R.S,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “Scraped” and “Prostitute” quickly become indistinguishable from each other and blend into a solid block of auditory misery, drowned under a flood of disposable and redundant arrangements. For perverse fun, GNR aficionados are encouraged to play the iPod quiz game to see how quickly (or even if) they can differentiate these songs.
Rose’s vocal approach doesn’t do the songs any favors either. Though as a singer he’s occasionally been prone to such exaggerated vocal quirks – what his singing did to “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is unforgivable – these quirks were usually reigned in and in many ways gave GNR’s songs a distinctive style that separated them from their contemporaries. On Chinese Democracy Rose alternates from line to line between his deep voice and its upper register bastard cousin. Coupled with the lyrics’ macho posturing and the self-caricature, it’s a bit like listening to someone with multiple personality disorder having a conversation with himself.
This review isn’t meant to be Axl bashing; like many GNR fans, I was hopeful that Chinese Democracy would be a ballsy, aggressive and innovative record on par with Appetite for Destruction. And I’m sure there are some fans enjoying this release right now, channeling their inner Axl, frantically trying to score for some vintage Mr. Brownstone, and desperately convincing their wives or girlfriends to just let them borrow the “Welcome to the Jungle” mascara already. But there’s very little newness or creativity here; worse, the album sounds like the work of a man stuck in a time warp, short on an ability to self-edit and armed with a Yankees-sized budget. As Chinese Democracy was delayed year after year and transformed itself from the band’s missing masterpiece to a musical punch line, it was impossible for GNR fans not to become increasingly skeptical. Now we see why.
by Eric Whelchel