Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Chinese Democracy - Guns N' Roses

Provenance: Ahh, Chinese Democracy - the great white whale of the butt rock scene. I'm aghast at the realisation that I've spent something in the region of 18 years lurking and posting on the Metal Sludge forums, and for almost half that time the main scuttlebutt was about Chinese freaking Democracy.

When was it coming out? Who's on it? Why is it taking so long? Did Slash sneak in at midnight to record some solos? Did Brian May overdub them? Will this actually be worth it? Has Axl Rose gone mad?

Sifting through the misinformation and gossip that took up most of the discussion, one thing became apparent - this was going to be an expensive album. And so it came to pass - by around 2005, it was revealed that the production of Chinese Democracy hovered around the $13 million mark. Yet it still wasn't ready.

Then, in 2008, news flew up and down the forum, like Paul Revere announcing the imminent arrival of the British. Chinese Democracy was coming! It was going to be released in time for Christmas! Fifteen years after the underwhelming Spaghetti Incident, the band that called itself Guns N' Roses was about to launch its meisterwerk into the world and we, the grateful, desperate idiots that we were, were in raptures. Fifteen years and tens of millions of dollars in the making - this was going to sound like music of the goddamn future!

Review: I saw Guns N' Roses play a headline set at Sweden Rock Festival once. It was truly dreadful.  This was the same year as the previously discussed Billy Idol performance, which was very bad. However, in comparison to Rose and his ragtag band of mercs, Idol's set was an exemplar of song selection, pacing and competence. Having missed their stage time by about an hour, GNR finally emerged all cannons blazing with the title track from Chinese Democracy -  and it sounded simply incredible. That is, until Rose started singing in a voice best described as a halfway decent impersonation of a geriatric Mickey Mouse. About seven songs in I gave up and headed back to my tent, arriving at roughly the same time as the other folk camping nearby, all equally disgusted. I say 'seven songs'; ultimately I heard a couple more Chinese Democracy cuts done badly, one track from Appetite for Destruction and, oddly, a brace of instrumental solos, one of which was Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme.

But hey, 'Chinese Democracy' (the song) sounded good live! And here, on Chinese Democracy, with the luxury of a studio at his disposal, Axl hits the mark too, the track sounding like the Scorpions' 'Rock You Like a Hurricane' on anabolic steroids, featuring a truly startling guitar solo from Buckethead. However, even in this - probably the best overall cut to grace the album - the seeds of what makes Chinese Democracy somewhat irksome can be detected. One song with a distant, echoing introduction that suddenly slams into sharp focus is cool, especially out the traps; but the trick is then repeated on 'Riad N' the Bedouins', track nine. (Also, 'bedouin' is the correct plural but I'm not sure too many Guns N' Roses fans are particularly fussed.)

As Alice Cooper once said, it's the little things that drive you wild. At times you can hear a touch of technological 'assistance' in the vocal tracks (though for the most egregious uses of this wizardry, I'd point the reader towards Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook series - unlistenable shite), and some of the production choices already sound dated. Despite it being the older album, you simply can't say that about Appetite for Destruction - yes, you can place it at a certain juncture in time, but it still sounds vital and snappy. The dead hand of digital is all over Chinese Democracy, combined with some synthesiser flourishes that come straight off Billie Piper's debut. What in the everlasting fuck is that weak drum loop on 'There Was a Time' all about anyway? At least it blossoms into a pretty engaging mid-paced epic, as opposed to preceding number 'If The World'; that whole mess sounds like an abandoned Kula Shaker/Babylon Zoo collaboration.

Another thing I've got against Chinese Democracy is that, at 14 tracks and seventy-odd minutes, it's too flabby. Ditch the ballads. Guns N' Roses were never any good at them. You know why Appetite... was so fun? No ballads. Why are both (whew!) Use Your Illusions so exhausting and cringingly self-indulgent? Unspeakably bad content like 'Don't Cry', the endless 'November Rain', 'Civil War' (which also features whistling, by personal bugbear), nine-minutes-and-change of 'Estranged' and a completely unnecessary version of 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'. Hateful, all of it. Yet here comes Axl with his Baby Grand and delusions of being, seemingly, the next Richard Marx on pap like 'This I Love'.

Whilst we're on the subject of writing, 'Prostitute' and 'Catcher in the Rye' are embarrassing. The latter especially so, with Axl crooning his trademark strangulated 'ooos' around the song's title to arse-clenching effect. It's also a bit reminiscent of Pilot, albeit the wimp-rock quotient is considerably beefed up.

But, listen you, I don't hate it at all! The really primo stuff absolutely glitters - 'Chinese Democracy', 'Better', 'Scraped' and 'I.R.S.' all land knockout punches. They are, by and large, brash and uncomplicated, with guitars to the fore (which prompts another issue; so much six-string talent to hand, so poorly utilised). When Axl and chums try to be cute, they get bogged down in the weeds far too often. And at times there's simply just too much of too much, lending Chinese Democracy a slightly oppressive, suffocated quality. One feels that much of the material began lean and sharp, but was gussied up so much between hither and thither that in the end it hits with the impact of a marshmallow.

For any other band I'd consider a release like Chinese Democracy to be a near miss, an ambitious stab that falls short. I've mentioned before that I find this quality much more endearing than diminishing returns that stick to a formula. However, I can't quite conceive of this as a win for Guns N' Roses - so much time, effort and cash was plowed into its gestation, yet it feels as if mistakes from the past are doubled down upon, but this time accompanied by a few mid-00s beats in a quixotic attempt to appear contemporary. Next time, eh, lads?

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