Within the next couple of days, it's expected that the classic line-up of Guns N' Roses will announce a 2016 reunion tour. Well, I say classic-line up -word on the street is that Axl, Duff and Slash are being joined by hired guns Richard Fortus, Frank Ferrer and Dizzy Reed rather than Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler. Still, 3 out of 5 is Guns is enough for the average punter to fork out for a ticket and, provided they don't bottle it, the band's 2016 jaunt will undoubtedly be the most successful reunion tour of all time.
While I'm cautiously optimistic about GN'R's comeback, there is one thing that saddens me. The return of the old band means that the sole offering from the new band, 2008's "Chinese Democracy," will likely be consigned to the rubbish bin of history. And that's a shame, because I rate "Chinese Democracy." In fact, I rate it much higher than I probably should. After "Appetite for Destruction," it's my favorite record to have been released under the Guns N' Roses name. That's right. I like it more than both "Use Your Illusions," "GN'R Lies" and "The Spaghetti Incident" (to be fair, that last one is a no-brainer - 'The Spaghetti Incident" is terrible). Lunacy I know, but read on and I'll do the best to justify my position.
A Single Rose Does Not Guns Make
First though, a caveat. I should clarify that I don't actually consider "Chinese Democracy" a Guns N' Roses album. A single rose does not a six-shooter bouquet make and this is an Axl solo record in all but name. Thinking about it that way actually makes the listening experience much more enjoyable. Remove the GN'R moniker and you remove the burden of expectation. You can evaluate the record on its own terms without being bothered by the absence of McKagan, Slash, Stradlin and Adler. This is especially useful, given just how far away the album is from the band's classic sound.
I'll Admit That the Production Is Overkill...
In the 20 or so years that Axl took to make the album, I'm guessing he wasn't revisiting his roots by spinning old Aerosmith and Rose Tattoo records. "Democracy's" influences are as much drawn from industrial metal, electronica, '70s Elton John piano ballads and John Williams film scores as they are from rock 'n' roll. Stylistically, it is completely all-over the place, featuring the most ridiculously overproduced sound in the history of recorded music. Silly synths and trip-hop beats, already dated when Rose started work on the record in the 1990s, were antiquated by the time it came out in 2008, much of which was made in negative reviews of the album at the time of release.
But the Songs Are Strong
Peel away the layers of samples and strings and you find that "Chinese Democracy's" song writing is remarkably focused. More so, in fact, than either of the sprawling "Use Your Illusion" albums. While Axl clearly spent at least half of the album's 2-decade recording schedule dicking around in Pro-Tools, he also put a fair amount of effort into crafting some decent tunes. Seven years after their original release, I still find myself coming back to tracks like "Street of Dreams," "There Was a Time" and (the awfully titled) "Riyad N' the Bedouins." And this is a big part of the reason why I rate it higher than the "Illusion" records. There's simply too much material on those albums and not all of it is good. Sure, you've got classics like "Civil War," "November Rain" and "You Could Be Mine," but they're sandwiched between clunkers like "The Garden," "My World" and "Locomotive" that dull the records' overall impact. GN'R clearly scraped together every possible song idea they had for those sessions (why else would there be two version of "Don't Cry" with different lyrics across the two discs?) and boy does it show.
Conversely, while clearly guilty of production overindulgences on "Democarcy," Axl at least learned his lesson regarding song selection. Whittling down the 30 songs written for the record to a more listener friendly 14 was an approach that paid off. I'd argue that there isn't a duff track on "Chinese Democracy" (thinking about it, given Mr. McKagan's absence, there literally isn't a Duff track). There are weird tracks that have no place on what is ostensibly a Guns N' Roses album, certainly (I'm looking at you "Shackler's Revenge"). But even those are good songs, testament to Axl's ability as a writer, and work really well within the context of an insane Gunsless Rose album.
Overblown, But Still Admirable
"Chinese Democracy" is an overblown, ridiculous record. The production is bonkers, the musical references often as far away from Guns N' Roses as you can imagine. Those are features of the album that its detractors will always point out. But, in spite of the inherent silliness of many of the production decisions, the scope is admirable. What's more, even if they don't sound like Guns N' Roses tracks, the songs are consistently excellent. Sure it's no "Appetite for Destruction," but it's a more coherent record than anything that followed it. Given the ridiculous gestation period of the record, the Charles Foster Kane-esque eccentricities of its creator and the revolving door line-up of producers and musicians that helped create it, that's a remarkable achievement, and one worthy of reappraisal.
By Alec Plowman