Sound — 7
Outside of the Beach Boys' Smile, no other album in rock-n-roll history has inspired the kind of legend that Chinese Democracy has in the last decade or so. Soon after their atrocious covers album, The Spaghetti Incident hit stores, GNR mainman Axl Rose has been talking up Chinese Democracy. Little did anyone know but the album would take nearly 20 years to see the light of day. Much has been written about the making of the record so we'll spare you all of the already well-documented details and instead will focus on highlighting the end results here. If you want to see the gigantic list of musical collaborators on the project, seek out the liner notes online. Below is a song by song breakdown of the album.
Lyrics — 8
GNR's best work was always a sum of all of its parts. If Slash and Izzy (or Gilby for that matter) were volleying off each other and Duff and either Steven Adler or Matt Sorum were locked in to the groove chances are whatever song they were playing would be rivaling or even topping anyone else that came before them. But the extra kick in the ass was Axl Rose. When the gifted yet troubled singer was on his A game, the competition had no chance. On this comeback album, Rose is surrounded by a cast (and a long one at that) of musicians so a lot of the old GNR charm rests on his shoulders. While the guys backing him on the tracks do a formidable job, that specific magic of the old days is lost. Either way, the singer delivers one of his strongest performances. He utilizes every facet of his wide range throughout the 14 tracks. We get the high-pitched wailing of Out Ta Get Me, the softer tone of Patience, and the steamrolling mid-range found in classics like You Could Be Mine throughout this collection. Like an old-friend, Rose's familiar voice is welcomed and even though the classic line-up isn't around anymore, the songs have that extra spark only someone like this legend can lend them.
01. Chinese Democracy: after an unnecessary long intro, the album kicks off with an over-processed guitar sound that has more in common with the industrial informed sounds of Nine Inch Nails than it does with the blues based hard-rock of their early material. It's not all that surprising since former NIN six-stringer Robin Finck plays on the track. Rose's vocals are double-tracked on the verses so you get his low and high register at the same time lending the song a sinister vibe throughout. The middle section features some blistering guitar solo work supercharging the song right when it needed it. Choosing to start the album with this track was a wise move and our fears are somewhat relievedfor now at least. // 7
02. Shackler's Revenge: the first riff in Shackler's Revenge sounds like something Static-X would concoct and unfortunately for the listener, things don't really veer away from that for the remainder of the song. The mechanical rhythm track only accentuates the song's lifeless feel. The guitars and bass sound like they are coming out of walls of solid-state heads making you long for the warmer, analog sounds of their classic output. The only thing that could have saved this one from its own mediocrity would have been a gigantic chorus but that never came. This one isn't even good enough for b-side status. // 4
03. Better: almost from the get-go, Better hooks you in with one memorable melody after the other. Rose's tremendous mid-range is utilized for the majority of the song and the production pulls back leaving it to shine without the effects and processing found on Shackler's Revenge. Throughout the remainder of the track, Finck and Ron Bumblefoot Thal take turns soloing showcasing their explosive yet tasteful styles. Some of their licks will even remind you off former GNR axe-slinger Slash in spots. After the colossal letdown of the previous song, Better is a beaming example of why the world was waiting for this album with baited-breadth. // 8
04. Street of Dreams: Elton John's influence is all over Street of Dreams. From the gorgeous piano sections to the stadium-ready orchestration, this track sounds like the English singer's early 70's work like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Tumbleweed Connection. It's not that Street of Dreams apes every move from those albums but it definitely has their sonic fingerprints all over it. The band even had John join them on a version of their song November Rain back in the early 90's so their ties go back for years. Outside of the obvious textural influences, Street of Dreams contains Axl's unmistakable vocal flourishes making it a GNR song in the end. The climactic guitar solos are a highpoint and the pretty piano melodies are abundant so this one will definitely find its way onto the band's live sets for years to come. // 7
05. If The World: everything about this song misses the mark. From the light-jazz percussion to the go-nowhere vocal parts, If The World is an utter waste of studio time. How this disaster made it onto the album is a complete mystery. With the exception of a few interesting guitar parts, the song is devoid of anything worth further exploring. // 2
06. There Was A Time: here come those drum loops again. It seems like Axl is totally infatuated with the electronic side of music these past few years and certainly during the making of Chinese Democracy. It doesn't serve the material well here as they seem like afterthoughts more than organic parts of the songs they're found in. At the core of it, There Was A Time doesn't have a compelling enough song to help propel it over its sonic weaknesses. // 4
07. Catcher in the Rye: this one gets off to a winning start with bluesy guitar licks and country-rock pianos. The verse melody is reminiscent of Use Your Illusion era GNR. The chorus explodes with huge guitars only to give way to a quieter interlude and then back into a classic-rock solo section. Some of Rose's vocal cues have a Paul McCartney-esque charm about them etching themselves into your head after the first listen. Just when you started losing interest the record gets a jolt of energy. // 7
08. Scraped: a straight-ahead rocker in the mold of the title track, Scraped isn't going to have you dying to reach for the rewind button. For another band this song would have made an OK album cut but for a band that had their fans waiting for so many years, it comes off as a big letdown. // 6
09. Riad N' The Bedouins": this one has a shuffling guitar main refrain that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Appetite For Destruction but there are elements in the arrangement that hinder the track. For one, Axl's high-pitched vocal delivery doesn't mesh well with the rest of the instrumentation. After a while, his singing starts sounding like a wall of shrieking; shifting your focus away from the muscular guitars. How this mess got past the production team of Rose and Caram Costanzo really boggles the mind. // 5
10. Sorry: the song immediately starts with Rose's singing echoing the bluesy overtones ringing in the rhythm section and guitars. Something in the reverb-drenched guitars reminds this writer of David Gilmour's (Pink Floyd) mid-period work. The dramatic chorus seems tailor-made to bounce off arena walls. One of the band's biggest strengths is their ability to pull of sweeping epics like this and this song is proof they should have explored that side of their arsenal more. // 7
11. I.R.S.: another track that doesn't really warrant its inclusion here. The riffs and Axl's melodies are sub-standard, the kind of stuff any bar-band would come up with. Is this the same songwriter who wrote Rocket Queen? // 5
12. Madagascar: this is one where Rose really aimed for the rafters. It's the type of grandiose musical statement a younger band wouldn't probably even try writing let alone record. There are majestic string orchestrations and dramatic guitar lead runs that echo the singer's vocal lines at key points. A speech from Martin Luther King Jr. gets thrown into the song's crescendo for added effect. This one is the vein of Civil War or Estranged but neither the lyrics nor the arrangement help get the song into that club. The nuances in this one might grow on you with time but at this point, we're left a bit underwhelmed again. // 6
13. This I Love here's Chinese Democracy's most potent moment. Rose is accompanied by a piano, a string section, and a Robin Finck guitar solo that pushes and pulls into the of the album's most impassioned performances. Some of the more interesting bends recall Michael Schenker's most thrilling work with U.F.O. in the late 70s. Who would have guessed that a guy who made a name for himself in an industrial-rock band would have such classic-rock blessed chops in his pocket? Another great choice by Rose was to keep this one short and sweet insuring the extraordinary melodies and guitar solos don't get suffocated by a busy arrangement. // 9
14. Prostitute: Prostitute goes from hushed verses to a towering chorus washed in guitars and theatrical orchestration making it a fitting closer. It's not clear who Rose is directing the lyrics to when he sings, Oh, I saw the damage in you, my fortunate one, the ending of you, but the intent is there, seething right below the surface. There is some whammy-bar assisted bombast towards the final seconds that comes out of nowhere but somehow works in the scheme of the song. So just like that, Chinese Democracy comes to and end. // 7
Overall Impression — 7
Does the album live up to the lofty expectations the public has showered it with? No, but then again, how could it have anyway? If Chinese Democracy would have come out 2 or even 4 years after their last studio album, it would have been examined in a whole other manner. There is enough great material here to make the album a worthy fit into your music collection but is it essential as an entire piece, no. But then again, how many full-lengths released today are? There are 6-7 powerful tracks here and they prove Rose is still a vital songwriter and frontman. Hopefully he can get back into the studio and bang out another collection sooner than it took this time.