Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy (2008)

When an album is in the making for almost two decades, and the band goes through an almost 100% lineup change, serious questions emerge about the final product. And this means that most reviews of said product aren’t about the production or if the songs groove, but rather ask a million questions about what the hell happened. And that’s why two major questions clog the beginning of this review: did such a long wait damage or distress this work? And, is this even Guns N’ Roses?

For those not familiar with the chronology (maybe because you were born after their last album came out, which is entirely possible), The Spaghetti Incident? came out in November of 1993. This half-baked collection of covers and old punk tunes did contain Slash for the last time, but it also didn’t do well sales-wise, caused tension in the band, and generally flew under a lot of people’s radar. There was also a 1999 release of live recordings from 1987-1993, featuring the old lineup. But if you’re talking about originals, the last real release by the band was 1991’s Use Your Illusion albums. That’s a 17-year gap, and a lot has happened in the last 17 years.

Could a heavy metal band take a few decades off and come back with anything relevant? If you’ve listened to recent albums by any of the old monsters of rock from the 80s, it’s generally a disappointment. You typically get a retread of the simplest 80s hard rock, with a thin veneer of industri-synth beats and samples duct-taped over the gaps. GNR also dominated in a world with larger sales across fewer genres. When I was in high school and college, everyone was a GNR fan to some extent, from the preppies to the motorheads. It was not uncommon for people in my high school to be fans of New Kids on the Block and Guns N’ Roses. Now, music is so segmented and divided by the mass number of channels available for sales; people go to iTunes and buy the one song they like (or steal it). There’s no need to go to a record store and buy from their limited selection of displayed albums, which are put out by major labels and competed for shelf space in a system just short of collusion. Now there’s more of everything, but you get lost in that sea of everything, and a band like Guns N’ Roses isn’t going to pull a “Sweet Child” coup and go wall-to-wall with mass FM radioplay and MTV exposure. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a song on an obscure XM radio show that only metalheads listen to, and maybe maybe a ten second clip of a guitar solo will be used when some d-list skateboard dude trashes a grocery store on a reality TV show.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the freshness of this album. I thought maybe Axl started writing back in 1996 or 1997, and started with something akin to an old dude’s Korn, and then attempted to pig-lipstick the thing with a series of session dudes and fancy studio tricks. Then in 2008, it would sound like when a show like CSI has to have music at a heavy metal club (“ripped from the headlines”) and they hire four studio musicians/actors, dress them up in Hot Topic, and make them play a network executive’s idea of what down-and-dirty metal sounds like.

But that didn’t happen! First, the production is over the top good. Yes, given a decade of knob-twirling, it should be. But it sounds absolutely excellent. And it has a lot of riffage that gives it the feel of a hip, new metal sound. Without going into specifics right now, they do a lot of extremely impressive guitar solo work everywhere. It has this “dirty New York slum metal” sound, for lack of a better term. And the laid-on industrial bits and samples are nowhere near as bad or involved as I’d thought. There was a track on an Ahnold movie soundtrack a few years ago (titled “Oh my God”) that was very NiN-esque, but that isn’t on this album, and there isn’t anything approaching it. That’s good, because pretty much everyone hated that track, and it’s good that Rose didn’t continue in that vein.

Now, about the lineup issue. Of course, Slash left, along with Duff McCagan. That means every “original” member of the band except Axl had left, although late-replacement Dizzy Reed, remained on keys. The rotating door of guitar was held by Tommy Stinson and Robin Finck, with other key members including Buckethead, Bumblefoot, and Paul Tobias. (The actual personnel list is far too complicated to summarize, but there’s a wikipedia article out there with a giant chart explaining it. Seriously, the leadership of the Italian government over the last century is easier to explain.)

What this means though, is this could be considered an Axl Rose album, with a cast of dozens and the legal possession of the name of the band. And that radically changes the dynamics of the thing, because this kind of metal isn’t just a collection of music as much as it is a lifestyle, and a group’s collectiveness. The Rolling Stones would not be The Rolling Stones if the Mick/Keith combination was Mick Jagger and a half-dozen of whatever hotshit guitarists were looking for work at the time the album was recorded. Even if the guitarists were technically better than Keith Richards, the idea that you have these two musicians angling for the head spot in the band adds to the tension and ultimately the personality of the band. If you replace Slash with a dozen session musicians, it isn’t a band as much as it is a project. And despite the fact that there’s some incredible guitar work on this album, that’s the big issue here.

Another complaint is that there aren’t any songs on this album that “rock” from start to finish. There’s not a lot of consistent verse/chorus/verse “Mr. Brownstone” songs that work within the construct of a standard rock song without going off onto a strange tangent. The structures are more complicated, which are impressive, but it means the songs aren’t as accessible. That said, it isn’t like Rose bought a bunch of Yes and King Crimson records and went off writing odd-meter, 24-minute compositions. But as an example of this weirdness: in “Sheckler’s Revenge”, it starts sort of slow and dark, and about 40 seconds in, there’s what could best be described as a “disco hustle beat.” But within a dozen seconds, it swaps for a huge metal chorus riff with screaming, fret-tapping guitar. This odd arrangement is repeated again, and I wouldn’t doubt it if the same section was copied and pasted in whatever multimillion-dollar version of ProTools is used in the studio. If I was producing this song, I’d swap out the weird disco part and put in something that matched parts A and C, and then used different solo parts to make it more of a straightforward rock song. And you’d think in a dozen years, someone else would have thought of that, and maybe it was recorded a hundred times the way I described, but that’s not what you get.

The album as a whole is very ballady, and much more like the Illusion albums, especially in the sense that both of the 1991 albums could have been trimmed into one kick-ass CD with half the tracks left on the floor or sent to the Japanese market as B-sides. Chinese is like that, in that half of it completely clicks, and the other half is filled with WTF moments and didn’t resonate. Unfortunately, this isn’t on a song-by-song basis. In 1991, it was easy to make a mix tape and exclude “Get in the Ring”; with 2008’s release, I can’t trim out the grating “Now I know you” verse in “Better” that sounds like it doesn’t belong. Same thing with “There Was a Time” and its repetitive “It was the wrong time for you” pre-chorus bit that’s like hearing your annoying neighbor say “Where’s the beef” for the thousandth time, decades after any relevancy.

Axl’s vocals are impressive, but it worries me that he’ll blow out his voice within the first three shows of a tour (which will inevitably cause a full-scale riot with a death count comparable to a mid-sized aviation disaster.) Add to this the fact that any given part of this album is at least 128 tracks of sound laid on top of each other, some of them multiple vocal tracks from Rose, which won’t work at all live. If any band should take a page from the Beatles’ playbook and never play live again, GNR would be a great candidate. Besides, even after perfecting these 17 cuts, when they hit the road, everyone’s only going to want to hear “Sweet Child” anyway. And while Axl does some impressive work, there are other parts where he tries too hard. The screaming at the start of “Scraped” sounds like Rose is being anally raped, which is slightly off-putting.

The one thing I can say about the album is that it has the same haunting quality as Illusion that makes it easy to listen to it repeatedly. Maybe it’s that all of the songs have to do with that vague interpersonal struggle mixed with inner self-doubt and depression that made me listen to the double albums nonstop back in college. Or maybe that weird mix of not-rock structure keeps it fresh or burns it into my brain. Either way, after I get past all of the political issues behind this album, I did really enjoy it, and at the end of the day, I think it will be an album I will put in ten years from now and get instantly transported back to 2008, which always earns high marks in my book.

Rating: 9