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Music Review: Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy

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I'll admit it — I wasn't a believer before tonight. Until my ears were physically christened with the opening notes to the title track of Chinese Democracy soaring through my thoroughly overwhelmed computer speakers as it streamed off of the Guns N' Roses MySpace page, I did not believe that Axl Rose would wade through the insanity of his genius and bring us what has become the Holy Grail of rock music.

But what once seemed like an untouchable, unattainable vision in the head of a madman — destined never to be realized — has now thankfully become reality. And those fans who have yearned for years to once again gain access to the ingeniously conceptual and chaotically invigorating world of rock and roll that only Rose can create will not be disappointed.

Chinese Democracy is the ultimate rock and roll album. It announces GNR's reemergence in the world of metal with a sonic explosion that cuts through the status quo like a razor blade, beautifully sharp and piercingly deadly. Axl combines the raw ferocity of Appetite for Destruction with the soaring and dramatic compositional approach the band took on their Use Your Illusions albums, combining those formidable forces in a shell of layered, electronic sound that is thick and powerful. Electronic beats and melodies pour over Axl's ballads like the lofting "Streets of Dreams" and rage over rockers like the buzzsaw guitar-laced jam "Better," creating an affluence of sound that assaults and consumes its audience completely.    

Every note and every vocal coursing through this record are placed perfectly into the overall mosaic that only an artist like Axl can create. Each track is strong in its own intrinsic way, drawing on the various influences that swirl through his consciousness, giving the listener a unique sensory experience as they journey through the landscape of the record as it unfolds.

Fans of GNR's earlier work will cite harder tracks like the distortion drenched rocker "Shackler's Revenge" or the pulse-pounding "Riad N' The Bedouins" as the strongest songs on the record.

Those who enjoy Axl's melodic tendencies will no doubt be drawn to the album's prime examples of his ever-present ability to write a sentimental hook, like "Catcher in the Rye" or the hauntingly melodic "Sorry."

For most, the glaring spectacle of this album is undoubtedly Axl's innovation: his introduction of hip hop and electronic beats and sounds, metallic industrial crunch in the vein of Ministry, and thunderously layered guitars, all crashing together in a violent and perfect harmony throughout the record show that, for all his eccentricities and insistence on perfectionism, Axl showed no restraint in fully realizing a thoroughly bombastic and beautiful musical concept. Those who criticized him must now give thanks for those very aspects of his mentality that drew their ire, for they are the integral ingredients that define and differentiate Chinese Democracy from anything that preceded it.

Over the time in which Axl was in his self-induced exile, it is now obvious that rather than an act of instability or social rejection this was an act of musical evolution. Gone are the days when he shared the GNR spotlight with any one musician. This new incarnation of the band is more reminiscent of a metal version of Arthur Lee's Love or Don Van Vilet's Beefheart. Axl is at the helm of this ship and it his personal journey into new realms of sonic madness, totally foriegn to rock and roll, that make Chinese Democracy nothing short of incredible. It is a record so conceptually powerful in its ideas, so innovative in its sounds, that it will single-handedly elevate the standard against which all rock music is subsequently measured.

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About Anthony Tobis

  • zingzing

    and how about those first notes “souring” out of the speakers? a freudian slip?

    anyway… i’d have to say i wish that this album was as good as the review says it is, but i really can’t bring myself to believe it. in fact, from what i’ve heard, it’s certainly hard rocking, but doesn’t innovate at all–not that guns ever did–and is rather sluggish at times. all the things that made guns great, the rollicking, tossed-off craziness, the melodic meets crunchy rock, the rawness of it all… is turned into an overwrought mishmash of half-realized ideas, pushed into corners they aren’t quite meant to be in.

    there’s something admirable about the album, its very existence is enough, and axl certainly stuffs 15-years worth of ideas into it… but it just ends up a glorious mess, which is all it ever could have been.

    it may set the commercial world on fire, but it’s not going to ever have the musical impact of earlier recordings.

  • egads.

  • Nope, Anthony’s right, it’s VERY good, surprisingly. People stuck on Appetite are probably not going to enjoy it – it is not the wild, anarchic rock of that particular band, but if you enjoyed the Illusion sound, this is a step forward from that direction, a much more solid, unified vision rather than the random, shotgun-blast that made up those two albums. Where most “come back” albums feel like an excuse, this one really feels like a reason. I am, quite frankly, stunned.

  • Tony

    I didn’t want to over-inflate my opinion of this record but I was really blown away. I’ve been a GNR fan for a long time and even saw them on their first aborted C.D. tour, and I never expected Axl to produce something of such high quality.

    I think the album has something for everyone and while those fans who only like Appetite may not be into everything on the record I think they still must concede that Axl is on the cutting edge of rock.

    I’m not really sure I need them to redo Appetite; it was pretty good the first around. It’s nice to hear something fresh and innovative.

  • Randall

    Bottom line here is that Axl has produced a damn fine album that people will still be listening to 10-20 years from now. Yes, it’s a little overproduced and yes it took WAY too long, but you’ve got to give Axl credit for not compromising his vision. Too much of today’s music is paint-by-numbers rock and fails to stick with you for more than 5 minutes. I have listened to it 3 times now online and can’t wait to hear it again.

  • Jordan Richardson

    The album is a mess. Thing is, I’m not sure if it’s a good mess or a bad mess yet.

    Axl basically took the kitchen sink approach and threw in the fridge, microwave, stove, and everything else he could find as well. In essence, Chinese Democracy is a big, messy epic album that feels outdated and yet timeless.

    I would recommend that those of you listening to it over computer speakers or just online should get a load of the thing through full-on multi-speaker glory, as I have in my living room. You can rattle the windows with this one, for sure. But you can also pick up just how much Axl has done with it and how much of it doesn’t work. He uses up ALL of the channels on most of the tracks and there is no stone unturned. Axl, at one point, uses an alarming array of vocals on top of one another. Also, it takes balls to sample MLK the way he did in “Madagascar” and I’m not convinced it works.

    In essence, I’m speechless. I’ve heard it almost half a dozen times now and I have NO idea how to even begin to review this. I’m not sure that I will, either. It’s….it’s just….

    I dunno.

  • It’s a glorious mess, and that’s what makes it great. It wouldn’t have even seen the light of day if it wasn’t so over the top. People want to think that GnR is the band we knew from Appetite, and it’s obvious that it’s not – it’s the band that emerged during the Illusion period. A rock band with grand, Queen-like visions. There’s a lot of really boring rock out there that makes sure that it is clean and simple and straight-forward, and, well, Axl’s direction for a rock band is very much not that. It IS a mess, and that’s what makes it fun. I think a lot of listeners have forgotten that bombast can be a wonderful thing when you either have someone who knows how to use it as a tool (like Freddie Mercury) or someone who doesn’t even realize he’s being bombastic (such as Axl.) Too many today are afraid of bombast because they’re the in-between people, and rightly so – they’ll look like fools. Axl’s bombast is ridiculous for reasons he would be infuriated to find out, I’m sure, but the result for listeners, if they are of open-minds, is pretty good.

    And, I agree, the MLK/Cool Hand Luke samples (again) just don’t work.

  • Tony

    I have a hard time accepting the description of the album as a mess. Axl is incorrporating the capabilities of the newest technology around him to create something unique.

    This is the same concept that the Beatles had when they stopped touring to create music with all the resources available to them rather than simply writing catchy songs that they could play live. Lucy in the Sky is very “produced” but I don’t think many people will argue that its integrity is compromised. Phil Spector took this same philosophy and approach and look at the barriers he was able to break through. What about Pink Floyd? Much of the music produced by these entities, specifically the Beatles, was hard to digest for the general public until the rest of popular music caught up, and the sound — psychedelic in the Beatles’ case — became standard fare.

    There is no reason that production quality and innovativeness of this ilk have to be exclusively wasted on lifting untalented artists to the heights of commercial viability. Technology can be a tool to create sound impossible to produce without the added resource; much in the same way the electric guitar allowed Hendrix or the electric keyboard allowed Hancock, to produce music that would be impossible to create with their respective instruments acoustical counterparts.

    I’m not arguing that GNR is in a class with the afore mentioned legends but Axl is on the same creative thread. If anything, I think this record better encapsulates Axl’s vision (whether you agree with it or not) for what rock music is capable of better than even the Use Your Illusions duo.

    This album will be commercially successful while still receiving extensive credit among the most legitimate of hard rock/metal fans because Axl Rose understands how to cross genres to make a record that is appealing to a variety of different audiances. I think the biggest reason people may think this album sounds like a “mess” is the way Axl totally disregards genre which — at a time in music where every genre of music has twenty different sub-genres that are all vigorously defended by rabid fan bases — totally throws off peoples’ need to categorize media into a neat fitting section of their musical consciousness. I think if people can let go of labels and just accept the record as a body of work that is independent of anything they’ve heard before — they will find the experience of listening to it much more enjoyable. And it is completely necessary — before forming an opinion — to listen to it start to finish.

    I think the debate over the perception of this record will rage on for a very long time. I’m glad I made the Beefheart reference in the piece because the views on this record remind me of the debate many still have over Trout Mask Replica — although I do think GNR has a much more direct vision that Vliet did on that record, and I love Beefheart.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Some of the arrangements capture me but then Axl destroys it with his lack of range. Sure, technology is utilized to assist with a certain sound or to communicate an idea, but, yea..this album leans on it a bit much & I don’t see it translating well in a live setting. It took him 15 years to produce such a grandiose work and it really isn’t that impressive. I most certainly wouldn’t compare G’N’R to Pink Floyd(in any fashion)…In six years Pink Floyd released more relevant,talented & boundary pushing material than Axl could ever dream of doing. He had 15 years and still couldn’t pull it off.

  • Vince

    Yo Anthony: YOU ARE 100% right on!

    I can’t agree with you more. You basically described ALL THE FEELINGS I have for this album. You totally read my mind. And I don’t think I am the only one here.

    “Axl is at the helm of this ship and it his personal journey into new realms of sonic madness, totally foriegn to rock and roll, that make Chinese Democracy nothing short of incredible. It is a record so conceptually powerful in its ideas, so innovative in its sounds, that it will single-handedly elevate the standard against which all rock music is subsequently measured.” This I love!!!!

  • Jada

    I think November 23rd should be declared a National Holiday…lolol…like many declare 4/20 … but this is wayy *Better* :o)

  • SJ Holmlund

    Great album, but I don’t like how this review sites Shackler’s Revenge and Catcher in the Rye as good songs, they are clearly the two weakest songs on the album and the only songs that tempt me to press the skip button. I think Axl just created a new sub-genre of rock n’ roll that I’ll dub “Democractic Rock”. The album could be called a mess, but the word “mess” is too negative in my oppinion. It’s just a crazy piece of artwork that is too hard to describe. It’s awesome because it sounds like nothing made before and proves that Axl doesn’t need Slash, Izzy and Duff (although they did help him alot) to write good music. It’s hard to even compare this album to any other album as it’s completely different to anything we’ve ever heard before. Thank god 2008 has brought us three good albums (Metallica’s Death Magnetic, AC/DC’s Black Ice and this).

  • Tony

    Citing those two songs had less to do with comparing them to other songs on the album and more to do with referencing songs that fit into the categories within the concept I was describing. If you keep reading you’ll see I say that Axl is at his best on his more “experimental” or genre crossing tracks. While I do like both of those songs — especially Shackler’s — I wasn’t making the statement that they were the best songs on the album; it was a context citation.

  • Scott

    This album has a couple of good songs on it. Thats it! The rest is crap. It’s not the rockin’ album that I had hoped Axle would release. I’m a very saddened GnR fan. I wish I had my 13 bucks back so I could by something “Entertaining”.


    Imagine that. An album that takes a several listens to actually digest. Requiring a little bit of thought, and contemplation in the process. That could be a tough sell in such a fast food, throw away type mentality that this society embraces.

  • Tony

    I totally agree with you. This album will be received one of two ways; either people will take the time to understand its intricacies, appreciating everything that it is, and opening their minds to the possibilities of rock with compositional value, or people will disregard it as not being enough like Appetite. The cynic in me says the latter, but bands like the Beatles and Nirvana changed the paradigm once; maybe this can too.

  • Chaz Lipp

    This is a the most hilariously hyperbolic review I’ve ever read of any album. Six years later, I wonder if the writer still feels this album is “the standard against which all rock music is subsequently measured.”