GNR – Chinese Democracy reviewed!
Classic Rock’s verdict on the most eagerly-anticipated album of the past 13 years.
In 1966, Beach Boy Brian Wilson took part in 17 recording sessions at four different recording studios, using over 90 hours of tape and dozens of session musicians to create a song that was to be known as Good Vibrations.
With an eventual cost of $50,000 it was rumoured to be the most expensive record ever made. If the record industry, music critics and Wilson’s teenage fanclub were sceptical, when they heard the finished single it all made sense.
The song was aural perfection: a multi-part mini-symphony filled with gorgeous harmony singing, a beautifully mournful middle section, and a chorus that just would not leave your head.
The song became the band’s first million-selling hit. It was, everyone agreed, time well spent.
Has the 15 year gap since the last release from Guns N’ Roses (The Spaghetti Incident?) produced similar results? Has Axl been holed up in the studio demanding nothing less than perfection from his ever-revolving cast of Gunners? Has he made the rock equivalent of Good Vibrations?
But he’s been trying.
That we all know the length of time it’s taken to produce Chinese Democracy is one of the Achilles heels of the project. Such a long gestation has created two things: 1) Impossibly high expectations or 2) Intense scepticism. The finished product is not quite great enough to resist being overwhelmed by either mindset.
In short, those with high expectations will be disappointed – particularly if they have heard the leaked tracks and are eagerly waiting to hear what other tricks Axl has up his sleeve (the three tracks that haven’t been released in any form – Scraped, Sorry and This I Love – are possibly the biggest disappointments on the album).
And those with a sceptical mind will find plenty to seize upon: the album is ‘over-produced’, at times ridiculously overblown and cannot overcome one point: in the 70s, Axl’s heroes (Queen, Zep, Elton John, David Bowie) used to churn out albums better than this on a yearly basis, recording them sometimes in just weeks.
And yet… We loved the leaked tracks we heard last year and those songs are still as good today: epic, ambitious, thrilling rock music with some great lyrics, amazing singing and some of the craziest, sickest guitar playing around.
So here is our quick appraisal of Chinese Democracy: for our full considered review, see our next issue, onsale December 10th, and featuring a free GN’R supplement detailing the making of this extraordinary album.
Guns N’ Roses
Released November 24 (UK)
1. Chinese Democracy – 4.42
The single. The one with the drum part like Smells Like Teen Spirit and the riff that’d tear your head off. With its atmospheric intro and thunderous verse, it’s a great album opener. The lyrics don’t make sense of the title (except maybe as a tease: “All I got is precious time”), and it doesn’t really seem to have a chorus, but who cares? Full on.
2. Shackler’s Revenge – 3.39
Shades of Nu metal, Shackler’s sounds almost like White Zombie in places, while the breakdown sounds eerily reminiscent of a Crystal Method song: futuristic, but ironically rather dated. The guitar solo is a bit bonkers, very Tom Morello-esque: how the hell you play along with this on Guitar Hero we don’t know. A grower – we like it more than we did on first hearing it – it’s nevertheless a hard song to love.
3. Better – 4.59
One of the greatest of the leaked tracks, Better still thrills: an insistent pulsing riff propelling Axl into a tale of regret. The industial/nu metal feel remains, but is somehow less intrusive – maybe because it augments the song and not used to distract you from the fact that the song is very slender (like Shackler). Now featuring five guitarists, we presume it’s still Robin Finck providing the beautiful bluesy (um, Slash-like) outro guitar solo. A classic.
4. Street Of Dreams – 4.48
Big ballad with – editor Siân Llewellyn insists – “an intro that’s very Billy Joel before morphing into 70s Elton John”. (She means it in a good way.) Leaked with the title The Blues, Street Of Dreams is one of the most successful of the several ballads. The big orchestration is counter-balanced by a show-boating vocal from Axl and some great, kiss-offs: “What I thought was beautiful doesn’t live inside of you anymore.” Over-wrought? Bombastic? Well, yeah. Whaddya want? Babyshambles?
5. If The World – 4.55
With a flamenco guitar intro and funk rhythm track, If The World is the album’s first serious mis-fire. The R’N’B feel grates, and while there are some guitars to add a crunch, the song isn’t good enough to carry Axl’s ridiculous ‘Lad-di-da’ vocals and over-emoting. It’s thinks it’s a James Bond theme – in reality it’s Madonna’s La Isla Bonita as played by Limp Bizkit. A dog.
6. There Was A Time – 6.43
Another of the leaks, TWAT is another mid-paced number and another one that sounds like it should be on a film soundtrack. Very cinematic in scope, with an extended guitar solo outro and a very OTT choral ending. Gawd knows what he’s going on about or singing to, but he means it, man.
7. Catcher In The Rye 5.55
Very Queen-like, it originally had Brian May playing on it. Sadly, his work hasn’t survived. A poppy, slightly unconvincing (another ‘La-la-la’ section) and dated sounding track, like many of the songs it has no identifiable chorus.
8. Scraped – 3.32
Unheard until now, Scraped has a ferocious riff with weird vocoder-ish melody at the beginning. Axl alternates between falsetto and his regular voice. Full-on GN’R, it’s little bit reminiscent of …Jungle. After one listen, it’s hard to make a judgement.
9. Riad N’ The Bedouins – 4.12
Extended intro, samples etc, and a sound that makes you think your speakers might be on the fritz before it morphs into a brutal riff. Ironically, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Velvet Revolver’s last album: satisfying, exciting modern rock.
10. Sorry – 6.16
So he bloody should be. A big ballad with flange-y guitars, Axl’s pity-poor-me complex is well to the fore (and wearing thin) by this one. Our notes say: “Lots of acoustic, Flamenco guitars. Multi-layered vocals with Dire Straits-style guitar solo breakdown. Oh no’s. Very Silent Lucidity-ish (Queensryche). A moment when Axl sings ‘I don’t want to do it’ makes everyone in the room look at each other, startled. Urgh.
11. IRS – 4.30
Classic Rock differs on this one: some people seem to think it’s a highlight, others the worst out of the three leaked ballads (with Street Of Dreams and TWAT). No noticeable difference to leaks on the album version. Big, riffy. Could be accused of meandering.
12. Madagascar – 5.40
A mournful French horn parps in one of the highlights of the album: Axl’s defiant but bruised anthem (“‘I won’t be told any more/That I’ve been brought down in this storm/And left so far out from the shore that I can’t find my way back…”). Simple guitar lines, strings, and a barrage of samples from Martin Luther King, Cool Hand Luke (the ‘What we have here is a failure to communicate” sample also used on Civil War survives!), Braveheart and more add to the 21st century feel. He’s got 18 channels of shit on his TV to choose from and he just can’t get any solace. Brilliant.
13. This I Love – 5.36
Unbelievably, this song stems from 1993. How it survived, we’ll never know. Sounds like a bad show tune. Diabolical lyrics. Lots of piano and OTT strings. Overblown, over pretentious. Oh dear. There are rumours that the band recorded three albums worth of stuff: none of those songs were better than this? Really?
14. Prostitute – 6.16
“Why should I choose to prostitute myself/To Live with fortune and shame?” Despite having the worst tippy-tappy programmed drums in the universe ever, Prostitute (leaked as New Song 2) actually builds to something half-decent. An anti-climatic ending to the album though (in the playback, the CD stuck here and we had to listen to it three times. It was a new kind of hell…).
So there you have it – our first impressions. For a fuller and more considered review, get the mag on December 10th, with free GN’R supplement detailing the extraordinary story behind the making of the album.