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In Defence Of...

Guns N'Roses and Chinese Democracy
The Quietus , December 23rd, 2008 06:11

Dayal Patterson suggests that in the inevitable rush to castigate Chinese Democracy, critics may have missed something: a pretty good album.

“It's been 14 years of silence
“It's been 14 years of pain
“It's been 14 years that are gone forever
“And I'll never have again”
'14 Years', Use Your Illusion II

Okay so maybe it was 13 years - maybe 15, depending who you ask and how you’ve decided to calculate. Suffice to say that it was A Bloody Long Wait. And for those involved, most specifically Geffen, a ridiculously expensive one. It’s fair to say that even those of us who had eagerly listened to the demo tracks that were slowly but steadily leaked over the last five years were finding it hard to believe that Axl would ever sign off the project and get the bloody album into the stores. Thus, when it finally became apparent that the (umpteenth) release date set was actually going to be met, the stage was set for a level of excitement and media interest rarely earned by a new album in the age of the internet. Indeed, with seemingly continual speculation over the imminent demise of the traditional album format by those who feel that the very concept is as outmoded as Betamax tape for a generation of music fans more au fait with mp3s and iPods than CDs or records, it’s possible that Chinese Democracy represents a closing chapter in music history, the last time that the appearance of a collection of songs on physical matter actually becomes an event of real cultural resonance.

Axl Rose: come to daddy

I’m not here to tell you that Chinese Democracy entirely lives up to the hype or that it’s worthy of all that money and time. Hell, what album could be? Arguably the longest awaited album of all time, arriving on an unparalleled wave of hype, the fourteen tracks have brought with them enough baggage to guarantee a ferocious backlash by those bitter and cynical critics forced to trudge to the record label’s office in order to evaluate the new opus based on a single paltry listen. If the album isn’t quite worthy of the amount of time, effort and expense channelled into it, that’s because the record amounts involved could only really have been truly said to pay off if the album were worth say, ten classic albums recorded with a more typical time span and budget. Nonetheless these factors should be quite irrelevant when attempting to judge the album’s actual musical value. If - in some bizarre Twilight Zone-like twist - it was discovered that the electrifying debut Appetite For Destruction had actually been worked on for over a decade, by a team of multi million dollar robots before Axl, Slash and the boys recorded the final cut, it surely wouldn’t make the finished opus any less enjoyable a listen or any less worthy a purchase. Music criticism is a fraught business at the best of times, necessarily subjective if only to keep reviews from becoming nothing more than descriptions, but it does seems that the press, particularly in the UK, it seems have come to the table with more than their fair share of prejudices.

Is Chinese Democracy a classic rock album? Maybe not. It is though, at the very least, a damn good one, a collection of excellent songs, very enjoyable ones and even in the worst cases, at least listenable ones. Perhaps more important is that it avoids any attempts to rehash the band’s classic days or to latch onto a contemporary sound, both of which would surely have resulted in a stench of desperation and even further condemnation from the critics. Instead the album is - for better or worse - undeniably individualistic, with any audible influences being predominantly unexpected and drawn from less-than-contemporary sources such as Queen, Wings and even, dare we say, Andrew Lloyd Webber. The industrial angle much anticipated (dreaded?) following the release of the 1999 track ‘Oh My God’, on the End Of Days soundtrack, is actually notably restrained, raising its head in snatches of electronica dotted throughout the album, for example in the percussion on ‘There Was A Time’ (unfortunately better known to me as TWAT since an early leak labelled it thus) the most overt example being ‘Shakler’s Revenge’, a thumping electro rock anthem and perhaps the most aggressive track on what is the most mellow GN’R album so far.

Critics have also seen fit to admonish the album based on another similarly unfair preconception, namely a supposed shift away from the style of the Slash-era line up recordings, which seems a somewhat dubious proposition given the amount of ground covered between 1986’s Live Like A Suicide EP and the 1991 Use Your Illusion albums. Complaints about a ‘void’ left by Slash’s departure seem a tad redundant given the electrifyingly angular and stunningly virtuoso (yet in GN’R fashion, admirably reigned in) performances on the record, such as those (apparently) by Buckethead on the title track or (again from what we’re told) Ron Thai on the aforementioned ‘Shackler’s Revenge’. Without wanting to be too flippant it seems that what bothers people more than the missing musical contributions of the members of yesteryear is their absence from the album photos and credits, and the general loss of mystique that it results in. I can sympathise with those who mourn the loss; GN’R were always, in the tradition of legends such as The Beatles, the Ramones or even Public Enemy, a group of overstated, slightly conflicting characters brought together to create that colourful, multi facetted otherworldliness present in the best rock legends. Admittedly it’s a quality now lost to the band, the constantly changing legion of musicians present so numerous that they have become a rather faceless mass, largely obscured by the long shadow cast by Axl. Keyboard player Dizzy, a fulltime member since 1990, is a mildly tenuous but welcome link between the two incarnations of the band and Buckethead is certainly an otherworldly figure of some presence, especially live where he exhibited both incredible musicianship and, bizarrely, a talent for magic, robot dancing and nunchaku displays. Yet, despite staring out from his KFC bucket on the second inside page of the booklet (second only to Axl himself), he actually left the band about four years ago and the rest of the members, though certainly talented, have a long way to go to rival the rock caricatures of Duff, Izzy and of course the effortlessly cool Slash.

Buckethead: nunchakus just out of shot

But as much as Chinese Democracy may not boast a particularly glamorous line up this shouldn’t distract listeners from the epic and generally hard rocking songs on the record. Having listened to various versions of many of the tracks online over the last few years, each showcasing a myriad of approaches, it seems that Axl has chosen to go with all of them, each song featuring numerous ideas and musical about-turns, an approach undoubtedly born of their long incubation period. As we can probably be sure of, Appetite… wasn’t worked on over ten years and yes, it did contain a spontaneity in the music that is missing here, but the songs remain engaging, involved and well crafted, the album more cohesive on repeated listens than many reviewers give credit for. Numbers such as the title track, ‘I.R.S.’, and ‘Scaped’ provide enough venom to match anything on the band’s earlier albums. ‘Catcher In The Rye’ and ‘Sorry’ exude the sort of laidback cool much evident on Use Your Illusion II - albeit in a somewhat less organic manner. Slower numbers such as ‘Madagascar’ and ‘Street of Dreams’ provide the sort of epic grandeur found on ‘November Rain’ or ‘Estranged’.

Purists tend to cling to the stripped down glory of the band’s early days as if that was somehow what the band were really about, yet it was the multi faceted, unashamedly ambitious and completely oversized approach of the Illusion albums that represented some of the band’s finest moments. Guns N’Roses aren’t AC/DC, and they were never going to release an easy, back-to-basics return with their ‘trademark’ sound intact. In fourteen years the music has moved on but there is, nonetheless, the logical continuation of the brash pioneer spirit of the bands last studio albums, something we can probably largely attribute to Axl even during the Illusion days. Chinese Democracy isn’t perfect - the vocals are occasionally strained and songs such as ‘If The World’ and ‘This I Love’ aren’t particularly inspiring - but despite the new clothes, that spirit lives on, that stubborn refusal to play it safe or accept limitations, a refusal to curb the excesses for better or worse.

Guns N’Roses could have released an album that harked back to former glories with a bunch of rock n roll anthems and they probably would have had an easier time had they done so. But this isn’t Velvet Revolver. Every GN’R album followed its heart, aimed for the stars, raised eyebrows at the risk of alienating diehard fans, and carved its name in big fat letters in rock history regardless of the consequences. This album does just that. And for that I tip my hat to Axl and his band – whoever they may be.

To read Luke Turner's original track by track review of the album, click here.

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