Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy (2008)

Probably the longest awaited album in rock history, Chinese Democracy finally arrived in November of 2008. After fifteen years of development hell, numerous personnel changes, legal battles, internet leaks, and endless accusations flying between former members and lead singer Axl Rose, expectations for the new Guns N' Roses album were set incredibly high. The story of the fifteen years of development hell sounds like a story out of the video game industry- notably "Duke Nukem Forever" - the long awaited sequel for the early first person shooter that pushed the boundaries of the genre with it's over-the-top attitude and snarky style. Did Chinese Democracy live up to the hype?

I will not delve into the drama behind the production of this album, or the drama behind the myriad lineup changes, or the drama around Axl Rose's eccentric behavior. We could spend hours discussing all that and never really come to any conclusion. The details behind the drama have been discussed elsewhere, and I'd rather not take sides- what actually happened and was actually said is something only known to Axl and his current and former bandmates. I want to talk about the only thing that really matters- the music, and restrict any opinions beyond what I hear to the minimum I can manage.

Axl Rose has a very unique voice. He can cover an amazing range - both in pitch and in style. He has a deep baritone with that odd nasal quality, and a screeching high, squawk-like falsetto. Despite these less than positive terms, his voice actually works well, especially when overdubbed in harmony. Despite Axl's wide range there are moments on the album where he sounds like he's had a little digital help. In some places it is more obvious, in others it sounds like it's being used just as a special effect, and in yet others, it seems to be a subtle touch here and there- almost not present. As far as my opinion on the digital adjustments- I'm on the fence about it. I get the idea of using it for effect, and to reduce takes and studio time- but the "timesaver" argument goes out the window for an album that was in production for a decade and a half. Maybe I'm hearing things? Maybe Axl just did so many takes that he made it perfect and it just sounds like digital editing. I suppose only Axl and his engineering crew know for sure.

The rhythm section is very tight, and holds things together just as it should when Axl is going crazy and the wall of guitars are all wailing away in all their feedback-laden glory. The drums and bass are rock solid even through the wide variety of styles showcased on the album- but they also have a thankless job- sometimes a little buried in the mix, and sometimes just overshadowed by Axl and the massive amount of guitar pyrotechnics.

As for the guitars, that's a question I'm sure many people wondered about before hearing the album. Slash is a very talented player with a distinct style. When you take him out of the equation, and take out Izzy Stradlin's supporting rhythm guitar at the same time, what do you do to fill the void? Axl Rose literally went through several guitarists in both positions, including the incomparable Buckethead, until settling on a final lineup of Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal and DJ Ashba on lead, with Richard Fortus on rhythm. (Note DJ Ashba did not join until after production was complete) - however, the final recording uses material written and/or recorded by most of the guitarists involved in the band- Paul Tobias, Robin Finck, and Buckethead. The story of who joined when, who left when, and why is convoluted and quickly degenerates into an argument of who screwed over over who and other nonsense that has nothing to do with the music, so I'm not even going to touch it.

Needless to say, when you add in a set of keyboards, and digital audio programming and samples to this maelstrom of guitarists and other personnel, you naturally end up with an album of songs that have a very dense, layered sound. Just about every song has moments where there are dizzying arrays of activity going on. It can be a bit much at times. At other times, it's awe-inspiring in an almost prog-rock sort of way. I have to admire the sheer amount of technical expertise it must have taken to bring all the myriad moving parts of Chinese Democracy together. It was obviously no small feat, and I can begin to understand some of the massive production delays based on it. The overall production quality of the album is very high- every sound is clear, everything lines up in time perfectly. I would almost say it's a little too perfect- and borders on (ok, actually crosses over into) being over-produced. Axl's vocals have all the raw energy that fans identify with Guns N' Roses, but the instrumental parts seem to be almost too clean.

Lyrically, the album is, to some extent, one note. Most of the songs seem to talk about feelings of betrayal, or anger about being wronged in some way. Many of the lyrics seem to be talking about bad relationships - so I can't help but wonder how much is just allegory for Axl's long-standing feud with former guitarist Slash.

The album runs through several different styles. The songs "Chinese Democracy," "There Was a Time," and "I.R.S." seem to be the most familiar, and would not be too out of place on the Use Your Illusion albums. Others vary wildly in style. "Shackler's Revenge" leans towards a more Industrial feel, and prominently features Buckethead's guitar shredding. "If the World" is pure 1970s funk, and is the track that seems to feature the band's rhythm section the most. "Sorry" starts off as a spacy, somber ballad, but launches into a harder edged, almost doom-metal dirge in the tradition of Black Sabbath.

I can fully appreciate that over fifteen years, many things have changed in the music industry, so have Axl Rose's songwriting tastes, and so have the band's personnel. It would be madness to expect another "Appetite for Destruction." To the band's credit, they do manage to capture at least some of the style we've come to expect from Guns N' Roses. On the other hand, despite frequent guitar solos throughout the album, the ficus is clearly always on the Axl Rose's multi-layered, heavily overdubbed vocals. The writing in general seems to center around it, and the vocals are always dominant in the mix.

Add to this a diversity of styles, and the album reads like a showcase for a vocalist to show off his diversity. Axl Rose has frequently denied that the album is his solo effort- that it is a group effort with equal contribution from all members. My ears, however, tell me otherwise. The revolving door of musicians, many of whom appear on multiple songs despite having left the band long ago, follows the pattern seen in many solo albums where a variety of musicians are brought in to work with the artist. Perhaps it was intended to be a group effort- but that group changed constantly, so no two tracks have any common songwriting team aside from the one constant of Axl Rose. Intentions aside, the album reads more like an Axl Rose solo effort than a Guns N' Roses record.

For the record, I have no problem with Axl Rose using the Guns N' Roses name- it's his name to use, and he has legal right to it especially after numerous legal struggles with his former bandmates to establish that right. On the other hand, the album may have had a better critical reception if it was billed as a solo project either officially or unofficially.

The album has it's flaws- it reads like a solo album being billed as a Guns N' Roses album (which isn't necessarily a terrible thing), and it's over-produced to a degree- enough to make it more difficult to relate to than if it was more stripped down. Flaws aside, after listening to it several times, the songs do grow on me a bit. I don't hate the album- there are parts of it I certainly like. It won't be an album that I go to often though. Was it worth the fifteen year wait? I'm not entirely sure about that. I don't think it lived up to my expectations.

No comments:

Post a Comment