Author's note: The last few weeks, reviews have been pouring in for the current so-called Guns n’ Roses tour. Original fans, such as myself, are evidently impressed.
First off, publicly referring to Axl Rose, Buckethead, and an army of hired guns and producers as “Guns n’ Roses” should not be legally permissible, but Axl had the best lawyers in 1994, so here we are. I will not be participating in that charade, either by referring to them as such or by attending shows. However, an animated discussion with someone who’d attended the (apparently great) Minneapolis show forced me to revisit the issue, at least until she asked: “Do you like Chinese Democracy?”
I wasn’t sure exactly how to respond to that in casual conversation, so it prompted me to dig into the old blog archives for a two-part Democracyreview I wrote in November, 2008. I’ll skip the first part (a lengthy pre-amble detailing the roller-coaster of emotions prompted by its release), which is so replete with un-printables as to make re-posting on Examiner moot. Suffice it to say I had complicated feelings, but was able to reconcile them just enough to listen and write the review.
So, in honor of the 2011 Axl n’ Friends Tour, here is the original Democracy review. I am indeed curious and may yet attend one of these shows, but the words below still stands as a representation of my feelings on the matter of their existence:
In reading Slash (what currently functions as the sole credible history of Guns n’ Roses), the most underrated story didn’t even involve Axl:
Before one of their early shows in Hollywood, Duff and Slash stole and then hid a few pieces of Steven Adler’s drum kit, including one of his bass drums. They appreciated Adler’s intensity, but they wanted to simplify his sound by stripping it down, leaving him a single-bass punk kit. Their vision of the band was always to strip away the glam excess and focus on raw rock sounds. When Adler finally showed, they said something to the effect of “just go with it, dude.” One can easily imagine Adler, the eternal ADD-ridden twelve-year-old, sitting down, taking a few licks, saying “f*ck it,” and pounding away on what was left of his kit. The result was probably the most underrated element of Guns’ original sound; Adler’s simple but furious punk thrashing is the driving force behind 80 percent of Appetite. Listen to songs like “It’s So Easy,” “Nighttrain,” and “Out ta Get Me,” and you realize why, despite the fact that his playing was technically simple, he was almost impossible to replace when he finally went off the narcotic deep end. Adler was the band’s barely-contained adolescent rage.
The brilliance of Guns, if you had to narrow it down to a single trait, was the ability to harness that kind of insanity. The Adler drum kit story is a microcosm of what made their sound work: Duff and Slash were smart enough musicians to channel Adler’s hyper-active style, and once in place, it was the perfect soundboard for Duffs thumping bass lines and Izzy’s linear rhythm grooves. Likewise, Slash’s bluesy, understated lead guitar was the ideal companion to Axl’s fierceness and drama, and together they formed the perfect counterpoint to the pounding rhythm section. Duff, Izzy and Slash could probably have played with anyone, but as more measured musicians, they were the perfect musical foils for the fury of Axl and Adler, and the juxtaposition of those elements was what made the sound so compelling. Thrashers like “Nighttrain” felt chaotic but put together. Ballads like “Don’t Cry” were soulful but ominous in way that other bands of the era couldn’t recreate. Moreover, the creative tension between Axl (who lived for drama and excessive, “November Rain”-style production) and team Slash/Duff (who worshipped early Aerosmith) gave Guns the scope and range to be both grimy and extravagant, to put “You Could Be Mine” and “Estranged” back-to-back on the same album. Like many great bands, what made the music indelible also led to them communicating through lawyers. Natural tension has its drawbacks.
All of this matters because everything that happened after the post-Illusion break-up, and therefore all that is necessary to understanding Chinese Democracy, was a result of that tension. Velvet Revolver (with Scott Weiland and Adler-sub Matt Sorum) was the straight-forward rock that Slash and Duff always wanted to make but couldn’t with Axl. It’s hard to argue that Revolver wasn’t good, in a technical sense, but there was plainly something missing. There was no edge. No chaos. (Maybe Weiland needs to go back on his 8-ball diet?) The music just doesn’t stay with you.
So here’s Chinese Democracy. Axl is free of the constraints of the sane (for better or worse), and my first rational thought is: this is the music that Axl always wanted to make—grandiose, dramatic, complex and generally obnoxious. It’s the (il)logical extension of where he was trying to take the band with the Illusion recording sessions, but without those pesky purebreds around, his vision—whatever it is—is totally unchecked. If I were to say one thing before pushing “play” for a Democracy virgin, I would say “duck.” You’re about to have a lot of sh*t thrown at you.
There is more production value in the first track of Chinese Democracy than was put into all of Appetite. The vocals and instrument tracks are layered and filtered and layered again, and it creates a sound so dense it’s almost hard to figure out what goal was. Are you referencing a specific genre here, Axl? Several? Was this a 1997 idea or a 2007 idea? Or both? Some of the arrangements contain so many changes, bridges, false endings, and (don’t forget) piano interludes and/or guitar solos, it’s hard figure out how you got to point “B” by the time the song ends seven minutes later. And as far as range of styles and influences, well, I’m not sure what to say, but I believe I heard a flamenco guitar and then a hip-hop beat opening one track. Describing Chinese Democracy as “indulgent” would be a discredit to Axl’s Kubrickian insanity. I recommend using the first two three listens just to untangle your auditory cortex.
Once you’ve done that, here is a listener’s guide to getting through and partially making sense of the album. And trust me—this is hard science based on at LEAST three dozen full listens.
1. Dismiss the first three songs (“Chinese Democracy,” “Sheckler’s Revenge” and “Better”) as soon as the instinct to do so hits you. They’re crap. If you ignore that initial instinct, thinking “perhaps I just haven’t taken the time to absorb everything that’s going on here, and maybe these tracks actually rock,” you’re wrong. They represent Axl trying to update the foundational G’n’R hard rock sound, but they’re totally overwrought, overproduced, and overcooked. They might actually be “good” in technical sense, if you care that some arrangement was inventive or that whichever hired gun laid down that guitar solo did a very professional job on the 78th take—but so what? These tracks feel utterly synthetic, and probably because they are. The worst sin of all is how Axl runs his voice through an absurd phalanx of filters, butchering the one thing we paid to hear, YOUR VOICE, YOU MENTAL CASE. In that respect “Better” lives up to its name, if only slightly, but that doesn’t change the fact that these songs make me feel nothing—except an intense longing for the primal sound of G’n’R yore.
2. Now, starting with the fourth track, “Street of Dreams” you can finally sit back and soak in some Axl. Even if his marbles are forever lost—that surreal voice isn’t. “Street of Dreams” brings us back to the blessedly familiar reality of Axl crooning over a little Dizzy Reed piano. Axl is lamenting about a broken relationship with somebody and when he unleashes the demonic vocal chords on the line “now there’s a HEEEEEELLL I can’t describe,” teeing off the guitars, it comes off like a vintage Illusion ballad. It’s pedestrian, largely because the guitar work is too polished to be memorable, and it would at best be a B-side on Illusion II, but it’s also a tremendous relief. “If the World,” on the other hand, is one of the strangest pieces of music ever arranged. I have no explanation for why it opens with a Spanish guitar riff, and I looked into it. Fortunately, Axl treats it as a twist on his Elton John balladeering and keeps the nonsense pushed well back of his lung cancer-crooning and vampire shrieking. Don’t bother trying to dissect the pseudo hip-hop beat, either. It will only waste time that could be spent doing something that won’t contribute to depression.
3a. Now that you’ve warmed back up Axl, like a psychotic ex-girlfriend whose image continues to haunt you, you’re ready for the best track on the album. “There was a Time,” is epic Axl-ness the way God intended it—piano and ominous guitar chords, drums thumping over orchestral overtures, and Axl singing about “broken glass and cigarettes.” Finally. Painting a vague tragic picture, Axl builds to a seven-minute crescendo that ends with him holding an impossible thirty second note and crumbling into an exhausted heap. There was, apparently, a time, and Axl would do anything for some person, but it ended very, very tragically, and nearly killed him inside. And we feel that, at last.
3b. “Catcher in The Rye,” takes that dramatic sound and structure and runs with it, though this time we get melancholy/reflective Axl. Though the tone is less fierce this time, certain memories do make him wish he had a gun, which is a bonus. It’s a little less compelling than tragic Axl, but the fact is, the faces of Axl are front and center for two glorious songs, and it may make the remainder of the album worth it.
4. Buzz kill time: If you listen to the remainder of the album straight through, you will gradually get bored and tune out. It has happened to me every time without exception. The problem is that, once again, all of the effects and production succeed only in making this supposed incarnation of Guns n’ Roses—a band whose brilliance was in sounding rough around the edges like nobody else—sound EXACLTY like everyone else. “Scraped” uses some effects to make it sound like there are three different Axl’s singing, and none of them are interesting. The only downside of tuning out for this stretch of five tracks is that you will miss out on “I.R.S.” which is decent in spite of the apparent effort to destroy everything I love. For some reason, his voice is left untainted here. The other sound that may jar you out of your depressed stupor is Martin Luther King’s voice, which makes an inexplicable cameo on “Madagascar.” I’ve deemed it best not to ask “why?”
5. The final stage in the Chinese Democracy journey is to collect yourself and forget the previous twenty-five minutes. That should be easy when “This I Love” instantly fills your head with the image of Axl sitting alone in a cold, dark castle, plucking mournfully on a piano, and then being joined by an invisible string section while we are treated to rotating piano shots with ghosted-over close-ups of his face. And when Axl’s lover’s lament reaches its peak intensity, also feel free to imagine a blonde, leather-clad guitarist, who, though not connected to him personally or proximally, channels Axl’s sadness through his monster-ballad solo, bathing in the single beam of light that penetrates through the hole in the roof of Axl’s dungeon. This is an 80’s love ballad of the most generic proportions, but that makes it’s awesomeness all the more stunning. Guns n’ Roses’ entire reputation was based on not sounding like other hair metal bands, and yet the icing on Chinese Democracy is what might be the best straight-from-the-manual-monster ballad ever recorded—and for no other reason than Axl’s sickening, brilliant voice. If “This I Love” doesn’t illustrate everything that is both right and wrong about this album, nothing does.
6. Oh, and one more thing: the last track? Delete it. That makes “This I love” the fitting closer, and that would be far easier than trying to make sense of “Prostitute.” Maybe THAT illustrates everything that is right and wrong about the album.