G-n-R's Chinese Democracy review: extended remix

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My shorter review of this album appears in this week's Gambit. But trying to say all there is to say about Chinese Democarcy in 300 words is fairly impossible. So here's the rest. 

Chinese Democracy: The Good, the Bad, and the Dated

By Michael Patrick Welch

Whew, the new Guns-n-Roses album is officially not bad! Axl could have so easily tarnished the name. But even Slash is now left mumbling vague compliments about Chinese Democracy, which is ambitious, interesting and unique, if not always good.

As feared, this now mythical album is one-third nu metal. Meaning: unabashedly inorganic, monochromatic, Korn-influenced guitar riffs. Luckily, thousands of truly twisted guitar solos decorate said riffs, attacking from all angles, as Chinese Democracy's songs twist, break down, and morph. A woman sings over what could be a Garbage outtake that suddenly becomes a heavy blues ballad. Symphonic trip-hop with funky nylon string guitar leads Axl's layered voices into a capella metal do-wop. Pro-Tools makes sure that even the album's bad parts boast at least something interesting.

But Pro-Tools also drowns the gentle guitar of "Sorry" in gross digital gravy, and helps "FBI" sound like Sarah McLachlan. In the time this album took to make, the studio trick where a song (in this case "Prostitute") dramatically shrinks for a moment, into a tin can, before suddenly expanding back to its regular size, became tired. The new G-n-R sometimes reeks of the 90’s, when reactionary producers started thinking even heavy metal needed little dance beats in it.

Axl's voice heroically saves much of his material. Some of the terrible ballads (where he feigns trying not to cry during lyrics like, "I don't know why / she didn't say goodbye / I saw it in her eyes,") should compel Rose's piano to seek a restraining order. But for the most part, his dynamic, layered, downright killer singing/shrieking is not only metal real and true, but proves Axl’s a singer's singer. Especially with Pro-Tools on his side. Too bad the music he's singing over isn't nearly as melodic as what he can do with his voice.

As far as this sounding like Guns-N-Roses? No way. But that's probably the biggest reason the album doesn’t suck; thank god Axl got as far away as possible from the old G-n-R sound. Axl blatantly choose aural perfection over inspired performance so that even Lose Your Illusion sounds more “live” than Chinese Democracy. The songs on Appetite for Destruction were mostly recorded live and then tweaked, whereas these new songs are all tweakage. Many of the guitar solos come in the same interesting spots where Slash would have put them, weaving perfectly between Axl’s phrases. Still, Chinese Democracy definitely should have been Axl Rose’s solo album.

Essentially, this ambitious, interesting album is far better than the sad, crappy one many expected. But were it not Guns-n-Roses, many of us wouldn’t give it two listens. Axl mostly just one-upped Korn, augmenting heavy guitars with computer trickery that sometimes makes Chinese Democracy feel as dated as Axl's neat red goatee. Not saying it looks bad on him per se…

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