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Album review: Guns N' Roses' 'Chinese Democracy'

Chinese_democracy_cover When Axl Rose announced in December 2006 that the new Guns N' Roses album, "Chinese Democracy," would be issued the following March -- the last false ending to a drama nearly as long-lasting as the Vietnam War and culminating today, as the hordes rush to exclusive retailer Best Buy to snap up the final version -- he briefly stepped out of the smoke-machine haze that surrounds him and feigned modesty. Vouching for the veracity and passion of his work, he seemingly aimed to lower expectations, writing, "In the end, it's just an album."

That may be the most ridiculous statement Rose has made in 17 years of whoppers. Just an album! Sure, and "Citizen Kane" was just a movie. And Brando as Don Corleone was just a mid-career acting gig.

Everyone with a passing interest in rock knows the abbreviated history of "Chinese Democracy." Recording for the album, the follow-up to Guns N' Roses' mammoth, chart-topping "Use Your Illusion" project, began in the early 1990s. Soon, though, Rose's authoritarian grip squeezed the life out of the original lineup, including his lead guitarist and artistic foil, Slash, and it went splat. Out of that goo rose the post-Guns band Velvet Revolver on one side and Axl, increasingly alone, on the other.

For the next decade and a half, Rose continued to work, running through band members like so many speed dates. Some, like avant-garde guitarist Buckethead, fled; others, like longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed, stuck. This amorphous Guns N' Roses toured with varying degrees of success and spent time recording in 14 different studios in L.A., Las Vegas, London and New York.

Meanwhile, Rose got older (he's 46 now), decided he looked good in cornrows, and spent something like $13 million on a project few thought he would complete. The powers behind the already failing music industry gave a collective bloodcurdling scream.


The wait is over

And now it's here. The album that's been referred to as a "white whale" more times than Melville's own Moby Dick has been stabbed through with a spear and brought to ground. Fourteen tracks, no blubber.

Half the songs classify loosely as ballads, while the others are more forcefully up-tempo, but nearly every one makes unexpected stylistic switches. The effect is theatrical, with voicings and arrangements often taking precedence over riffs and grooves, making "Chinese Democracy" more like the score to a rock opera than an arena-oriented assault.

Like Brando and "Kane" mastermind Orson Welles, Rose is a macho refusenik whose career path illustrates how hard it can be for an ego-driven man to separate lofty ideals from fleshly indulgences. And though it's probably too cryptic to have the impact of the masterpieces to which I've dared compare it, "Chinese Democracy" does reach that far. Rose's fight to become and remain an auteur in a pop world increasingly hostile to such individualists has become a performance in itself. "Chinese Democracy" is its finale, the explosive end to a period of silence that, in retrospect, had its own eloquence.

It isn't exactly an accessible album, though many hooks and bombastic rock moments surface within its layers. Contrary to early reports, Rose didn't plunge into the "nu metal" style industrial rock that he'd embraced a decade ago with the lone track "Oh My God." Had he done so, producing an album's worth of static-laden ravers, like the album's first single and title track, he might have embraced middle age as a respectable experimental rocker. Conversely, had he fulfilled the dreams of the rabble who can't get past "Appetite for Destruction," reconnecting with Slash at the old intersection of punk and metal, he would have roared back as the king of the charts without making much artistic progress.

Instead, making this album has transformed Rose from a hungry contrarian to a full-blown desert prophet, howling mightily in protest against a pop industry that encourages its stars to innovate only within the realm of what sells best. At the same time, he's resisted the nostalgia that would have sent him after a purer time or sound, preferring to invest in a foggy future. Purity is the opposite of what Rose seeks on "Chinese Democracy." Convolution is everything as he spirals toward a total sound even he can't quite apprehend.

"Chinese Democracy" is a test for contemporary ears, an album that turns in upon itself instead of reaching out to instantly become a ring tone. Nothing on it immediately reveals its essence. Even the songs with hooks, such as the sing-song rant "Better" and the grande olde ballad "Street of Dreams," derail themselves in subtle ways, requiring the listener to reconsider her first judgment. This will frustrate plenty of listeners; lovers of "edgy" music may find it too melodic and rooted in the blues, while fans seeking simple catharsis may rue the many shifts in tone and tempo.

Versions of these final 14 tracks have been floating around the Internet throughout Rose's exile. Some may date from before the "Use Your Illusion" sessions. Rose kept building on them, rewriting, hiring and alienating all those producers and collaborators -- the album's credits, which include Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck and Primus drummer Bryan "Brain" Mantia, read like an Oscar night thank-you list from hell -- and trying everything from multitracking his voice to resemble a children's choir to sampling the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

The end result is a cyborgian blend of pop expressiveness, traditional rock bravado and Brian Wilson-style beautiful weirdness. The snake-dance-inspiring rhythms that bring Rose's libido to life occasionally dominate, as do the romantic piano runs that represent his heart. Neither overcomes the other, and sometimes both collide in the same song.

Playing the reference game with "Chinese Democracy" is a thankless task. Individual songs could be compared to everything from Queen (Rose claims that influence, though he disposed of a guitar solo Brian May gave him for one song) to My Chemical Romance, Heart, Wings, Korn, Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Bowie in his Berlin phase, U2 after "Achtung Baby!" and Curtis Mayfield circa "Freddie's Dead." Oh, and to Guns N' Roses, especially the more cracked version of that band behind "Use Your Illusion II." But rarely does a song settle anywhere. It's even difficult to declare the ballads pretty or the rockers simply ferocious.

It's also pointless to dwell too long on individual players besides Rose. Keyboardist Dizzy Reed and bassist Tommy Stinson appear on most tracks; they must have been the most successful at tolerating Rose's megalomania. As for the album's much-touted guitar army: When five different players are featured on one song, individualism becomes impossible, no matter who's soloing. Many early Guns N' Roses songs are structured as literal dialogues between Rose and Slash, with the singer's wild falsetto directly responding to and setting up the guitarist's rococo riffing. "Chinese Democracy" features no such exchanges. The real tension here is internal, and Rose's alone.

It's the same push-pull that defines everything Rose has created, including his assumed name: steely, aggressive hypermasculinity versus lush, feminine openness. Rose's music tells the saga of the mutually abusive relationship between the freight train's axle and the rose it crushes, a potentially poisonous flower that keeps growing back.

This is a central plotline in male-centered heroic tales, and it's key to the music of artists as diverse as Richard Wagner and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. But few artists have committed so strongly to both sides at once. Never mind the tales of childhood abuse and adult violence (often allegedly toward women) that fill out Rose's biography. All of that ugliness is right there in the music, in Rose's primal yowl and marauding metal-punk assaults. And anyone who's heard "November Rain" -- that's all of us -- knows that florid loveliness resides there too.

On "Chinese Democracy," Rose reflects on the cost of making art that fully expresses that dichotomy. This is where we return to "Citizen Kane," another story that plays out the tension between a wounded heart and an iron fist, and to Rose's soul mate Brando, who was also a brute and an aesthete, and who tragically misstepped as often as he triumphed.

Ever the enigma

Could Rose be self-aware enough to genuinely capture this life-defining conflict? He seems to be trying on "Chinese Democracy." But his lyrics, like the songs' musical twists, are hard to parse; their knottiness may be the album's ultimate downfall. It's tough to imagine anyone besides Rose connecting many of these songs to their day-to-day experiences. In "Rhiad and the Bedouins," he seems to be comparing himself to a besieged Middle Eastern state. "Catcher in the Rye" spits at mortality while nodding toward another famously blocked artist, J.D. Salinger, but its last verse devolves into incomprehensibility. "Madagascar," the one in which Rose pairs his voice with Dr. King's, is a sort of civil-rights-era- inspired retelling of Odysseus' journey across a monster-ridden sea.

At least that's what it sounds like to this listener, bringing my own history and imagination into the listening experience. Whether it's intentional or the result of Rose's addled grandiloquence, the strangeness inherent in these songs allows for an old-fashioned rock 'n' roll pleasure: the chance to grasp that album cover (OK, gaze at that image on your MP3 player screen) and make up your own solutions to its mysteries. Whether history declares it a tragedy or a farce, this is one album that's more than a pop exercise. And for that, Axl Rose can finally take a bow.

--Ann Powers

"Chinese Democracy" cover courtesy Geffen Records

Axl Rose photo courtesy Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (152)

Axl Rose could have taken a bow a long time ago. I don't understand you lady. A simple thumbs up or down would have done a better job.

So you want a thumbs up or thumbs down from the reviewer? If so, you truly are a meat-head. Just listen to the damn songs yourself, free on Myspace. This review isn't to tell you to like it or not.

Ann, this review is brilliant. I'm not sure whether i like the album or not and she is expressing the reasons for this, which I connected with immediately. There are many layers and many styles of music mixed in.. let's let this album marinate for a few weeks or months and then see how we feel about.

Learn to write a review. No kidding, just learn how to not be sooo annoying. Where you getting paid for your writing per word, or for quality? Your review was the most ambiguous, boring, and elevated article I have ever read. You completely isolate your readers and only bombard most with words they can't understand.

Whereas Axl Rose can take 16 years to make a record, still keep his record label, after 16 years of having various studios on hold around the clock, and make it work. He’s finally put the record out and already blow everyone away (25 access per second on myspace as NME says). Who else could do that? Nobody.
It is a masterpiece...The man is back and still at the top of his game.

All I'll say, by reading many of the comments, is that, 1) most of you people, typically for these days, have a very small attention span brought on by too much video and texting; and 2) you've forgotten, or never learn how, to read and comprehend. How sad.

some great songs on this album..is it worth waiting 10+ years for,no.Is it better then anything being released at the moment,in my opinion..yes..i think it's not as good as hyped to be..but not as bad as many feared,all in all a success for axl,it's better then the velvet revolver albums..so at least he has that,lol..if he does another album any time soon..i'd like him to pick a suject and stick with it..like appetite for destruction,the world needs another bad ass album like that..we have no rock n roll bands who make the news for shocking us anymore,WE NEED A ROCK N ROLL BAND!!!

WOW. My God that was a horror to endure - THE WORST REVIEW EVER. Lets do a pros and cons thing, shall we?

-Can't tell if she likes the CD.
-Can't tell if she hates the CD.
-Is she talking about GnR or Marlon Brando or Orson Wells?
-Why is she comparing two movies (The Godfather and Citizen Kane) to a rock album?
-These words: hypermasculinity,culminating, veracity, authoritarian, splat, goo, avant-garde, amorphous, precedence, refusenik, auteur, bombastic, Conversely, contrarian, Convolution, apprehend, catharsis, alienating, cyborgian, megalomania, rococo, florid, incomprehensibility, grandiloquence

PROS: Unintentionally came up with several very good band names: "dreams of the rabble", "static-laden ravers", "full-blown desert prophet", "Rose's exile", "cyborgian blend", "potentially poisonous flower", "spits at mortality", "florid loveliness", "fleshly indulgences".

Ok now I've got to go take a shower to get the stench of that review off me - uh sorry, I mean, 'to eradicate the olfactory stimulation emanating from the mental construct of my super-ego that serves as the identity I choose to exhibit".

well i am listening to it now with my brother and i was curious if anyone felt the same as i did as i evaluated the album. the saddest part is that, along with ann here, i can hear other bands influence and by that i mean, "this song sounds like so and so" and i dont hear anything original in this. its not as heavy metal as the past GNR albums have been. i think this album would be tons better if they just didnt call themselves Guns and Roses. unfortunately i think the band name brings on alot of expectations that this new album cant live up to. but it can easily stand on its own.
worth the 11.99 to purchase but dont expect fireworks.

an added note......i see alot of people complaining that they dont understand some words that the reviewer used....


also get a word a day calender.... instead of complaining about someone else's knowledge of the english language, try and educate yourself.

This reviewer, Ann Powers, possibly loves Axl Rose like a mother loves her favorite child's father. Her dainty approach seems to signal a need for Axl to appreciate her ever more than even Best Buy. Circuit City will no doubt anguish in her words while bankrupting her to a sad, rocking heart of stone. Velvet Revolver may fade into Ann's memory, mitigated by enemies of production as Asian diplomats try to piece back together their place in society. Obama might insist she join his Cabinet if only to ensure a visit from Axl Rose to his childrens' birthday parties. Up high above the waves in Malibu sits a turbulent genius rereading her words late into the darkness of thoughts.

So many of these people on here are just inane apes. Because this writer gives the album the care and attention it deserves in her review, because she's read a few books and slings around some allusions, and because she's not wholly a cancerous part of this: "I'll-text-you-if-you-hit-my-facebook-wall-and-twitter-my-knobs" unthinking and vapid youth culture, she gets slayed. What disgusts me are the comments here, not the thoughtful, insightful review. Now I'm off to listen to the album. Do not ask for my review, ask me to show you the wind...

PS The axl (axle) rose pairing is genius and anyone who's looked at the band's logos from '86 or so on knows the agression/beauty trope has always been a well-thought oout play on axl's part...

This was an excellent review, well thought out and not pretentious in the least. What's with the assault on intelligent writing? There is a real problem in this culture with the emulation of ignorance; thus, the pitiful state of affairs in this country. If you have anything to say, especially if you read and think, you are resented and torn-down by insecure morons who revel in their ignorance and perceive anything they haven't thought of or are not wholly familiar with as "pompous." And this is from those who have pronounced their "literacy." Merely being literate is not a prerequisite for license to prounounce that your particular backward and uninformed opinion is legitimate. It's not anyone's fault but your own that you communicate by grunting like cavemen with absolutely no dialogue whatsoever. Nice review on an interesting subject Ann. It did the albumn and situation surrounding its creation justice. Peace

that is the worst album review I have ever read. And, I'm an English professor. Ann Powers writes as if she in an english composition class. She really has to understand who her target audience is and what they are really want. Majority of readers of a rock album want a review. Is it good, bad, so-so? And since this album has been 14 years in the making how does it stand up to the hype? where does it place along Appetite for Destruction, Use Your Illusion? and , how has the sound changed with a new line-up? It isn't until the end of the review does she mention a few songs. Honestly, I don't think she listened to the album because the review is all fluff. Just like most english composition essays. She makes use of big words in order to sound smart and distract the reader. Basically she is saying, "I didn't give it a listen and I was assigned the task of reviewing this album. So, I'm gonna use smoke and mirrors to make everyone think I submitted a review". Ann really missed the mark on this review possibly through no fault of her own. A review of this album demands a thorough listening to early GnR albums in order to understand where Axl has gone with Chinese Democracy. Use Your Illusion was a sign he was moving toward a prog rock sound. And, if anyone else noticed Ann never made use of any musical terminolgy. I wonder if she has any music knowledge or background? She never discusses any particular songs in musical detail.

Those people who try to act like they are so smart calling this a great review, crack me up. That review SUCKED. Ann Powers is definitely is trying to toot her own horn in this review. Its a freakin rock album....not Rachmaninov. Anyway I've only listened to the cd once so far and just from that first listen I have to say I definitely dig it. There's awesome rock riffs in songs like Better and there's also beautiful layers of sound in songs like Catcher In the Rye. Overall I think its great and after 14yrs or however long its been, I'm glad its finally here.

As soon as I finished this review, I thought, "That is the most impressive review I have ever read. What a phenomenal writer!" So I was surprised to see so many reviewers trash it. Igore the whiners, Ann. Fabulous job! Congratulations!

If this review is complicated and hard to pin down, that's because its subject matter is, too. I remember seeing an interview with Axl, many moons ago, before the relase of the UYI albums. He said his goal was to "bury 'Appetite,'" -- and he did. While "Appetite" will forever go down as one of the great rockin' metal albums of all time (the jam session at the end of "Paradise City" is incomprable) it was rather simple -- all energy, little in the way of artisitic substance. UYI clearly aspired to be more, and succeeded in that artistic sense, probing the recesses of Axl's addled mind. (Just listen to "Coma" a few times.) But while its depth made it more interesting, more impressive, it also made UYI less listenable. If you're looking for something fun to crank in the car, you'll choose "Appetite" over "UYI" any time.

I haven't heard "Chinese Democracy" yet, but I suspect it's just the next step along this trajectory -- farther out there, even less like "Appetite," more experimental (for better and for worse) and even more narcissistic (again, for better and for worse).

That said, I just can't imagine "Guns" without Slash. Indeed, I wish Axl had made this a solo album. G n' R was one of the all-time greats, and died way too young due to its own dysfunction. "Chinese Democracy" may be a wonderful album, but it will never be G n' R in anything other than name,

the sad thing is that axl has moved on from the 80s and its seems so many of you people critizinig the reviewer have not.

what axl first and formost is an artist, the role of the reviewer is to speak about the work, the art being reviewed..

it may be beyond the realm of some of your vocabularys. Thnks t the reviewer for your thoughts.. Guys maybe some of you drowned your brains with too much jack daniels listening to sweet child f mine back then.. but face it.. the world has moved on, axl has moved on..

time for you to cut that mullet, that hockey hair and go look at some art, see museums, see the world.. its out there..

nows the time... I wish you luck..

axl did it...

btw.. great album.. bresh of fresh air.. maybe metallica should have waited a few more years before they released one..

I really enjoyed some of the album (Chinese Democracy, Better) but some of it is rubbish that sounds like it was written by an Art teacher for a school play. Slightly pathetic, especially the line "But I ... don't want to do it" in Sorry, which is worth the price of the album on its own for comedy value.
I suspect that a work experience kid was left alone on the afternoon the final mix was to be sent off, and he spent the time getting all his friends into the studio to add as many superfluous tracks to all the songs as they could before the grown ups came back.
What rocks rocks, and the rest is far too padded, in our humble opinions.

Well there still isn't a artist out there that sounds like him! I like the album & how he added some modern elements to the music. Come on now if he came out with another "Welcome to the Jungle we have already heard that!

i thought there were a lot of references in the review as well but i'll give ms. powers some slack. hillburn had big shoes. her ultimate thought that the album is ambitious, worth purchasing, and hard to figure out, all seem right on to me.

It's not a matter of being illiterate or unable to decipher Ann Powers cryptic review. She sounds like someone with a commitment problem! Yes, she evaluated each detail, but with ever so hesitant wording. I agree with everyone that says just tell us if you like it or not. I already heard the album, I was just curious to see what others thought of it. I wasn't looking for a review that was trying to be as dramatic as the album. So are we saying Axl is the one with the ego? Haha, seems like Ann Powers is the drama queen of the century. The album is great by the way, there are moments you feel the classic GNR bleeding through. But that was 17 YEARS AGO, stop expecting bands to release the same album over and over again. Axl's voice shines on this one, my favorite track is 'This I Love'.

The reviewer seems fixated on trying to assert that she's female and has some kind of "issue" with perceived masculinity in a performer.
But she didn't do what she was paid to do.. which is to review the album.
I'll review it for her.
It's a good album. It's not what you'd think a Guns N' Roses album should be.

The songs range from brilliant to "meh".

The brilliant are very well written and performed. What's unsual is how far back in the mix Axl's voice is sometimes. You're dying to hear "that" voice again, and it's buried in the mix in some songs. He's not doing it because his voice has deterioriated, in fact the screams are very much there and when he sings "conventionally" he really can sing. All I can think of is that the distance in time between approaches to the songs brought about the inconsistency. Which brings me to another criticism. Perhaps he should have stuck with Roy Thomas Baker to produce the album and have it presented in a more "organic" completion rather than the pro tools editing endeavour it's turned out to be. The album needed grounding. It's the strength of the good material alone that saves it.

Axl should have abandoned the "industrial" elements that permeate it. The vocal arrangements save the songs from inevitable NIN/Rob Zombie comparisons but they almost date the songs with those elements still present. Similarly, Slash's playing is really missing on the album. As gifted as Robin Fink, Ron Thal and Buckethead are, they don't have the swagger and urgency of Slash's blues based playing. Many songs set up the moment you want to hear Slash's playing...and it never arrives. It's much like Velvet Revolver, you can hear Axl's voice on those songs, but it's still not there.

What Chinese Democracy does is remind the listener of how much better it all would be if the troupe of dysfunctionals actually could get together again.

Chinese Democracy is a good album, perhaps in time one will come back and say it's nothing but Axl's self indulgent ego trip...or that it's a genuinely good album. Right now it's the latter (but with conditions).

Ann-you must be exhausted after this and the Kanye W back to back. To me nothing Axel has done merits comparison to Brando and I suspect Citizen Kane will remain in the firmament long after this album is forgotten. I give him some credit for trying new things but mostly it sounds overcooked and cliched.

Certainly to me the time/money and wait formula on this one is nonsensical. And surely next winter or whenever he tours and doesn't show up and pisses everyone off yet again there will be those who scramble to defend his "genius".

I ain't buying it.

I did love the writing however and glad somebody is actually using more than 30 words of a vocabulary!

The review being what it is, I did finish it...Ann did you or did you not like the bloody album?

I love it...After my 1st listen I was suitably relieved to hear that it still sounds like the next logical step in GnR's musical evolution.

Axl Rose: full-blown desert prophet...Are you freaking kidding me? That's the point when this review went from teetering on the edge of ridiculous to Moe, Larry and Curly land.

Chinese Democracy is a breath of fresh air for today's music. C'mon, the Jonas Bros. are the best we have according to the AMA's. Axl is to be commended on putting out an album that is smart, poetic, angry, all in one. It's true that you don't know what to expect from song to song, but that's the genious of it. Each song is its own entity. Axl's signature is all over this album. It truly is HIS album and Slash, Duff, and the orignal crew should've stuck through Axl's crazy world so that they could've been a part of this masterpiece. This album reveals that Axl was the mastermind behind GNR. Do youself a favor and go out and but it!

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