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Chinese Democracy

Geffen (2008)
Rating: 9/10

We have all heard the rhetoric. Axl Rose is the sole original member. The album cost 13 million US dollars to make. The album took more than a dozen years to complete. The band has imploded. This is an Axl Rose solo album. And so on. So let’s focus on what most people said this album wouldn’t be. They said it wouldn’t sound like a band. They said it wouldn’t even be good. They said it would never be released. They said Axl’s voice was shot. They said it couldn’t possibly sound like Guns N’ Roses, let alone be worthy of the name. But they were wrong.

Given the seemingly insurmountable weight leaning against him, Axl Rose has released his highly anticipated debut of what was and is the new line-up of Guns N’ Roses. Chinese Democracy features multiple line-ups of the band and the result is an album that puts everything released in the last decade, except Metallica’s Death Magnetic (2008), to shame in both production and songwriting. Not only does Chinese Democracy sound modern and relevant, it sounds timeless.

Opening with a trio of powerful songs in the title track, ‘Shackler’s Revenge’ and ‘Better’, we are reintroduced to the name of Guns N’ Roses and reminded why they are often referred to as “Guns N’ Fuckin’ Roses”. During the title track Rose boldly declares that “All I’ve got is precious time”, jabbing at the critics and the label, both of whom have reportedly tried numerous times to push him into releasing something he deemed unworthy of the name. ‘Shackler’s Revenge’ has a complicated sound to it and a number of electronic elements (that also appear sporadically throughout the album) lace it before each explosive chorus. Rounding out the trio, ‘Better’ is likely the best song on the album. With an incredibly catchy and melodic guitar hook, it is led forward by Rose’s best vocal work to date, with the only possible exception being ‘Patience’ (from 1988’s G N’ R Lies). ‘Better’ has hit written all over it and while it’s a little light when compared to Guns N’ Roses’ early work, it’s completely in line with the Use Your Illusion (1991) albums.

‘Riad N’ The Bedouins’ is another one of the rock songs that reminds me of the aforementioned albums, with its attacking vocal and tremendously aggressive wall of guitars and rhythm pieces. It’s topped off by the album’s defining lyric as Rose shoves it back on his critics, declaring “Riad N’ the Bedouins had a plan and thought they’d win / But I don’t give a fuck about them because I am crazy”.

Also akin to the Use Your Illusion albums is the more epic side of Chinese Democracy. While it can certainly be argued that this album is ballad heavy, a closer look into the band’s past reveals that this has always been the case and shouldn’t be the surprise that it seems to be. A number of epic power ballads are included here including ‘Street Of Dreams’ (formerly known as ‘The Blues’) and ‘Madagascar’, both of which the band has been playing live for years. Oddly, I find these songs to also be the two weakest links in an otherwise outstanding album. The heavy and scornful ‘Sorry’ is a blistering piece of work, ballad or not. Likewise, ‘If The World’ is set apart from the pack by its hip hop beat undertones, but once it surrounds you it’s very hard to dislike. The more upbeat ‘Catcher In The Rye’ lies somewhere between the radio friendly ‘Better’ and the moments of balladry but, again, comes to fruition rather quickly and is entirely unforgettable.

So, the verdict is in and Chinese Democracy not only exists, it’s none of the things most people said it would be. As a matter of fact, the most striking thing about this long-awaited album is that it sounds like a cohesive band making an extremely cohesive album. Despite the fact that the album’s recording sessions span at least a decade and it was recorded by nearly three line-ups worth of amazing musicians, it sounds like a band. As a matter of fact, it sounds like Guns N’ Roses. Axl wins.

Mark Fisher

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