Chinese Democracy: The MetalSucks Review
HOLY FUCKING SHIT, have you guys read the liner notes for this fucking thing? “Produced by Axl Rose and Caram Costanzo. Mixed by Andy Wallace, Caram Costanzo and Axl Rose. Final Mixing: Caram Costanzo and Axl Rose.” “Additional production and preproduction by Roy Thomas Baker.” “Additional Production: Sean Beaven.” “Additional and/or initial Engineering.” Those are just the whole album credits. Each song gets its own “initial production” credit, too, and, in one instance, an “initial arrangement by” shout out. The phrase “reamped, edited and engineered” appears at least twice. Fourteen recording studios are listed, spread out over four cities on two continents. There’s no fewer than five guitarists (six if you count Rose himself), two keyboard players (three if you count Rose), two drummers, and two composer/orchestrators cited (The fact that only one bass player, Tommy Stinson consistently plays on the album seems like something of a marvel… oh, wait, that Chris Pitman dude everyone calls “Mother Goose” for some reason plays bass on “If the World.” Nevvvvvvermind.). Donatella Versace, Kid Rock, Lars Ulrich, and Mickey Rourke are all thanked, alongside guys with names like “Mookie” and “Worm.” THERE’S A CREDIT FOR “LOGIC.” I DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND WHAT THE FUCK THAT MEANS. IS THERE A COMPUTER PROGRAM CALLED “LOGIC” OR ARE PEOPLE ACTUALLY BEING CREDITED WITH SUPPLYING SOME LOGIC????????
I’m not making this shit up. I couldn’t make this shit up. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during the recording of Chinese Democracy! It must have made the production of Apocalypse Now seem like a long weekend on Fire Island.
But here’s the thing: as incredibly, insanely, undeniably fascinating as all that shit is, it really has nothing to with any critical analysis of the album.
Truth is, none of us know if what we’re listening to at any given moment is take one or take one-hundred, or if it was recorded ten years ago or ten weeks ago. So what we know (or think we know) about Axl Rose and the creation of this record should really have nothing to do with one’s own personal enjoyment (or lack thereof) of Chinese Democracy.
Besides, Axl answers all of your questions in his lyrics. “Sometimes I feel like the world is on top of me/Breaking me down with an endless monotony,” Rose shrieks on “Scraped” – but just a verse later, the dude is back on top of the world again: “Sometimes I feel like there’s nothing that’s stopping me/ All things are possible/ I am unstoppable.” So now we know what took so long: the poor guy is manic depressive. Why did the old band break up? “Ask yourself why I would choose/To prostitute myself?/To live with fortune and shame?” Rose asks rhetorically on “Prostitute.” So, there you have it. Artistic differences.
OF COURSE Chinese Democracy is overproduced. Guns N’ Roses has always been, to varying extremes, overproduced, a band that melded different styles through layers and layers of sound. It would take at least three guitar players and two full-grown Axl clones to do any kind of faithful live recreation of Appetite for Destruction, and who knows how many more for Use Your Illusion. A chorus of Axls and army of guitars is nothing new for GN’R. The fact that this album suffers from the same “let’s try everything all at once” mentality as UYI should shock absolutely no one – and it’s safe bet that if you hated the Illusion records, you’ll hate this. But some insanely talented musicians play on this record (Buckethead, Tommy Stinson, Bryan “Brain” Mantia, Robin Finck, and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, to name but a few of the members of this most under-appreciated of super groups) and each and every one is playing something different. If ever Axl was gonna ditch the GN’R moniker, he should rename this project “Axl Rose’s Rock N’ Roll Orchestra.” And really, in sensibility if not style, that’s not so different from the GN’R of yore – there’s a lot going on.
Calling the album “busy” is a valid criticism, but it’s also what makes Chinese Democracy worthwhile. Listen to this album with a really good set of earphones and try to pick apart exactly what each and every musician is doing – it’s a stupid amount of fun, precisely because there’s just so much fucking sound, so many different seemingly incompatible styles, all being made by so many cool people. It elevates Chinese Democracy above its own simple pop framework, and rewards multiple listens.
(A special note has to be made about the guitar players on this album: if the thought of Buckethead, Bumblefoot, and Robin Finck all masturbating soloing their asses off, often at the same time, makes you hard a little, you’re gonna love this album. Finck’s playing is soulful and bluesy Slash-type stuff which is especially useful for ballads like “This I Love” and “Catcher in the Rye,” but Buckethead and Bumblefoot seem to have wandered off the soundtrack for a sci-fi movie best viewed on acid. It doesn’t always work, but, by God, when it does… it’s full of stars!)
Sometimes it’s too pretentious for its own good. When, on the otherwise solid epic “Madagascar,” Rose sings “I won’t be told anymore/That I’ve been brought down in this storm/And led so far out from the shore/That I can’t find my way back anymore,” it would seem reasonable for any thinking human being to assume he is, once again, addressing the creation of a new album without his old band. What the fuck does Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or quotes from the films Mississippi Burning and Casualties of War and friggin’ Braveheart have to do with any of that other shit? To equate the struggle to record Chinese Democracy with the civil rights movement or the atrocities of the Vietnam war or Mel Gibson strikes me as being in bad taste at best. It’s like Axl created the audio for a movie trailer, but there’s no movie to go with it.
And, as many have pointed out, there’s absolutely no reason for Axl to sound like the Count from Sesame Street for the lyric “But I don’t want to do it” on otherwise excellent, Sabbath by way of Floyd track “Sorry.” (Also totally fucked: the lyrics in the liner notes. Verses are often missing or mixed up, and in a few places, I’m pretty sure they’re just wrong. I know I said the incredible amount of time taken to make this album is irrelevant to a critical analysis, but after making us wait a decade and a half, no one could have proofread this fucking thing?)
But as my colleague Sammy O’Hagar recently pointed out, Chinese Democracy is light years ahead of 99% of what passes for pop metal these days. Regardless of what you think of Axl Rose as a person or the fact that Slash, Izzy, and Duff are no longer in the band, this is a substantial work made by substantial artists. I don’t know if Chinese Democracy is one of the best albums of the year, but it’s certainly one of my favorites.