I remember back in '95 reading an interview with Slash saying, "The new Guns will be out soon, I'm mixing it down, it's raw and heavy, back to basics." And then we all know what happened. Chinese Democracy, over a decade in the making, became both the biggest joke in rock and the most anticipated album of all time. Was it worth the wait? To fans, of course! (The Who have left longer gaps between albums, y'know.) Let's not forget that these 14 songs were just the tip of the iceberg, the 14 that Axl chose to be the next Guns albums. There are reportedly a couple dozen more waiting in the wings.
My first exposure to these songs came in 2001, after the Rock In Rio concert. My favourite song was "The Blues" (now renamed "Street of Dreams") but I loved "Chinese Democracy", "Madagascar" and a track called "Silkworms". Those of us who had heard the songs in advance of the album release were much more likely to enjoy the new GN'R for what it is: Axl attempting to keep the GN'R name going, and stay current. For better or for worse.
No, it does not sound like the blues-based majesty of old GN'R, but yet, it does rock. Hard. Add in some samples, lush ballads and some cool lyrics and we have a modern followup to Use Your Illusions I and II.
I won't sit here and defend Axl's decision to keep going with the name, but I will defend his choice of musicians. Even though the Rock In Rio lineup is already long gone, all those guys contribute to Chinese Democracy. That means you will hear solos by such virtuosos as Buckethead, Robin Finck, and Bumblefoot. You will hear drums by Brain. You will have contributions from everybody. Hell, you will even get one song that dates back to the Slash n' Duff years called "This I Love", another epic ballad. So there is a connection here to the old band. Neither Slash nor Duff are credited with anything on this song, but that is your thread to the old band right there.
This album is chock full of riffage. The title track itself is a monster even if it lacks a real chorus. Axl loads the album full of vocal hooks, piano hooks, guitar hooks -- this album make have more hooks per minute than any other in history, who knows? He certainly had time to come up with them and pack them in.
This is an even more dramatic GN'R than anything before. Some might say over-dramatic. Yet, boiled down, "Street of Dreams", "Madagascar", "Better", these are all emotion-drenched tunes and extremely well written and executed. The production, as expected, is thick and sweet. Maybe too sweet. A tune like "If The World" for example might have been better served with more basic guitar oriented production? Who knows? I'm sure Axl has done a thousand mixes of each of these songs before selecting these final versions.
Highlights: "Better" for its angry, awesome riffage. "Street of Dreams" as the natural successor to "November Rain". The title track for anger and aggression. "Madagascar" as the next "Cival War".
Lowlights: Wasn't much into "Scraped", "If The World", and the overly-techno "Shackler's Revenge". Illusions had filler too, y'know.
Most of all I love the playing. These are some of the best players in the world, bar none. Plus a guy like Tommy Stinson is a rock veteran equivalent to Axl himself, and with these kinds of experienced rockers on board, Chinese Democracy was bound to be impressive. What Chinese Democracy lacks are two things:
1. Real Guns chemistry. Yes, the band toured sporadically, nailing down these songs, but you can tell that the band did not eat, breathe, and live these songs like Axl did. It's in the grooves and you can hear it. Listen to Appetite and you will hear a band that is of one mind.
2. A suitable predecessor. If Guns had even one interim album to bridge the sounds and introduce new members gradually, Chinese Democracy wouldn't sound like such a shock to the old-timer fans. However, it turns out that Chinese Democracy is as close to a bridge as we will get, to even more extreme future Guns sounds.
Stay tuned for the next two albums which Axl says are going further into the techno-direction as previewed with "Silkworms". According to some, there are killer tunes waiting to be unleashed such as "The General" -- whenever Axl feels motivated to finish them.