Monday, November 24, 2008

Initial Review of Chinese Democracy

Alright, I'm ready to weigh in (for the first of what might be several times.)

I think this record is remarkably strong. The most important thing I could say for it is that there is nothing that sounds like it. Not past Guns N' Roses, nor any other rock band for that matter. Now that will disappoint some people who loved their old sound (as I did.) But I'm happy to accept this for what it is. (As if I had a choice.)

The best aspects of the album:

1. Axl's voice. I don't know whether individual tracks were recorded in 1994 or 2007, but he's never sounded better.

2. Axl the arranger/producer. There are a million things going on in each song, and he weaves them together remarkably well. Particularly impressive are the guitar solos-- played by different people and perhaps recorded years apart-- which interweave with one another almost seamlessly. You can clearly hear when the soloist switches, but the transfer is remarkably organic. Actually this award should be shared with the co-producer Caram Costanzo, who it appears took the lead with a lot of the guitar arranging.

3. Axl the arranger/producer continued. As Dr. Kittybrains and Tex Plush have noted, the album is full of dynamics. One of the reasons I keep buying CDs is because their dynamic range is superior to that of mp3 files. And I listen to them on my nice stereo system (I finally bought one) instead of computer speakers. This is a record to be heard in high fidelity; not as an mp3, which cuts dynamics and frequency range.

4. The non-industrial sound of the record. People seemed to fear that this was going to be a techno metal album based on the "Oh My God" single, and the fact that ex-NIN guitarist Robin Finck was all over this. But Robin Finck doesn't sound anything like techno metal. He's totally '70s blues rock. Some critics have compared him to Slash. That's blasphemous. But he does compare favorably with Zakk Wylde. Very similar in fact. (And Oh My God is felicitously not on the album.)

4. The two shredder guitarists are surprisingly tasteful. For the most part, they keep the crazy squealing high-pitched-rockets-going-off thing to a minimum. There is some-- particularly in the Bumblefoot solo on Shackler's Revenge-- but most of it is awesome. Buckethead isn't just a great guitarist; he's genuinely musical. He knows when to cascade through arpeggios and also when to milk a single note. Bumblefoot too. And they also thankfully stay away (mostly) from the whole two-handed tapping thing, which should be banned for all guitarists not named Eddie Van Halen.

Negative Aspects:

1. The intros to the songs. Almost every song has one (some have outtros too) and none of them make the songs better. Some are interesting, like the Queen-style vocal collage at the beginning of Scraped. But most are really gratuitous.

2. The trip-hop beat in If the World. It doesn't work, and the song is too blandly mid-tempo. It wouldn't stand out as much if the whole album weren't mid-tempo.

3. The lack of any classic GN'R-sounding songs. There isn't a single riff on here to rival Welcome to the Jungle or Mr. Brownstone, nor is there any fast-paced punky thing to rival Perfect Crime or Right Next Door to Hell. (Then again, there's nothing remotely approaching the idiocy of My World, the shlubbiness of So Fine, or the third-grade lyrics of Back Off Bitch, Get in the Ring, etc. Come to think of it, there might not be a single curse word on this album.)

4. The "string" and "orchestra" parts. Boring and uninspired. Would sound better without them, or with only mellotron in their place. (Exception: Riad N' the Bedouins)

As for the specific songs, I'd group them into three tiers:

Tier One (classic): Street of Dreams, Riad N' the Bedouins, Better, I.R.S., There Was A Time

Tier Two (great but not classic): Shackler's Revenge, Scraped, Catcher in the Rye, Sorry, Chinese Democracy, Prostitute, Madagascar

Tier Three (would be better if omitted): This I Love, If the World

But again, what stands out most about this record is that it sounds like nothing else out there. It's the death knell of the old Slash/Duff/Izzy GN'R, because it sounds like neither Welcome to the Jungle nor Estranged. And that's okay.

This isn't the band I grew up loving, but I'm totally digging it for what it is. (4.5 stars out of 5.)

14 comments:

Quinapalus said...

Maybe if Kurt Cobain were somehow able to put out a long lost album I'd be able to summon up the enthusiasm for it that you guys are feeling for this. But I do have a copy and much of it is pretty enjoyable.

Drischord, I don't really agree with your tiers, but I think even when the two of us both really like an album we rarely agree on the highlights. I think "Better" and "Riad" are both fine but not my top picks, and I'm really having a hard time getting into "Street of Dreams"...the lyrics to that one (along with Axl's voice and to some degree the melody) are so maudlin and tear-jerky that I can't take it seriously. I'd rather listen to the title track, or even "Shackler's Revenge" than any of those songs. I even kind of like "If the World"...that one is just SO fussy and crammed with orchestration that I find it almost transcendent. My favorite is probably "There Was a Time".

I understand your thought that it should just end on "IRS"...maybe an earlier GnR album would have, but I also think it only makes sense for this overproduced mess (and I don't mean that entirely in a bad way) to end with the orchestrated buildup and long, schmaltzy string-and-piano fade out of "Prostitute". I don't think it could have been any other way.

Alex said...

I...am...totally...confused by how much you guys like this. Before being a dickhead, I'll say that I do think there are some strong melodies and songs on the record. Axl is a good songwriter. However, let's keep in mind that this is a 14 song record that took 15 years to release. Every song should be a solid gold unforgettable rock gem. There should be no tiers when it takes that long to release an album that you've actually been WORKING ON all this time.

1. Not only does this album sound like other things, the things it sounds like are the entire 90s-and- beyond catalogue released on Guitar 9 records. My first thought was "man, this sounds like the free tape I got from the teacher at the 'Night Of The Living Shred' seminar at the guitar camp I went to when I was 15." Which brings me to point 2...

2. Buckethead and Bumblefoot, two of the dumbest named guitarists in the history of people having names, are the nerdiest shredders this side of Blues Saraceno. What's that? You haven't heard of Blues Seraceno? Well you wouldn't have heard of these two either if Axl hadn't put them on this ridiculous geek-fest of an album. If they were musical, you'd be able to hum even ONE section of their solos, which would be humanly impossible because the human voice cannot replicate the sound of 8 fingers tapping through a superlocrian scale. The only good moments they have are where they're aping Slash, who is much better than either of them (though obviously less technically accomplished).

3. Am I totally off base in saying that his layered production sounds like B Side 1993 Nine Inch Nails demos? I feel like I'm listening to the soundtrack to "The Crow" (which I own) the whole time.

4. Axl can't sing, but he could never sing so that doesnt bother me. He does the job more than fine on this record. I mean...he did have FIFTEEN YEARS to get good vocal takes.

Guys. Seriously. Put on "Appetite" or "Use Your Illusion." Put on fucking "Abbey Road." Put on "Thriller" or "Songs In The Key Of Life." Put on "Aja" if you wanna nerd out. "Chinese Democracy" is not a great record by any definition of the word "Great." With that said, I will now go practice my 3 fingered tapping. But rest assured I would NEVER put it into an actual recorded song.

drischord said...

Alex, of course I know who Blues Seraceno is. He was in Poison, remember? I think that consititues a bigger sell-out than Guns N' Roses. At least GN'R was once good.

Blues's gimmick was flannel shirts. Not as stupid as a KFC bucket, I'll grant you, but a gimmick nonetheless.

When I say that the record doesn't sound like anything else out there, I'm not talking specifically about the guitar solos. Sure, they sound like other solos. But then again, every rock solo can be traced back to Jimi Hendrix, and from him to Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, etc.

What I meant is that the songs themselves are one-of-a-kind. There isn't precedent in "the Crow" soundtrack or whatever else, and not in early GN'R.

And mind you, I love the old GN'R. I love it more than this stuff, no question. But that band is dead and gone. Have you heard Velvet Revolver? That band blows except when Slash is soloing. Have you heard Izzy's solo stuff? This record is the best thing that spawned from the ashes of classic Guns N' Roses.

Quinapalus said...

When I wanna nerd out I usually put on the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and sing through it as Judas. That tends to blow my voice out though. Maybe Aja would be a nice alternative!

Alex said...

a) I was exempting you, Dylan, I assumed you'd know any nerdy guitarist I'd throw out there. I was wavering between Blues and Reb Beech and decided the Blues had the cheesier name

b) I actually wasn't referring to the guitar solos, I was referring to the sound of the album. I just don't see it being unique at all. It DOES sound industrial to me, and it DOES sound like an out of date mess. The production is the worst part to me, and it's not because I want everything to sound organic and not because I want it to sound like a classic GnR record. I mean, I like Usher, I have no qualms about digital sounding records. But there is something about the sound of this that is thin and inhuman, and it gets in the way of any of the songs that are actually decent. Production is supposed to aid and enhance a song, and I don't see that being the case here.

c) I guess my main problem stems from your last point: of course this is the best GnR output by any of the members since Use Your Illusion, but that is a LOW bar.
We should judge this as an album on its own, an album that took 15 years to write and record and release. If this were a first time artist you wouldn't give it a second listen. For that matter, if this had taken a reasonable amount of time to produce, my review would have been, "Yeah, it's pretty good. Looking forward to the next one." But since I'm sure there won't be a next one, I'm more inclined to be a little harder on that dickhead.

With that said, if you want some real music, check out this blazing shirtless performance of Prince's "Purple Rain" by everybody's favorite lawyer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp71CqKcgaE

Eric said...

Please do not check that out. (Also, in case it wasn't clear, Alex is none other than my lil' brudder-- personally, i can take or leave Guns n Roses (new or old) outside of a few singles, but I asking him his thoughts on Chinese D since everyone on here was having a nerdgasm over it (in the best way, mind you-- I don't remember the last time I was that purely excited for a new release). He offered a sharply dissenting view so I told him to come on and comment. So, sadly, our readership is still comprised of us, our immediate families, and the google alerts for "JellyNYC" and "Joanna Newsom."

Via Chicago said...

So do you judge it as an album on its own otr as an album that took 15 years to make, because those are two different things.

I don't see any reason to hold it to either a higher standard because it took so long or a lower standard because Velvet Revolver sucks. As an album, alone by itself, I quite like it.

I always find the "Axl can't sing" discussion to be stupid. Axl has a distinct voice - you either like it or you don't. If you don't, you're probably no fan of GnR (and understandably - I find that when I don't like the singer's voice, it's almost impossible to get into the music, right Joanna Newsom?). But to me, debating whether he "can sing" like there's some sort of empirically correct way to sing smacks of music school snobbery. You know who else "can't sing"? Bob Dylan. That's right, I compared Axl to Bob Dylan.

Anyway, I'm fascinated that both Drischord and I have very positive things to say, and yet we differ wildly on the album's strengths. I really am no fan of Riad, and for my money, it's the end of the disc that really sells it for me. I love the outro on Prostitute - yes it's overkill and yes it's shmaltzy, but as an end to a suitably epic album by a suitably epic band, it's pretty grandiose. Certainly beats the pants off Coma and My World for album enders.

As for This I Love - well, I can see hating it, I really can. But I quite dig it. Makes me think of Queen at their most overly Freddie Mercury-as-crooner level. But that's a side I always liked about Queen, and about GnR, even if they never displatyed it quite as prominently as they do here. Really of those last 3, Madagascar is the only one I'm not 100% sold on just yet. Had it ended on IRS I think it would have felt very slight and like a let down.

At least we can agree that If The World stinks.

As for the guitarists - no, there's certainly no riff that is as memorable or as melodic as Slash's finest moments, but then I think Slash is pretty amazing at making melodies in his solos. Rather than try to out-Slash him, the guitars here go for something else - either a crazed, manic sound (Shakler's Revenge) or a sonic building blast (There was a Time). I'm not yet fully in tune with who does what solo, but I believe the solos I like on the album tend to be Finck more often than not, as he's the one who keeps things firmly planted in the realm of soaring rock - and since that's the realm Axl operates in, it's a good pair.

Quinapalus said...

I do not agree that If the World stinks

drischord said...

1. Regarding the guitarists: The best one is Buckethead because he can do both the lightning shredder thing (I.R.S.) and also the wailing blues (Sorry being a good example).

2. Alex, I definitely disagree with you on Axl's voice. And I will extend some leeway to you because you actually sing for a living now. But, Axl can definitely sing. It isn't the most pleasant sounding voice, but have you ever tried to sing the notes he hits? The man's range is incredible. The timbre is certainly an acquired taste. And it's true that he had literally years to record some of these. Now I do know from reading everything I can about this band that none of the vocals were recorded before 2001. Admittedly, that's still 7 years ago, but the point is that he can still sing into his 40s.

What's strange about rock music is the way that most singers' voices totally collapse around middle age. (See Daltrey, Roger and Townshend, Pete. Actually just take my word for it on Townshend. He sounds like a strangled goat.) But not every rocker loses his voice. John Fogerty sounds amazing to this day.

And in classical music, voices don't traditionally peak until performers are in their sixties. Sometimes even later.

Point is, if you train properly and take care of your voice, it gets better with time, not worse. Now Axl makes Kurt Cobain sound like Perry Como. But I've also heard that he trains his voice in a very traditional way, and perhaps he's improved with time. (Except when he's running around on stage and gets all winded, as he purportedly did when GN'R first returned to touring.)

3. I wouldn't say that If the World outright stinks, but it's the worst cut on this album.

4. Via Chicago, I disagree on Coma. That is one of the best album closers ever. If you're going to by melodramatic and myopic like Axl Rose is, then that's the way to do it. Prostitute is in that vein, but not as good. That's one area where this record really misses Slash. He's a very emotional soloist, and Coma is a great example of that.

5. I don't think that I.R.S. would be a good album closer. But the problem is that the 3 songs following it are clearly inferior.

6. I hear as much of a grunge influence as I do an industrial one. The title track is the best example, but I.R.S. has a real grungy guitar sound/chord progression as well. Axl sounds a little like Layne Staley on both of those.

7. I can't really think about how long it took this album to come out because I never really suffered without it over the past 17 years. I discovered so much great music over that time and the first 3 GN'R records have aged so well, that I feel we've all been doing just fine. The fact that this album even came out is enough for me right now.

drischord said...

To clarify on the singing point, Alex, I should rephrase that to say you sing professionally and I definitely do not. What I wrote could be construed as patronizing, and I definitely didn't mean it that way.

And yet I'll still defend Axl's vocal abilities-- range and intonation more than timbre.

Alex said...

Bob Dylan may not be able to sing, but he also released quality albums once a year for over a decade (and I'm not even a huge Bob Dylan fan by any means). By saying Axl can't sing, I was mostly just saying that his voice has never been the reason I like Guns N Roses (which, for the record, I DO like Guns N Roses), much in the same way that Bob Dylan's voice has never been the reason I like Bob Dylan. Axl has insane range, but so does David Lee Roth, and I don't like either of their voices. I am not viewing this from the standpoint of a singer, I don't really consider myself a singer, I'm just the guy who sings in my band. Aaaaalls I'm saying is that Axl's voice has never been what's hooked me on GnR, even on their older albums, so the quality of his voice is irrelevant to whether I like this one or not.

As for the guitarists, I guess I give up on this argument because it's clear we won't agree. So let's get together celebrate this fact: thanks to this album, more people will own a record that incorporates tapping and sweep picking than anybody has since Kurt Cobain made it lame. Today, probably millions of people are listening to a record in which a man wearing a KFC bucket on his head uses not one, not 2, not 3, but up to FOUR fingers on his right hand to tap out guitar solos. For that reason alone, this album is an achievement.

When I said it should be judged as an album on its own that took 15 years to write, I meant we should judge it outside of the fact that it's Guns N Roses. If you still like it, then I guess that's your call. I think as an album it's decent. As an album that took this long, it's mediocre. As a Guns N Roses album that took this long, it's bad. Even if the only other notable achievement by a GnR member this year is that Steven Adler is on "Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab," I still think this record just isn't that good.

texplush said...

If The World is awesome. Give it time, boys. Give it time....The tracks i'm having trouble with are Scraping and Sorry.

Alex, why should I "judge this album outside of the fact that it's Guns N' Roses"?
That's the reason I bought it, after all - not because I was in the mood for a hot new metal-pop album.

Some of my favorite listens to this day are the very flawed late albums of classic bands, like Led Zep and The Band.
I love hearing how rock bands get inside their own heads and fuck up their legacies. And yet, always buried somewhere in the sludge is a forgotten masterpiece, which I inevitably end up enjoying more than the classic cuts.

Why listen to 'The Weight' for the billionth time when you can listen to 'Where Do We Go From Here?'from Cahoots? It's more beautiful for it's flaws.

It's the same reason why I'm spinning 'Scentless Apprentice' rather than 'Teen Spirit'.

I have a feeling that if you let yourself hear this record in the context of "GN'R fan" (which you claim to be), instead of "professional musician standing up for objective standards and good taste" you would be having as much fun as the rest of us.
Or, AH HA!! maybe you're just not a fan. Frankly, if you don't like Axl's voice, I can't comprehend how you could be. And don't play that "I only dig the classic shit" stuff, because you already copped to liking UYI, and CD is like that albums crazy and more interesting stepchild.
in your face!

Quinapalus said...

"Catcher in the Rye" is also growing on me. "If I thought that I was crazy, then I guess I'd have more fun."

Tex, I disagree with the implication that In Utero is a very flawed, late album. I've always thought it represented Nirvana's peak...at least I'm personally much more likely to pull it off the shelf over Nevermind when I'm in the mood for some Nirvana nostalgia.

I miss the comfort in being sad...sad about the short shrift In Utero gets.

texplush said...

You're right- I prefer Utero as well, and not in the way described in my earlier post. I was making the jump from flawed albums to flawed tracks with nary an explanation....