Fourteen years in the making—or more likely, fourteen years in the avoiding—Guns ‘n’ Roses’ new album, Chinese Democracy, will hit the stores this Sunday.
S. T. Karnick critiques the album, track by track, as it has been made available for preview at the band’s MySpace page.
Overall, it’s a good and enjoyable album, but fans who are expecting a classic that justifies a fourteen-year gap since the band’s last studio-produced album will probably be disappointed. Such an expectation, however, is of course rather fatuous, and judging the album on its own merits, it’s a very decent effort.
The opening song, "Chinese Democracy," announces a somewhat newer style for the band, with choppy, industrial-style guitar chording and compressed-sounding vocals from lead singer Axl Rose. It’s an interesting and enjoyable show-opener.
"Shackler’s Revenge" is similar style to "Chinese Democracy" but includes Rose’s usual higher-pitched vocals in addition to lower-register growls. The bridge includes some fancy guitar shredding, but nothing we haven’t heard a good deal of in the past 14 years.
"Better" sounds more like old-fashioned GnR, with Rose’s vocals at the fore, although there is some anachronistic grunge in the arrangement. The guitar solos are enjoyable but very much in the currently conventional metal mode, less blues-oriented than in the group’s early years.
"Street of Dreams" is a ballad featuring piano chords, power chord guitars, orchestral backing, and one of Rose’s exceedingly dramatic, over-the-top vocal performances (think Steve Tyler in even tighter trousers), which may appeal to the fans of the band’s early albums—or may not.
Flamenco guitars and Chapman-stick-like bass guitar open "If the World" with a shuffle beat, and Rose’s expressive, high-pitched vocals preside over an arrangement that soon accumulates power chords in an interestingly odd, uncluttered metal shuffle arrangement with a more blues-oriented guitar solo and then a flamenco-oriented acoustic guitar solo. Thanks to all the eccentricities, the song manages to work very well and is a highlight of the album.
"There Was a Time" also has a shuffle beat and employs mellotron orchestra, but overall it sounds more like conventional GnR than "If the World." The arrangement highlights Rose’s vocals, which are very good on this track, as the other instruments tend to fill in the gaps between vocal lines and stanzas instead of intruding over the singing. Shortly after the halfway point, multitracked vocals increase this emphasis. The guitar solo includes some good use of wahwah pedal and other distorting effects, thus imitating the vocals in another way. The song doesn’t scream of originality, but it is rather affecting.
"Catcher in the Rye" largely recreates the band’s classic sound, with a straightforward rock rhythm, just-right vocals from Rose, some very good piano in the background of the mix, and even some synthesizer passages.
"Scraped" opens with a passage of intertwining a capella vocals reminiscent of Extreme, and the rest of the song sounds a good deal like that very talented band, although of course Rose makes Extreme’s fine vocalist, Gary Cherone, sound quite conservative by comparison. I’m not sure that that’s a good thing, but the song has its charms.
Given the title, "Sorry" naturally returns us to ballad territory, and this one has some unusual touches: more acoustic guitar fills, initial verse vocals influenced by late-1990s hiphop locutions, another very blues-oriented guitar solo (rather good while not being groundbreaking), post-bridge verse vocals sung in an appealingly natural timbre, and rather Metallica-sounding vocal choruses, which is certainly not new to the world but brings a nice bit of additional variety to this particular album.
"Riad and the Bedouins" returns to the sound of the band’s early years, with a noisy, raucous arrangement in the style of "Welcome to the Jungle"—but not, alas, the drama or melodicism of that classic song.
"I.R.S." has a slow shuffle beat and effective vocals by Rose. Power chords drive the chorus and bridge, as the band once again bows to metal conventions but makes them their own. Particularly effective are a couple more-sparsely arranged passages after the 2:00 mark.
"Madagascar" is driven by Rose’s vocals, which I find to be overly dramatic here. The rhythm and synthesizer punctuation in the main verses are reminiscent of "Gangsta’s Paradise," while the choruses are driven by descending melody lines in Rose’s vocals and the bass guitar. A long bridge section includes orchestral backing and excerpts from speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. The whole thing ends up sounding more than a little pretentious, but the musical talent employed compensates fairly adequately.
"This Is Love" is the metal equivalent of Julio Iglesias or Celine Dion, and if that sounds like something you’d like, you’ll probably like it.
"Prostitute" initially sounds a good deal like a David Bowie song, including Rose’s vocals, although of course he sings it in a rather higher timbre than Bowie’s. The use of piano and synthesizers is also notable. Overall, the song is basic metal end-of-album drama, with orchestral accompaniment, another interesting shuffle beat, and some progressive metal rhythms in two bridge sections. Such touches make it more interesting than it would otherwise be, given that the vocal melodies are basically undistinguished.
That seems largely true of the whole album: the interesting touches and arrangements make it more enjoyable than the sometimes uninspired melodies would suggest. Overall, it’s well worth purchasing, if you like this sort of thing.