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Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy: worth the hype?

This year marks the five-year anniversary for Guns N' Roses's controversial comeback album Chinese Democracy. We reappraise the record to see if it's worth all the hype, money and fallen band mates.

Guns N' Roses perform at Yas Island in 2010. Fabien Chareix for The National
Guns N' Roses perform at Yas Island in 2010. Fabien Chareix for The National

This year marks the five-year anniversary for Guns N' Roses's controversial comeback album Chinese Democracy. We reappraise the record to see if it's worth all the hype, money and fallen band mates.

Michael Jabri-Pickett: praise

When a band takes 17 years to release a new album of original material, no one wins. The fans’ expectations are unrealistic and the band’s goals are impossible to realise.

The anticipation on the part of the critics and the record company create a perfect storm for disaster. No one can live up to the hype. If the original Guns N’ Roses line-up were to reform (Izzy Stradlin, Steven Adler, Slash, Duff McKagan and Axl Rose), for instance, the hope on every fan’s part would be an album worthy of a 25-year wait. Decades in the making to produce a classic rock record. The reality, however, is that while the album could be very strong, chances are it would never live up to the hope and promise.

When Axl released Chinese Democracy in 2008 – 17 years after their last original album (1993’s The Spaghetti Incident was a covers album) – he was in a no-win situation. And yet among the 14 tracks on the album, there are at least five that are worthy of being called Guns N’ Roses songs. This is no easy feat considering the level of anticipation – and scepticism – that greeted the material.

Aside from the opening song’s first minute of whispering chatter, the title track is full of as much rage and anger as any song from Appetite for Destruction. The raunchiness of Axl’s voice is as dirty and pure rock ‘n’ roll as it was in 1987, when the band’s debut album was released.

There are other great songs on this album (Street of Dreams, There Was a Time, IRS), but what makes this album stand out is that there are moments of brilliant G N’ R – including the hard parts to Riad N’ the Bedouins, the chorus on Sorry and Axl’s voice on Madagascar – throughout the album’s more than 70 minutes.

What made the old Guns N’ Roses albums so distinctive and what made the songs so strong was that every member of the band added something to every track. There was a collaborative effort to Appetite and G N’ R Lies and Use Your Illusion I and II. While Chinese Democracy has Rose’s voice and his songwriting, as well as his scope and sweeping grandeur, the album does not have four other members fighting for creative input. Instead of the members trying to reach a consensus on what is best for the band, there is just Axl dictating what he wants. The title Chinese Democracy tells as much about the man in control of Guns N’ Roses in 2008 as it does about who is missing from the band. Still, the quality of the album is more than just 20 per cent of a classic G N’ R album. Is it the band’s finest hour? No. But five years after it was released, it is not the band’s worst effort either. Faint praise, perhaps, but when you are being compared with the greatest creative period in the history of the world’s most dangerous band, faint praise is still quite impressive.


Saeed Saeed: disappointment

Guns N’ Roses’ fabled sixth album wasn’t a flop because fans lost patience with the false starts, jettisoned band members and even the failed Dr Pepper promotion campaign.

Instead it was due to the band – well, really Axl Rose as the remaining sole member – losing touch with what made the Gunners essential in the first place.

Formed in the sleaze of seedy bars in Los Angeles, Guns N’ Roses wore their sense of desperation like a crown.

It not only allowed the media to dub them “the most dangerous band in the world”, it resulted in perfectly realised rockers and -ballads.

From Axl’s vocals, which effortlessly skipped from snarl to soulful, to the guitarist Slash’s cutting leads and Duff McKagan’s menacing bass grooves, Guns N’ Roses managed to capture the moment more than once as each album and live show was treated as a final testament. Hence the non-stop touring and release of five stellar albums in seven years, including the staggering Use Your Illusion I and II in 1991.

The long gestation of Chinese Democracy undid the band as we know it.

Where the classic albums were vessels to unleash pent-up aggression, Axl instead elected to go on an aimless musical safari.

The final tally is the loss of at least three band members, recording in 14 Los Angeles studios and a US$13 million (Dh48m) blowout production budget that would have bankrupted most mid-level record labels long before the downloaders arrived.

The result is a series of forced genre-hopping exercises all pointing to a band in existential crisis.

The long-awaited lead single Shackler’s Revenge arrived like a lead balloon.

Where the Gunners’ guitar attack was renowned for being razor-sharp, the track’s lumbering industrial rock riffs sounded horribly dated.

Axl’s whiplash whine is only unleashed mid-track after two verses of low-register crooning that resembled a comatose Scott Weiland.

Axl does perk up in Better, but the goodwill is squandered by turgid production, sucking out all the venom.

The promise of the piano-led Street of Dreams is unfulfilled, with Axl once again cocooning himself in that unfavourable low register.

Axl’s lyric of “I don’t know what I should do” is the album’s most honest moment.

Frustratingly, things pick up in the last quarter, with the slightly bonkers Scraped and the driving Riad N’ The Bedouins being the album’s most anthemic moments.

However, all hopes of a late revival are well and truly crushed by the disastrous monolith that is Madagascar. This unpalatable cocktail of R&B, nu-metal riffs and anti-war references is enough to make a person raise the white flag and retreat for a lie-down.

It’s a sickening feeling for a fan to realise a much-loved band disappeared down the rabbit hole.

Then again, at least Axl created another album to be remembered – this time more of a cautionary tale than a triumph.

Guns N’ Roses play at du Arena on Yas Island on Thursday. Doors open at 7.30pm. Tickets start at Dh250 from www.thinkflash.ae or 800 FLASH (35274)


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