Does this PR masterclass need an introduction? Perhaps you, reader, are of a 13 year old vintage yourself and unaware of the epic road to here. Or perhaps you are a recent visitor to shores where Google is not restricted to pre-approved search results. If so, welcome! You may be wondering why the search term ‘Chinese Democracy’ fills page one with hysterical press releases and pictures of a ruddy man with terrible hair.
And so – Guns N’ Roses‘ sixth studio album is finally unleashed on a suspecting public. Thirteen years in the making, 17 since the dual triumph of Use Your Illusion 1 and 2. An umpteenth band line-up, pleasingly featuring someone called Bumblefoot. The conspicuous absence of erstwhile collaborators Duff, Izzy and Slash, whose autobiography singlehandedly made 2008 worth living for me (suggested alternative strapline: Slash! Making heroin addition hilarious since before you were born!). Does it actually matter what it sounds like?
Chinese Democracy fades in on the eponymous track, just-heard Chinese conversation and echoey, distant bass drums, before that sneering guitar lick and the inimitable screech herald in the raucous metal clamour. Axl Rose sounds gruff, muscular, threatening. His trademark falsetto leers in the background but always secondary to a lower, more powerful vocal. So far, so Noughties. But that guitar lick is getting more and more insistent… and lawks! Frantic hammer-ons and frenetic twiddling are back! If today’s club kids can have Kraftwerk and Gary Numan then I definitely get protracted solos and dreams of standing, legs splayed, axe-aloft on a cliff-top.
Shackler’s Revenge comes in with the same menacing growl from Axl, beefed up by a grimly industrial thud as the song’s backbone. The stomping of an imperial army on the march? Or a nod to the self-serious metal monoliths of the ’90s – less hair and more scare, perhaps?
Better begins softer, a bitter ballad to heartbreak. Heavy riffing and lightning guitar licks are just around the corner though, accompanied by simplistic, stick-splitting rock drumming; you can practically feel the sweaty hair whipping against drummer Frank Ferrer’s ripped-denim-clad shoulder. Frank could actually look like an accountant for all we know, but who cares.
Lilting piano introduces Street Of Dreams, a string section murmuring in the backdrop. Bombastic guitar licks flicker in and out, and that screech! Wide angle images of cliff tops are swimming back into focus… except really this could be a Maroon 5 song if it wasn’t for the melodramatic solos and Axl’s throat-shredding holler.
Spanish guitar plucking and a few more strings open If The World. Funky wah wah effects glide smoothly around the vocal, gloriously inhabiting the upper echelons of Axl’s register once more. The guitars ease off a bit for this song, making it a bit sparse and strangely sexy.
There Was A Time swirls in with an angelic child choir and more of those booming, once-upon-a-time drums. More strings flourish as Axl sings, a prompt that we are in heartbreak territory again. “It was a long time for you!” he sings, “It was a long time for me! It was a long time for everyone!” You’re not kidding mate! I reply, but a slow, luxurious solo is crescendoing over those increasingly urgent strings and Axl is screeching again, no, wailing, and all is forgiven, even the Spaghetti Incident.
Catcher In The Rye veers dangerously into Maroon 5 territory again, but things get more rebellious with Scraped, a slab of vintage-sounding GnR, all dirty guitar runs and frantic yelping. Sorry drops us back in bitter ballad land, with some really bizarre enunciation going on. “I’m sorry for you, not sorry for me”, Axl croons, as bowel-rumbling guitars shake the chorus from the song’s torpor.
Space invader noises and an odd thrumming sound kick off Riad N’ The Bedouins, briefly belying that this is Chinese Democracy’s Welcome To The Jungle moment. This is balls-out rock with loads of screaming for the sheer hell of it plus an awe-inspiring example of that ‘mmmmwwuh!’ thing of Axl’s.
I.R.S. is yet another power ballad, with a tremulous little vocal lick of surprisingly tenderness. Madagascar starts with solemn horns and shimmering strings accompanying Axl sounding like veteran croakster Joe Cocker. If it wasn’t for another early ‘mmmmwwuh!’ I might seriously question if it was him. More power ballad posturing, with the melodramatic inclusion of Martin Luther King soundbites. GnR may have “a dream”, but at this juncture it’s sounding like a strings-soaked nightmare.
Skipping on with haste, we find This I Love, earnest piano and a warbling Axl which sounds, honest to god, like an Andrew Lloyd Webber creation. The addition of a cello does not help matters and the standard waily solo sounds utterly superfluous in this turgid schmaltz-fest.
Prostitute finds Axl in a reflective, almost contrite, mood. More strings and a crunchy chorus contribute to a formulaic, ‘quiet bit, louder bit’ rock song. It is odd that something so standard provides the denouement to this album, trying to span over a decade of fan loyalty. Will they buy it? Undoubtedly. Will they like it? Who knows. The next few days will see the internet awash with feedback and opinion. Democracy indeed.