Guns N’ Roses’ new album, “Chinese Democracy,” took Axl Rose and dozens of musicians and producers an estimated $11 million and 13 years to complete.
It wasn’t worth it. That probably goes without saying - especially since this particular album contributed to the downfall of Geffen Records, the layoff of hundreds of workers and the high-profile exits of numerous band members, producers and music execs.
Nevertheless, all that would likely have been forgiven if “Chinese Democracy” turned out to be a great album, if it even came close to matching the legendary brilliance of “Appetite for Destruction.” It doesn’t.
“Chinese Democracy” is a good effort and it would have seemed even better if it came out in a decent amount of time, say, you know, a decade ago. The hard-hitting title track is potent, but whatever shock value it may have had has been diminished by what has come in the meantime, with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor perfecting that industrial snarl years ago and System of a Down dominating virtuoso metal guitar solos for at least two albums now. “Better” is a stronger song, maybe the album’s best chance for a radio hit with its grand hook and Rose’s impassioned vocals, but even that sounds a little retro.
Sometimes, it sounds like Rose knows he went too far with this album. “It was a long time for you, it was a long time for me,” he sings in the overstuffed “There Was a Time,” with its choirs and elaborate strings parts. “It’d be a long time for anyone, but looks like it’s meant to be.”
In many ways, “Chinese Democracy” plays merely as the follow-up to “Use Your Illusion I & II,” which arrived in 1991 and signaled the broader artistic ambitions of the band. If “Appetite for Destruction’s” “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” were all about rage and swagger, and “Use Your Illusion’s” “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain” were about crafting songs that were bigger than life, “Chinese Democracy” shows what happens when it becomes more about craft than emotion.
Tales of Rose’s quest for perfection came from many of his collaborators, of how he would record songs repeatedly to get just the right sound. He must have agonized over the way the electric guitars fade out on the surprisingly funky “If the World,” leaving only flamenco picking and piano tinkling. It’s a nice effect, but the effort would have been better used to smooth out the vocals.
That “Chinese Democracy” came out at all is a monument to Rose’s artistic vision and his belief in himself. But all its excesses and its occasional lack of focus also serve as a testament to the kind of ridiculous spending and star-coddling that led to the music industry’s current sales-dropping predicament. All along the line, this project would have benefited from someone telling Rose “no,” but any check on him came too late.
The once-mighty Guns N’ Roses fan base has been worn down by false starts, combined with long waits and erratic behavior. Maybe some fans will eventually come to appreciate “Chinese Democracy” - maybe the power of “Better” or the edge of “Madagascar” - but they will first have to face the feeling of “Was this worth all of that?” Unfortunately for Rose, the answer will almost always be “no.”
GUNS N’ ROSES “Chinese Democracy” (Black Frog/Geffen)
BOTTOM LINE: Either a major letdown or way better than expected - you choose.
A 14-YEAR STRUGGLE FOR ‘DEMOCRACY’
1994 - Following the tour supporting “The Spaghetti Incident,” Guns N’ Roses begins work on the follow-up to its 1991 studio albums “Use Your Illusion I & II.” Rose fires guitarist Gilby Clarke.
1996 - Slash leaves the band after Rose rejects his songs and starts putting more faith in new guitarist Paul Huge.
1997 - Bassist Duff McKagan quits, replaced eventually by Tommy Stinson, formerly of The Replacements.
1998 - Drummer Matt Sorum is fired, replaced by Robin Finck, formerly of Nine Inch Nails; Youth becomes album producer.
1999 - Guns N’ Roses releases “Oh My God” on the soundtrack to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “End of Days.” It was slated to be the first single from “Chinese Democracy,” which was expected to be released in early 2000.
2000 - Rose hires Buckethead, so named for wearing a KFC bucket on his head, as guitarist.
August 2002 - Rose makes surprise appearance at MTV Video Music Awards, setting stage for first “Chinese Democracy” tour.
December 2002 - Halfway through the “Chinese Democracy” tour, Rose fails to show up for a Philadelphia show and remaining dates get scrapped.
2004 - Geffen stops funding the album, after an estimated $11 million; Buckethead leaves the band, eventually replaced by Bumblefoot.
May 2006 - Rose calls into Eddie Trunk’s radio show to say: “It will be out this year.”
December 2006 - Rose releases a statement, announcing a tentative release date of March 2007, adding, “To say the making of this album has been an unbearably long and incomprehensible journey would be an understatement.”
June 2006 - After a show in Stockholm, Rose scuffles with a security guard and bites him on the leg and is taken to jail.
March 2007 - Release date? Um, no.
March 2008 - Dr Pepper offers free soda to every American, except Buckethead, if CD is released.
Nov. 23, 2008 - “Chinese Democracy” is scheduled to be released at Best Buy stores.
// Notes from the Road
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