[See also: Chuck Klosterman's review for Spin. I myself remain on the fence about whether to actually listen to this thing fully.]
“Shackler’s Revenge” represents the worst of ‘Chinese Democracy’, a techno-industrial-metal mess (not all that different from the atrocious “Oh My God” released 10 years ago as part of the soundtrack to some Ah-nuld movie that I’ve since forgotten) that attempts to cram in every movement or influence on the past 14 years of rock/metal/ pop music into a single track. Axl tries the same trick on the rest of the album but (you’re never going to believe this), with the exception of a couple of tracks, it actually WORKS! The end result is probably one of the most interesting and unique albums that I have heard in years.
At some point during the recording of the ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums, for Axl at least, Guns N’ Roses stopped being about a group of sunset strip street urchins crawling out of the gutter to play amped-up Rolling Stone’s style blues-rock inflected with a heaping helping of punk rock attitude, and became about something much bigger. It was more than a band; it was a concept. The blue-based rock was still there but songs like “November Rain”, “Estranged”, “Locomotive”, “The Garden” and “Coma” (of which Axl was the sole or principal songwriter) took on an epic more conceptual quality and took us into the heart of their author’s twisted psyche. In fact, the ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ approach to the ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums can now be seen as a sort of house cleaning; a way of expunging the old G N’R by recording every song in their old repertoire in order to clear the decks for the new direction he was planning on taking the band (even the ‘Spaghetti Incident’ was made up of cover songs recorded during these recording sessions that, once again, had been a part of the band’s onstage set list for years).
It is unfair to compare the Guns N’ Roses heard here with the band from ‘Appetite For Destruction’… that being said, this album actually manages to sound a lot more like Guns N’ Roses than Velvet Revolver did. Sure, Slash had a pretty distinct style but, I realized, that wasn’t the only unique part of the G N’R sound; it was the LAYERING of guitar upon guitar that created one of the biggest guitar sounds in rock: ‘Chinese Democracy’ has guitars ‘a plenty… guitar upon guitar upon guitar … upon guitar … and yes, I’ll say it once more… upon guitar are woven into songs throughout the album and, in fact, most songs credit no less than FIVE different guitarist. Sure, we all would have liked to hear Slash but Axl gives us, not one, but three, count ‘em three, lead guitarists to replace him: Robin Finck is a studio-pro who is more than capable of producing whatever sounds Axl’s heart may desire (more often than not this is a pretty decent Slash imitation) while Buckethead and “Bumblefoot” (I’m not kidding on that one; apparently at least part of Axl’s vision for the band requires upholding the tradition of guitarists with strange names) are both Avant-Guitar technical wizards who not only cam shred like maniacs but also accent the songs with all sorts of interesting beeps and buzzes (rythym guitars are handled by Paul Tobias and Richard Fortus respectively).
The guitars aren’t the only thing layered on the album. While it may not have been the mess that most of us were expecting it to be, it definitely sounds like it took 14 years to record. Indeed, Rose has crafted a veritable Rock symphony with layer upon layer of guitars, bass, strings, drums, synths, percussion and pretty much everything else you can imagine. To give you an idea, here are the credits for a single track, “There Was A Time”:
Guitars: Axl Rose, Buckethead, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Robin Finck, Paul Tobias, Richard Fortus
Drums: Brain, Frank Ferrer
Piano: Paul Tobias
Bass: Tommy Stinson, Chris Pitman (additional)
Keyboards: Axl Rose, Chris Pitman, Dizzy Reed
Orchestra: Marco Beltrami, Paul Buckmaster
Orchestral Arrangements: Marco Beltrami, Paul Buckmaster, Dizzy Reed, Axl Rose, Chris Pitman
Synth Orcestra: Axl Rose, Christ Pitman, Dizzy Reed
Background vocals: Tommy Stinson, Dizzy Reed, Chris Pitman
Mellotron: Chris Pitman
Drum Programming: Chris Pitman
Choir and Additional Horn Arrangements: Axl Rose and Susan Katayama
Sub-bass: Chris Pitman
Guitar Solos: Robin Finck, Buckethead
Vocals: Axl Rose
Arrangement: Rose, Costanzo, Caudieux, Beaven
Drum Arrangement: Josh Freeman, Costanzo, Caudieux, Beaven, Brain, Axl Rose.
Digital Editing: Rose, Costanzon, Caudieux, Beaven, Billy Howerdel
Every detail on the album has been fine tuned to the point of ridiculousness, one credit on the album actually tells us that Robin Finck’s guitar solos on “Street Of Dreams”, “There Was A Time” and “IRS” were “initially produced by Sean Beaven, engineered by Critter, re-amped, edited and engineered by Caram Costanzon.” And, then, there’s my personal favorite credit on the album: “Additonal Demo Preproduction on ‘Madagascar’” Additional demo preproduction!?! What does that even mean?
This could very easily have the effect of too many chefs spoiling the stew and, granted, it is a pretty busy sounding album but, overall, the result is the kind of multi-layered and nuanced album that you can listen to over and over and always come out hearing something new. And Rose does this on EVERY track, while the end result of this may be less pleasing in some cases than others, it is clear that, for Axl, none of the songs on this album were intended to be throwaways or filler; he has treated each track as though it were a masterpiece.
As for that other distinctive component of the G N’ R sound, Axl’s voice, it is in as good shape as it ever was. There are hints here and there of its aging but he still has the range and, remarkably, a much greater control over his lower register (as is displayed beautifully on the song “Sorry”).
As for the songs themselves, they run the gamut of a variety of styles and influences. The title track is the closest thing to the old Guns N’ Roses and, while I initially dismissed it as being unremarkable a couple of weeks back, after a few further listenings, It’s actually a pretty solid tune. Oddly, when Axl goes heavier, on songs like the aforementioned “Shackler’s Revenge” and “Scraped” the results are far less interesting than anything else on the album. Of the ‘heavy songs’, only “Riad N’ The Bedouins”, which seems to be an attempt (and a fairly successful one at that) to reinvent Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for the 21st century, can be counted among the albums strongest moments.
The other songs can hardly be described as ‘ballads’ at least not in the classical ‘power ballad’ sense of the term. It’s hard to categorize exactly what they are: “Madagascar” is a classic Axl epic in the vein of “Estranged” and “November Rain”, “Better” combines elements of hip-hop and R & B with power pop, “Catcher In The Eye” sounds like early Queen (Rose is known to be a huge fan and, in fact, Brian May was reported to have played lead guitar on an early version of the song) “Street of Dreams” has a certain “Beatle-esque” feel to it as does the lovely “If the World” which also combines trip-hop and funk with flamenco guitar… Does your head hurt yet?
One can easily see how big of a mess this album could be but, to their credit, Mr. Rose and company manage to give the whole album a sense of coherence and unity. None of the songs feel out of place or better suited for another album. In fact, the arrangements and merging of musical styles are so odd that I can’t really think of any other album where they could possibly feel at home.
The lyrics are no less than what you’d expect from Rose; at times arrogant (“Scraped”), nihilistic (“Chinese Democracy”) or belligerent (“Sorry” where he states “I’ll kick your ass like I said I Would” which might be my favorite song lyric so far this year) but, also, sensitive (“Better”, “This I Love”) and always more than willing to pull us into the psychodrama raging inside his head. Much of said psychodrama can be tied in with Axl’s love-hate relationships with the women in his life. In “There Was A Time” he sings “There was a time that I would do anything for you” in the songs closing refrain but when he resentfully croons “and now you’re sleeping like an Angel, never mind who gave you head” we can assume that time has passed (the acronym that the songs title forms is also another pretty big hint).
One thing you can give Axl credit for: he certainly gives credit where credit is due. He does see the current band as a band and, not only does he credit their instrumental contributions, but many members of the band also have songwriting/arranging credits as well (Paul Tobias, Chris Pitman and ‘Brain’ Mantia seem to be among his most crucial collaborators).
In the album’s climactic masterpiece, “Madagascar”, Rose sings “Oh no, I won’t be told anymore, that I’ve been brought down in this storm and left so far out from the shore that I can’t find my way back, my way anymore.” It would seem as though Axl has finally, at long last, found his way back to the shore (whether or not he will actually, consistently show up to his performances so that this new incarnation of the band can remain a viable entity is something that remains to be seen) and with Chinese Democracy, Axl attempted to create the ultimate, epic rock masterpiece. I’m not necessarily sure that he was entirely successful but it is a noble effort nonetheless. And now for that free Dr. Pepper…