Saturday, November 29, 2008

Is Chinese Democracy the Heaven's Gate of our Generation?

When Guns N' Roses began recording the follow-up to the immensely successful Use Your Illusion double album they were the most successful band on the planet. Fast forward 15 years later and we find GNR in a much different place. Axl Rose's megalomania managed to alienate all his original bandmates to the point that most of them never want to speak to him again, while the past 15 years has seen a revolving door of additions and departures from the band that it's difficult to keep track of any members besides Axl. Of course, Axl probably prefers things this way since it forces fans to view GNR as his own personal creative vehicle, with all of its successes and praise being attributed to himself. So, after all these years is the release of Chinese Democracy the moment of vindication that Rose was hoping for? The short answer is a resounding no, but (as always with Axl Rose) the explanation deserves more detail than one measly word.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was never a Guns N' Roses fan. I don't say this as a way to argue that GNR was never any good to begin with, because I actually like some of their old stuff ("Estranged" and "Yesterdays" for example), but rather as a way of arguing that they were terribly overrated musically. Their music was nothing more than hard rock/metal-ish energy merged with blues influences and sappy power ballads. Nothing more and nothing less. There's nothing wrong with this formula, and it works very well at times, but let's not make it sound like GNR were the Led Zeppelin of the 1990's, that's all I'm saying.

So why the hell am I reviewing an album from a band I don't particularly like to begin with? For one, the story of how Chinese Democracy was made (15 years, $13 million, numerous producers and band members, and countless delays) is infinitely more compelling than the music itself. Axl Rose has managed to be such a polarizing figure that it's easy to dismiss this album as a giant flop before hearing one song, but what if it actually ended up being the masterpiece that he wanted it to be? I just had to know where all that time, effort and money went, so I downloaded a copy and did my best to keep an open mind through the entire album.

It's very hard to understand what the hell Axl Rose was trying to accomplish in all of these songs. Frequently the arrangements are so convoluted and overwrought that they collapse under their own weight, while at other times there are brief moments when everything sounds focused and the results are (somewhat) gratifying. It sounds as if all these years gave Axl a bunch of songs that never sounded "complete" in his mind, so he kept tweaking the arrangements, adding more ingredients to the recipe until he finally could make everything "work". Yet, his idea of what "works" is usually sprawling, meandering and formulaic.

The title track and "Shackler's Revenge" sound more like songs you would unlock on Rock Band after beating the game on expert mode (the latter is actually found on Rock Band 2, coincidentally). Too much guitar masturbation and overproduced vocal effects to be taken seriously. While other songs are just downright cheesy ("This I Love") or virtually unlistenable ("Sorry", "Madagascar") due to some truly laughable choices made by Rose (sampling movie dialog and MLK speaches is sooooo 1995).

Not everything is a train wreck though. "Street of Dreams", while not my cup of tea, sounds like Queen covering U2's "Walk On" and should have no problem finding a home on commercial radio. The fast-moving "Scraped" could be confused for an outtake from Appetite for Destruction because of how much it sounds like vintage GNR. And "Raid n' The Bedouins" is the type of straightforward rock song that is missing at other parts of the album.

Of course these brief moments of triumph are few and far between amidst the sea of guitars, vocal overdubs, hair metal keyboards, and forced string arrangements. So many of these elements were employed on Use Your Illusion (itself a trying ordeal to complete) to varying degrees of success that maybe Axl thought Chinese Democracy was his chance to finally get it right. As if Illusion would've been a better album had Axl been given more control and more time to fully realize his vision. Well, he got the time, control and resources to make whatever he wanted and the result is not any better.

After listening to Chinese Democracy several times I kept thinking that it bore a stunning resemblance to Michael Cimino's 1980 film Heaven's Gate. Like Axl Rose, Cimino was known as a tortured artistic genius with a large ego and an equally large temper who never compromised his art for anything. Sometimes this can lead to great success (see The Deer Hunter and Use Your Illusion I & II), but other times it can lead to complete disaster (see Heaven's Gate). In Cimino's case, his track record of frequently clashing with studios, running productions way over budget, and his overwrought meandering artistic vision led to his rapid demise and nearly bankrupted United Artists in the process.

While it is yet to be seen if Chinese Democracy will produce such catastrophic results for Axl Rose, I believe it's release does mark the end of the CD era. As the music business changes to accommodate how listeners consume and share music, the album release as a grand singular event is gone forever. People don't need to rush into stores or wait in line at midnight anymore. Furthermore, bands can't get away with releasing a collection of 10-14 songs and then not giving their fans anything else for several years. We all can carry thousands of songs in our pockets, so our tastes grow stale much quicker than they used to. I'm not so sure Axl Rose realized this when he spent so much time agonizing over every minute detail of this album. Some people may have waited patiently for Chinese Democracy to finally be released, but nobody will stick around if he makes everyone wait this long. And like his kindred spirit Cimino, Rose may find himself exiled from the business before we even get to that point.

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