Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Saturday, 15 November 2008

Review: Chinese Democracy

By Mark Savage
BBC News Entertainment reporter

Chinese Democracy
The album reportedly cost more than $13m (8.7m) to record
Is a broken heart to blame for the 15-year delay to Guns N' Roses new album?

Throughout the course of Chinese Democracy, Axl Rose repeatedly refers to a "change of heart" and his "lonely tear drops".

"I just can't let it die, all the pain inside," he eventually blurts out on This I Love.

But if his mind hasn't been fully devoted to music over the past decade-and-a-half, it doesn't show.

This record is an uncompromising, fully-focused, hard rock monster.

At times, it will rattle the rafters with its ferocious riffs. At others, you will laugh out loud at the ridiculously overblown melodrama.

In other words, it's business as usual for Guns N' Roses.

Scattergun

Things kick off with the title track. Already heavily previewed on radio, it opens with a montage of sirens and Chinese dialogue before bursting into life with a riff of speaker-endangering proportions and Rose's trademark falsetto squeal.

It's followed by the pounding Shackler's Revenge, whose heavily distorted guitar shows Rose has been paying attention to the innovations of Tom Morello and Matt Bellamy.

Axl Rose
Several of the songs have been previewed in concert over the last five years
In just three and a half minutes, it shoots off in hundreds of different directions, encompassing growled, paranoiac verses, off-kilter digital squeals and an anthemic chorus.

This is a trick that Rose repeats over and over on Chinese Democracy. Almost all the tracks have a scattergun approach to song structure, incorporating a vast array of movements, themes and motifs.

Along the way, we get choirs, brass bands, hip-hop beats, mellotrons, found sounds, pulsing synths, film samples and something rather ominously called "sub bass".

The credit list for one song - the Bond theme-esque There Was A Time - runs to 33 lines on the CD booklet. A total of six people play guitar on the track. Two of them get solos.

It is a long way from the scrappy garage band formed in Los Angeles three decades ago.

Low expectations

What's surprising, however, is that the songs survive intact despite this surfeit of ideas and contributors.

By rights, Chinese Democracy should have been an unholy mess. But Rose seems to have learned his lesson after the sprawling self-indulgence of 1991's Use Your Illusion.

Songs like IRS and Raid N' The Bedouins are lean and compact, edited down to the bare essentials, packing the maximum punch per pound.

Some of the arrangements are kind of like Queen. Some people are going to say it doesn't sound like Guns N' Roses
Axl Rose
But, let's be clear, this is by no means the equal of the 28 million-selling Appetite For Destruction, nor does it contain anything as radio friendly as Paradise City or November Rain.

Indeed, if initial reactions are positive, that's partly because expectations were so low after the record's troubled gestation.

On the downside, there is a surfeit of cheesy ballads, beginning with the terribly overwrought Street Of Dreams.

The opening piano chords bring to mind nothing more than Sir Elton John, while Rose oversings lines about "stardust on my feet" in a voice that would make an X Factor auditionee cringe.

Sorry, another break-up song, aims for grandiose but ends up sounding ridiculous - like Pink Floyd covered by Metallica.

And, for all of its ambitious bombast, there's no disguising the fact that There Was A Time veers dangerously close to becoming Bon Jovi's Blaze Of Glory.

Compromised

Axl Rose
The album credits list a total of 14 recording studios
Rose has already predicted the reaction to these songs. "I'm trying to do something different," he told Rolling Stone in 2006.

"Some of the arrangements are kind of like Queen. Some people are going to say it doesn't sound like Guns N' Roses."

Actually, he's wrong about that. This does sound like a Guns N' Roses album, but it's a sadly compromised one.

The filthy swagger is gone - perhaps understandable now that Rose is 46. But Chinese Democracy also misses the clean, tuneful riffs that Slash and Izzy Stradlin used to provide.

Too often, guitar lines sound like technical exercises - fingers running up and down the fretboard at the expense of melody.

And when several songs plump for "na na na" backing vocals, you find yourself wondering why no-one had time to finish off the lyrics.

Ultimately, however, there is nothing here that will irrevocably tarnish the Guns N' Roses name.

Had it come out directly after the band's last album, 1993's The Spaghetti Incident?, it would have been hailed as a triumphant return to form.

Or - just perhaps - it would have been branded irrelevant in a world where grunge, hip-hop and industrial rock were in the ascendancy.

In 2008, the cogs of the musical world have turned full circle, and Axl Rose is releasing his long-awaited opus just as games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band (which features Shackler's Revenge on its tracklisting) bring hard rock back into people's living rooms.

Maybe all the heartache was worth it.

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