Guns N’ Roses was the first band I ever loved. For a decade and a half, I’ve been among the vast legions waiting for the release of Chinese Democracy, Axl Rose’s eternally delayed, $13 million Frankenstein revival of GNR that we all started to believe would never see the light of day. In a blinding burst of bad-assery, nine mastered, finished tracks from Chinese Democracy showed up on some website (we forget the name) for a heartbeat, until GNR management came calling with threats of litigation annihilation, and even federal agents got involved. The songs were quickly taken down, but the radiation had spread like wildfire by the time the tracks were removed; the music is finally in the hands of the people. Axl Rose is undoubtedly penning a sequel to Get In The Ring as a result, but the simple fact is that the leak is the best, most legitimate promotion the album has had, possibly ever. People actually believe it exists now, and most are thrilled with what they’re hearing.
Six of the songs have previously leaked in unfinished form (There Was A Time, Better, Madagascar, IRS, Better and the title track), but these new versions are considerably more sharpened and polished, brimming with new dynamics, and clearly the closest thing to the real deal that any of us has ever heard. Two of the new songs are titled Riyadh And The Bedouins and If The World, while the third title is still unknown.
Does the music justify the wait? Let me put it this way: if ten of history’s greatest composers were brought back from the dead, formed a supergroup and decided to collaborate on what they hoped to be the greatest body of music ever written, how long would it take them? It’s a ridiculous hypothetical so we can’t say for sure, but the fact is that Axl came as close to that level of grandiosity as anyone ever has, enlisting nothing short of an army of the greatest living musicians and producers throughout the mythically laborous making of Chinese Democracy. If you’re asking whether or not any piece of music can justify a fifteen-year gestation period, the answer is, unequivocally, hell no.
But are these songs mind-blowingly awesome? Fuck yes they are.
Here’s a track-by-track rundown of what we’ve heard so far from the finished Chinese Democracy.
Riyadh And The Bedouins– Who knows what the hell Axl’s ranting about, but from the moment Robin Finck’s guitar suddenly appears out of the pulsing bass throb and binaurally slaps the shit out of you, there’s no turning back from this breakneck assault. The guitars are slick beasts of awesome, the melody is simple and irresistible, and the short breakdown is like surfacing for air before diving into an obscenely fantastic solo. The evidence of years of tinkering is clear on this one, where the smallest, slightest subtlety has been crafted to the millisecond and there’s overdubs hidden all over the place. It’s gorgeous, it’s amazing, and it’s exactly why I feel perfectly justified in freaking the hell out over this album.
Chinese Democracy– If you’re afraid of Ewoks or you’re tripping (and Jesus I hope you’re not both, man, or you’re fucked) hold on tight through the first minute or so. Rose comes screaming in like a massive, attacking mechanical falcon in what’s bound to be a crushing juggernaut of a song, shredding guitars layered through what sounds like Axl channeling a grizzly bear singing Cause it would take a lot more hate than you to even the fascination. Can’t help but love how he somehow legitimizes lines like Blame it on the Falun Gong… Who else but maybe Neil Fallon of Clutch could pull off references like that? The harmonies are a spine-tingling reminder of the glory days, bringing back the Paradise City wail in full force.
Madagascar– An anthem ballad that takes a page out of Illusion‘s November Rain book, but without Slash’s searing solo. Chock full of orchestral arrangements, MLK and movie quotes, it feels both familiar and futuristic, classic and new. Rose’s initially low, gravely delivery contributes to the rising sound as the song builds, offering a sample-heavy breakdown and an even-energy return to the chorus rather than the big-payoff crescendo you’re expecting. One of the crucial bridges between the classic old GNR sound and the new, this track could easily be a single.
Better– This crushingly epic track begins as a muted nursery-rhyme melody over a distorted guitar whine, exploding into a fiercely addictive rocker infused with the blood of Use Your Illusion. A logical step forward from where GNR left off so many years ago, Rose’s narrative landscape and dramatic flair push the envelope just far enough to avoid alienating fans. With groundbreaking guitar work and a solo nothing short of brutally awesome, a screaming bridge and circular melody are a jaw-dropping guarantee that Chinese Democracy could move massive units based on this song alone- that is, if it’s ever released.
IRS– Acoustic to electric to acoustic then HUGE and back again, the song is mean and bi-polar, with a soaring vocal performance by the eagle-lunged Rose. The live drums add considerable depth to the song (the original leaked demo featured a hollow, programmed beat) but the hook lyrics add a cheese factor that the blistering intensity just doesn’t fully compensate for. Easily among the lower ranking tracks of the bunch, but it’s well above mediocrity.
New Song #2– I had an eyebrow fully cocked on this one until the chorus hit, somehow putting the rest of the song into context. That classic Axl power falsetto fits perfectly at home over a multi-instrumental onslaught like God’s orchestra (if God were into programmed beats, that is) on speed. A beautiful Massive Attack-esque piano finish ties this one off nicely.
If The World– Flamenco guitars? What the hell? This hot-summer-night bluesy jam can do no wrong and, despite being completely alien to anything ever to carry the GNR name, it’s perhaps the sexiest thing Axl’s ever pulled off. If the world would end today / All the dreams we had would all just fade away… Insightful? Not exactly. But the atmosphere is thick, sweet and glorious, and it wouldn’t be any surprise to see John Frusciante’s name in the liner notes of this one.
The Blues– A clean, Elton John piano intro, matched with Rose’s trademark golden wail sends you back to a time when things were simpler, when all we had to worry about was Axl getting to the next show on time, instead of spending fifteen years making a goddamned album with everyone on earth but the actual members of Guns N’ Roses. All the love in the world couldn’t save you / all the innocence inside/ you know I tried so hard to make you / to make you change your mind. Not really, man. You holed up and hid from the world for a decade and a half. This song’s not great, in fact it’s the only song of the bunch worth skipping, but it’s put together well.
There Was A Time– With a disarming rainforest church choir that fades into a trip-hop welcome mat, T.W.A.T. straps on a hell of a heavy load from the word go. Axl’s earnest, straight delivery over rising orchestral synths, a digital beat and a Slash-toned backdrop does more than hint that something of epic, anthemic proportions is headed our way, and we’re in good hands; Rose has always been a master architect of the wait-for-it moments of shining musical genius, and There Was A Time is no exception. The song freakin’ delivers. An unforgettable, shredding solo weaves perfectly into a choir of Axls as the song rapidly downshifts out, finishing the way it started. The individual pieces of this track are gorgeous on their own, but the sum of their parts are nothing short of one of the best Guns N’ Roses songs ever written. Yeah, it’s the Axl Rose project now, it doesn’t count as GNR- whatever. This song is fucking awesome.
Here’s to hoping recent events have lit a new fire under Mr. Rose, ’cause anticipation for Chinese Democracy is now more intense than ever. And if these tracks are any indication, we’re in for a hell of a ride once the full album hits.