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Guns N' Roses' "Chinese Democracy" Album Review

I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.


Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy (Geffen Records, 2008)

Guns N' Roses crawled out of the gutters of Los Angeles in 1987 and hit the stagnating hard rock scene square in the face with their debut album, the epic hand grenade, Appetite For Destruction. Guns N' Roses quickly became one of the biggest, and most controversial, bands in the world, leaving chaos and destruction in their wake wherever they went. More than thirty years (has it really been that long?) after its release, Appetite is still a must-have album for anyone who likes their music loud and nasty. It's a time capsule that truly captures the gritty sound of the Sunset Strip at its absolute peak.

Four years after Appetite, the band returned with 1991's Use Your Illusion double-album set, which expanded their sonic palette far beyond the down-and-dirty hard rock of the debut. Some fans were thrown by the overblown balladry of songs like "Estranged" and "November Rain," but record sales remained strong and the U.Y.I. combo kept the band atop the charts for another several years. By the time 1993's hastily-assembled covers album The Spaghetti Incident? hit store racks, however, the band members were at each other's throats, and rock fans had changed the channel. Guns N' Roses drifted apart under a cloud of drugs, alcohol, and egos, though lead vocalist W. Axl Rose pledged to carry on under the Gn'R banner with all new players. The ex-members of Gn'R remained visible throughout the 1990s and '00s via high profile projects like Slash's Snakepit and Velvet Revolver, but Axl dropped off the radar as he began the strange journey that led to Chinese Democracy.

As the months turned into years, Chi-Dem took on the status of urban legend. Many skeptics (this writer included) were sure that Axl had gone totally Howard Hughes and that the album would never see the light of day. The standard joke became that by the time the album was released, China would really be a democracy, but lo and behold... after nearly thirteen years, several aborted concert tours, countless lineup changes, and untold millions of dollars, Chinese Democracy was finally unleashed in November of 2008. Guns N' Roses was officially back in business... and the reaction from the world at large was a resounding "yawn."

"Chinese Democracy"

From Best Buy . . . to the Bargain Bin!

Though Chinese Democracy initially debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, it quickly dropped off the charts in the face of mixed reviews and massive fan disinterest, selling far below the lofty expectations that music insiders had set for it. Geffen Records had arranged a deal to sell the album exclusively through the U.S. electronics retailer Best Buy, which quickly proved disastrous. Best Buy had obviously hoped that a GnR tie-in would score them a major hit ala Wal-Mart, who'd brokered several platinum-selling exclusive album deals with big name acts like AC/DC and Journey. Unfortunately, Best Buy's retail presence isn't nearly as omnipresent as Wal-Mart's. (I will leave it up to the reader to decide which side of the equation—Geffen or Best Buy -- bet on the wrong horse.) The band compounded these difficulties by barely taking part in any promotional activities for the album's release. Touring activity was sporadic (at best), with last-minute concert cancellations being the norm. With no interviews, no music videos and barely any radio airplay to get the word out, Chinese Democracy struggled to scrape past the Gold record sales mark (500,000 copies sold) in America - a far cry from GN'R's gazillion-selling behemoths of yore. By 2011, Best Buy was stuck with so many unsold copies of the CD that they began selling them on their website for $1.99. In 2012, even that hadn't moved their remaining stock so Chinese Democracy was unceremoniously dumped into the hands of bargain basement resellers like dollar stores, which is where a friend of mine found dozens of copies of Chinese Democracy recently. I found it so hilarious when he told me that he'd seen the disc at his local Dollar Tree that I told him, "Dude, grab one for me!" . . . and so that's how, nearly four years after the fact, I finally listened to Chinese Democracy for the first time.

"Welcome to the Dollar Store! We got Guns 'n' Games!"

"Welcome to the Dollar Store! We got Guns 'n' Games!"

The Album!

First, the good news: Chinese Democracy is a gorgeously played, spotlessly produced album. The bad news? It's simply not very interesting. Rather than the sleazy rock of old, the bulk of Chi-Dem leans towards the more pretentious segments of the Use Your Illusion two-pack. In other words, if you're looking for the next "Welcome to the Jungle," just upgrade your beat up cassette copy of Appetite For Destruction to CD.

Unsurprisingly, given the huge number of people who contributed to this album over the years, Chinese Democracy never feels like a "band" effort. (Check the credits page in the back of the booklet. I swear at least fifteen people are listed under each song!!) By the time I reached the end of track 14 (!) of this too-long-by-half horse pill, I got the feeling that Axl was trying to approximate the vibe of the beloved, highly orchestrated '70s rock albums of his youth like Queen's A Night At the Opera or Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Unfortunately, the result is something more akin to KISS' Music From 'The Elder.' Honestly, I wanted to like this disc and kept waiting for it to finally "catch fire," but it never really happened. The title song that opens the record gets things off to a great start, with Rose's howling vocals wrapping around a jagged guitar riff that immediately stuck in my head (if only the rest of the album were as good as this track!). "Shackler's Revenge" has its moments as well, but it would've sounded better (and less like leftover '90s aggro-rock) if it had been played "straight" without the needless drum loops and vocal effects. This track was already out of date by 2008. "Street Of Dreams" is another highlight; starting out as a plaintive piano ballad before turning into a full blown, cinematic orchestral rocker. Both this and "There Was A Time" sound like theme songs to a non-existent big-budget movie. "Riad N' the Bedouins" is catchy but weird and ties with the title track for my favorite song on the record (even though Rose's incessant bleats of "Ahh-aahh-aaaahhh" on the chorus become irritating after a while). From there, however... buyer beware. "If the World" sounds like a Sade B-side with its processed drumbeats, acoustic string picking and lush keyboards, and it's saddled with forced-sounding, squawking vox from Rose. "Better" sounds as if it were made up as it went along, with Rose trying to croon (he shouldn't) over a bed of hooky guitar histrionics that are obscured by jammed-in electronic "bleeps" and "bloops" that sound totally out of place. It's got a nice solo at least. (Side note: whether they're being played by Buckethead, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, or any of the multitudes of other six-stringers credited in the booklet, the guitar solos on Chinese Democracy are really the only place where this album truly "sounds" like GN'R, if that makes any sense... you can almost picture Axl in the studio, repeatedly beating his hapless guitarists with a stick, saying, "No, no, NO! You have to sound MORE like Slash!")

After "Riad N' the Bedouins" things take a quick slide. The last five tracks return to the "November Rain" wheelhouse again and again, i.e. overblown, grandiose theatrical mishmashes of rock and balladry that eventually sound like one extremely LONG track. Call me crazy, but I swear I can hear echoes of Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity" in "Sorry." Most listeners, if they make it this far, will likely be crying "Please make it stop" long before the album mercifully ends with the bland "Prostitute."

"Street of Dreams"

Summin' It Up . . .

So was Chinese Democracy worth the dollar I paid for it? I'd say "yes," with reservations. Its "Heinz 57" approach has moments both gutsy and klutzy (though I'd say that there are more of the latter than the former) and though I probably won't give it much play time once the initial "newness" has worn off, I have to admit that the album is kind of fascinating in a totally bizarre way. Those with more adventurous tastes than I might actually find Chinese Democracy enjoyable, but I remain glad that I didn't buy into the hype and pay full price for this CD four years ago. If you happen to find it at your local dollar store, though, it's a decent enough spin for a buck and worth at least one listen. Lord only knows where Sir Axl and his ever changing musical roundtable will go from here!

(Author's Note: This article would not have been possible without the help of Mark H., who picked this CD up for me and allowed me to borrow his "Dollar Tree" photo, and MG71 at the Heart of Metal forum, who inspired the caption to that photo. Thanks fellas!)

© 2012 Keith Abt


Jonas Bartulis from Lithuania on November 30, 2015:

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Read More From Spinditty

Good review, informative :}} ... I just wrote my first hub on Guns N'Roses reuniting and my thoughts about it, have a look if you care. John. :}

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 03, 2014:


Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on September 29, 2012:

Wow! Thanks for all the kind words, Marsel. Glad you liked it.

Sue Pratt from New Orleans on September 28, 2012:

Your work is excellent! I'm so impressed with the technical correctness of it. Having been a teacher, I notice grammar and other niceties that others might not.

It is also well-organized and held my attention, although the band was never one of my favorites. You write extremely well. Write a "sample" for your local newspaper of what's new right now. You never know. You have to pursue this dream of yours. It can absolutely happen because you have no illusions about your work; it rocks.

You either have a marvelous proofreader or a natural instinct for sentence structure and don't have sentences that stretch from here to hell as I often do.

I hope you will pursue what you want to do. We have a paper here in New Orleans called Gambit and I'm sure you have a similar one in Jersey about what's happening in the city. Your work is professional quality and they might just be looking for you.

Good Luck!


Dick on May 15, 2012:

Mmm yeaaah, CD is great from the first track to the last. It's over some people's heads.

Manny on April 24, 2012:

ScurvySkalliwag, if Lou Reed had been on this album it would been even been better, imagine two ego maniacs on one album!!!

Erik, if you think these posts are idiotic you should see the posting of some Guns n Roses fan boards, those guys are truly idiotic!!!!

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 19, 2012:

I thought I made it pretty clear that I liked some of it, but there were parts I didn't like as well.

Logan on April 19, 2012:

how could you not like this record its perfect its not ment for dumb ass fans who still cry over slash not being in the band yes the record took al ong time but was worth the wait you have to understand the music and I hatee fans who go appetite is there best album i find it boring to be honnest id rath listen to the use your illuison cds

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 19, 2012:

I never said that the U.Y.I. albums weren't massive...but I don't think either one was as good as Appetite, either. You can only catch that kind of lightning in a bottle once.

Erik on April 19, 2012:

For some people, (in the Millions), those songs like November Rain, Estranged, Civil War, Breakdown were Favorites. Use your illusions were massive!

Erik on April 19, 2012:

I've never seen so many idiotic posts in my life.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 19, 2012:

I can't argue with that theory, Vinny. You may be right, he may have been waiting all that time for the wheel to come back around and finally went "Aww, the hell with it!"

Vinnie on April 19, 2012:

Chinese is ok, another 80's band album to continue touring. i never got the whole drama to release it, it's almost as if Axl was waiting for the 80's to return and people just lost interest.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 13, 2012:

Hahahaha, good one Skurvy!

ScurvySkalliwag from Judith River, Montana on April 13, 2012:

Did Lou Reed guest on Chinese Democracy ? Manny has to like for some mundane reason.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 05, 2012:

You're a funny guy, Brian. A funny guy.

Brian Marshall on April 05, 2012:

Good hub. I think I'll steal it.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 05, 2012:

Haha! Okay then, you just saved me some time! Thanks!

Manny on April 05, 2012:

Well freddy then you don't need to read the lyrics because it is a bunch of angry paranoid rants!!

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 05, 2012:

Thanks Manny... I haven't yet dug very deeply into the lyrics on the record, so at the moment it all still sounds like a bunch of angry rants to me...

Manny on April 05, 2012:

I actually enjoyed the album, and find it a fascinating listen, it is all over the musical map, but I loved it and IMO gave you an insight into the mind of Axl Rose, the lyrics are angry, defiant, sad, pleading, and filled with him both lashing out at the world and the same time pleading for some sort of salvation.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 04, 2012:

Indeed, Joe. The guitar solos are the best part of the record.

Joe Cogan on April 04, 2012:

I listened to this once, and can't see myself listening to it again. Ron Thal is a great guitarist, and a great guy, though.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 04, 2012:

Thanx VF84...

valleyforge84 on April 03, 2012:

Wow super involved for an album. Maybe i will listen to it now. voted up. good writing

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 03, 2012:

Thanx Joker... as the piece probably makes clear, I kinda think GNR shot their wad on Appetite For Destruction. That's still a great record, but you can never capture that kinda lightning in a bottle a second time. Chi-Dem should've been titled "Dead on Arrival."

theJOKERiv on April 03, 2012:

As always, excellent write up!!!!!!! I listened to the album a total of once and that was too much for me. And that was mostly out of curiosity, since I have never been a fan of GnR. I'm one of the few that never liked them, even when Appetite was released. I like a few of songs, but felt it was over rated.

Anyway, great write up!

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