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Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy - Album Of The Week Club review

Can we review Axl Rose's labour of love Chinese Democracy without talking about time and money? Probably not

Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy
Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy

Chinese Democracy
Shackler's Revenge
Better
Street of Dreams
If the World
There Was a Time
Catcher in the Rye
Scraped
Riad N' the Bedouins
Sorry
I.R.S.
Madagascar
This I Love
Prostitute

Fourteen years in the making, the famously long-awaited Chinese Democracy was finally released in 2008, to massive fanfare and hype, but if ever an album was weighed down by its own baggage, it was this one. 

Chinese Democracy was an inevitable disappointment. Sounding like Axl Rose had taken a little piece of every single musical genre he had heard in the previous decade – some nu metal, some post-grunge, some garage – it was all over the place. To many it wasn't worthy of the Guns N' Roses name, judged less for what it was than what it wasn't. And it wasn't Appetite For Destruction. Hell, it wasn't even Use Your Illusion

But for those who were able to cast their preconceptions aside, Chinese Democracy was a misunderstood gem. As Metal Hammer editor Merlin Alderslade said last year, "At its very worst Chinese Democracy is merely ‘OK’, while at its best it’s nothing short of fantastic.

"If this was the album that the now-reunited lineup decided to put out in 2019, it’d be heralded as a thunderous comeback and end up topping a ton of end-of-year-lists."

He isn't the only one to praise the album. “The first time I heard Chinese Democracy, I thought it was the perfect Axl Rose record," Slash told Classic Rock. "If it had been released as the Axl Rose solo record everybody would have gone, ‘Wow!’"

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

Whatever one’s view of Chinese Democracy as an artistic statement, it’s indisputable that no-one will ever make an album as expensive again. 

A ridiculous 14 years in the making, Guns N’ Roses’ follow-up to the expansive Use Your Illusion double set cost Geffen Records a jaw-dropping $13 million in production costs alone, understandable when studio hire weighed in at $50,000 per month, guitar techs were being paid $6000 per month and the album’s recording software engineer was taking home $25,000 per month. 

Beyond that, there were miscellaneous expenses accountants never factored in originally: who knew, for example, that eccentric guitarist Buckethead would demand a bespoke chicken coop to record in, or that Axl Rose’s personal guru, nicknamed Yoda, would have to approve each track before it was signed off. 

Other albums released in November 2008

  • Butch Walker - Sycamore Meadows
  • Edguy - Tinnitus Sanctus
  • The Killers - Day & Age
  • Mudvayne - The New Game
  • Nickelback - Dark Horse
  • Sammy Hagar - Cosmic Universal Fashion
  • Third Eye Blind - Red Star
  • Zac Brown Band - The Foundation
  • Coldplay - Prospekt's March
  • Linkin Park - Road to Revolution: Live at Milton Keynes
  • Good Charlotte - Greatest Remixes
  • Paramore - The Final Riot!

What they said...

"Let’s get right to it: The first Guns N’ Roses album of new, original songs since the first Bush administration is a great, audacious, unhinged and uncompromising hard-rock record. In other words, it sounds a lot like the Guns N’ Roses you know." (Rolling Stone)

"Axl took 17 years to, we hoped, explore new textures, manipulate songwriting conventions, seek out challenging collaborators, or delve into unfamiliar genres for inspiration. Yet on the way to being this decade's Sgt. Peppers, Chinese Democracy became its Be Here Now – a record of relatively simple, similar songs overdubbed into a false sense of complexity in a horrorshow of modern production values." (Pitchfork)

"The arrangements are impossibly over-stuffed. Chinese Democracy is frequently as exhausting to listen to as it must have been to make, not least on the regular occasions when Rose, clearly unable to decide whether to have another verse or a widdly-woo guitar solo, opts to do both at the same time. (The Guardian)

What you said...

Áslat Eira: It has a special place in my heart, since this is the only record by Guns that has been released during my lifetime, and I've grown up with this album. There's a couple of songs I could live without, but otherwise it's a special album for me.

David Alejandro Cepeda Benavides: It's not as bad as some people say. I'd say it's an average GN'R record. It has some mediocre tracks, but there are also really good ones: For me, the best song on the album is This I Love, then Better, I.R.S. and the title track. As a whole it's their worst album, but these songs deserve a listen, they should not be forgotten.

Damian Keen: It’s terrible, just terrible. I struggle not to laugh out loud every time at the vocal on Street of Dreams. This is what happens when you give an OCD unlimited funds and unlimited time. Horrible. 1/10 if not less, and a travesty to be under the GN'R name.

Eetu Tiainen: Well, I know we're supposed to ignore the time that it took to make this album, but you sort of cannot. I think that this is not a complete disaster, there is some pretty decent stuff on it as well. Only thing that bothers me is that if this album would've gotten done in the 90s it could have been so much better. 

It could have had that raw GN'R sound that gave the finger to hair metal in the late 80s. When the 00s kicked in, there was too much modern sound effects available and this album drowned in to that. Too much experimenting with nu metal kinda sounds, that didn't fit with the classic rock riffs. Better is a good example. 

Also, the 14-year hype that this album had made the disappointment even bigger. But hey, everybody makes mistakes sometimes, let's hope the new stuff they're currently working on is going to be "better" than this. And for the love of god, let's hope it doesn't take another decade and a half to get it finished.

Overall, should have been a lot better, could have been a lot worse.

Chris Webb: Regardless of the fact that it was labelled a Guns N' Roses project, I really felt this was Axl's solo album.

It's also vastly underrated. Better, Catcher In The Rye, Street Of Dreams, This I Love, Prostitute and the centrepiece Madagascar - all great tunes. And for some reason the title track starts off with the guitar riff from Beverly Hills 90210.

But if you can get past that, plus the hype (that has since turned to stigma) there are some great performances and some great songs on this album.

Much like Use Your Illusion I and II it's a shade too long; Axl could benefit from another strong presence telling him to cut a track or two. But ultimately, this stands up. I loved this when it was released, still enjoy it.

Mark Tucker: Its not awful. If you view it as an Axl solo album (which is what it really is) its not bad. But the gulf between it and the rest of their work is enormous. I play it rarely but enjoy it when I do.

Mike Rowell: To be fair to Axl this album could have been Pet Sounds or Revolver and people would still rubbish it! Personally I thought it was patchy but had moments of brilliance. The ballads are okay. But the rock tracks are pretty bland. I think it needed Izzy or Slash for some decent harder riffs.

Joe Breeze: Listening to this album as an independent release, stepping away from all the back story this is a good album. Not the best, but it is definitely good.

Everyone just got pissed as it wasn't Appetite - well, it wasn't the same band that recorded it. Arguably it shouldn't have been released under GN'R name.

It's an Axl and guests album but he has every right to use the GN'R name as he is as much responsible for their prominence as any other member.

Particular standouts are the title track, Better, Madagascar and Prostitute. Better was one of the highlights of the four shows I saw them at over the past three years.

It's got attitude, its got riffs and it thumps in parts. It's just not got Slash, Duff or Izzy. 6.5/10

Brett Deighton: I agree with the sentiment that this is an underrated album. You can’t compare it to Appetite, not many albums can compare. It does feel like an Axl Rose solo album, but if you think of it like that, it’s not a bad one. Yeah it’s overproduced and a bit ballad heavy, but there are some great songs on here and none of them stink as bad as Get In The Ring or My World.

Caroline Engel: I don't hate it. I try to see it as more of an Axl Rose solo album rather than a GN'R album, because there's not a whole lot of GN'R on it. But I actually enjoy playing it from time to time. Street Of Dreams is one of my favourites from the album.

Tanvir Choudhury: There's a lot to admire here; the title track is a bombastic opening, Axl's welcome swagger of Shackler's Revenge and Better, November Rain revisited in Street of Dreams and the ambition of If The World. One can even forgive the pseudo-intellectualism of Madagascar because of it's spitting conviction. 

The album is akin to a bitter and perhaps deluded patient who eloquently tells you the suffering he's endured but whose sincerity is seriously undermined as his pleas are far too well rehearsed. The lady doth protest too much, methinks, but produceth a beautiful mess.

Adrian Howson: I bought this on release, listened to it once and put it at the bottom of the CD pile dismissing it as a complete pile of crap. 10 years later I dug it out, purely out of curiosity and to see if time had made it any better. While it’s not a masterpiece, time had indeed changed my opinion and it’s not the steaming turd that I initially dismissed it as. There’s some great tunes here - it only took me ten years to discover them. There Was a Time, for me at least, is a belter.

Marco LG: I tried and I am still trying to listen with fresh ears, but the hardest thing is avoiding reaching out for the skip button. Utterly forgettable tunes are one thing, properly annoying ones another. And there are more than a few properly annoying ones I'm afraid. Will score 2 / 10 and stop listening here. Sorry.

Bill Griffin: Just when I think it has something to like, Axl starts singing again. I suppose that if one likes his voice, this album is awesome. Even though there are songs in the GN'R catalog I like (Paradise City, November Rain), I'm not one of them and his vocals are even more irritating than normal on this record.

Brian Hart: Chinese Democracy is a great album. In the hierarchy of GN'R full length albums, it would fall in #3 behind Appetite and the Illusion albums. The sad part about the whole thing is Axl took 14 years and millions of dollars, with countless musicians, to produce an album that isn’t much different from what I think the next chapter of Guns would’ve produced. 

Minus Shacklers Revenge and Rhiad and the Bedouins, this sounds like a classic Guns record. The solo in This I Love sounds like something Slash would play. Kudos to Finck. The ballads are epic, much like the ones on the Illusion albums. Songs like Better, IRS, and the title track are great rock songs. 

If the World and Prostitute are adventurous and explore new ground. It was said that Axl wanted the album to be more electronic. He kept chasing perfection only to find that the industrial music revolution had come and gone. Like many, I consider this an Axl solo album. However, this is very strong and does not sound that much different from what I think the classic lineup could have produced.

John Davidson: I bought this when it came out and it didn't strike a chord with me then. It wasn't bad but it wasn't great either.

Listening to it again my view hadn't changed a great deal. There are decent songs in there, but they are mostly over produced or too elaborate in their arrangements.

It lacks the scuzzy charm and dirty groove of the great Guns N' Roses tracks and drifts too often towards their worst. 

That said, despite several "heavy" ballads, none of them outstay their welcome to the extent of a November Rain (which – let's be honest – lasted until after Christmas).

The main issue with the album is that it is an Axl Rose solo outing. Slash struggled to find form before he teamed up with Miles Kennedy and the Conspirators. 

Axl didn't find a muse and while the guitarists and other musicians occasionally get a chance to shine it doesn't feel like a band effort.

Maybe that's the joke. Chinese Democracy is no democracy at all. 6/10

Brian Anderson: I’ve listened to this album quite a few times now, but I still can’t name a single song, sing a chorus, or hum a guitar line. Each song is composed of a series of dis-jointed events. You can tell it took forever to make, and it’s obvious the band kept going back and tinkering. There aren’t 14 songs here, instead you get about 50 or 60 mini ideas spliced together in some random incoherent way. 

Really really awful.

Roland Bearne: My story with this album mirrors several others in this thread; I bought it aglow with curiosity and anticipation, listened once and cast it into an "oubliette" pile. As it it has appeared as AotW on this august group I thought it behoved me to put on some big boy ears and give it a more considered listen. 

First I had to scrub any notion of it being anything other than GN'R in name only; make no comparisons to albums previous, just give it as much of a "blind tasting" as possible. The title track and Shacklers Revenge come in robustly with a rich but highly processed barrage of industrial flavoured sounds. Better is curiously beguiling with Axl flexing his full range of vocal attacks (and kudos to him, his extraordinary range of vocal styles and emotions throughout is quite remarkable!). 

Street of Dreams of course – November Rain's even more over-egged lab-produced monster child! Of the rest, Catcher In tTe Rye would, I feel, work much better with a more traditional Guns arrangement (the same could be said of many of these tracks actually). Sorry I found genuinely rather lovely, the anger in Madagascar is powerful but seems to me to ramble a bit. This I Love, I really liked with Axl hitting for me a genuine sweet spot of vocal texture conveying actual emotion, it might be my favourite track as the guitar playing is also tremendous. This is true throughout. 

Goodness knows which of the many cast members contributed what, but overall there is a stunning level of musicianship on offer. It won't become a favourite album but I no longer hate it! Take it as a labour of love by a obsessive and driven artist who hopefully and indeed apparently has got this behind him and will never put himself, his collaborators or we, his fans through this ever again. I guess he got to such a point with it that it had to get finished or madness, financial ruin and the actual destruction of the Guns N' Roses name would have ensued!

Stephen O'shea: For an album that took so long to make I think it feels unfinished, it's disjointed and awkward, any good riffs or structure seems to not play out, there's plenty of great stuff on the palette but the painting isn't completed.

Mauro Lucke: It seems that Axl tried for an epic album, but failed miserably! Too many songs overstay their welcome. There's nothing here with the immediacy and warmth of Welcome To The Jungle. Make it simple, Axl!

Mike Knoop: Well, the club has done it again and gotten me to reappraise an album I had written off as a turd. Ironically, I think if Axl Rose had just released it under his own name, it would have received a much kinder reception. Love him or hate him, Rose has a “car crash” fascination around him that’s on full display here. His level of vitriol would make Roger Waters blush, but that’s why most of us showed up, right? 

If that’s the case, songs like Shackler’s Revenge, Better, and especially Sorry don’t disappoint. Of course, it also helps that the passage of time enables you to forget this wasn’t released 20 years ago when bands like Korn, Marilyn Manson and Hole still had mass appeal and the words “trip hop” still meant something. 

Instead, it came out ten years later when earnest bands like Coldplay and Kings of Leon held sway. Bands like Hot Chip and TV On The Radio were still doing stuff with bleeps and bloops but it didn't sound anything like this. A third of Chinese Democracy is made up of ballads and generally fare well, which may be a statement in itself. Is it great? No, not to me, but to quote Mr. Burns, “I know what I hate, and I don’t hate this.” And, really, was Velvet Revolver any more memorable?

Iain Macaulay: This is an album that suffers heavily from the loss of the sum of its original band parts. It’s not GN'R. Only in name. It’s the singer on an ego trip asserting his own influences over proceedings without the restraint of partner opinion, and trying to capture a zeitgeist while also trying to forcibly retain the original spark and ethos that was integral to the band, and falling way off the mark. In short, it’s a mess. And nowhere near being a glorious one.

The first two songs sound like poor Rob Zombie rip offs, while the third is Avenged Seven Fold. Street Of Dreams could be GN'R but the lack of ideas make it fall short, If The World is rubbish Elton John, as is There Was A Time.

Scraped is Faster Pussycat. Riad is almost the GN'R we love while Madagascar finally hits the spot. Although it’s too long a wait. This I Love is Elton again, possibly even Queen, but a poor mans copy. The rest? I can’t even be bothered to mention. If ever an album disappointed me it was this one. All I can remember is what I don’t like about it, not what I do. 

I loved G’nR, Faster Pussycat, Hanoi Rocks, Bang Tango. And while bands need to develop and not keep rewriting the wheel at least have the decency to keep one eye on the original vision. This should have been renamed and promoted as Axl's solo attempt rather than becoming a very bad blot on the legacy of the band.

Carl Black: After all the hype before, during and after its release I have never heard this album. The only time I have heard tracks from this album was during a live set in the mid 00s, more on that later. The first thing I noticed was the industrial, processed drum and background sounds. I know the producer "Flood" had worked on the project and that Axl was/is a big Nine Inch Nails fan, but this electronic undercurrent, a constant during the album, was a little half baked, (ironic seeing how long it took to record, everything should have been well done/ burnt to a cinder in that time). 

They should have gone with it or dropped it. Axl did neither. It would have been better if a couple of songs were electrical/industrial, and the rest be left as the classic GN'R sound. Talking of the classic sound, most great GN'R songs derive from one idea, one riff, one melody. These tracks seem to have two ideas per song. Almost without exception I heard two, very distinct ideas shoehorned into one song. This conflicted with the flow of the record and it lacked cohesion. 

This is very clear in a song like Better. Great, catchy chorus, completely different verse that has no relation to the other. A very good riff/idea for the verse and with a chorus that relates to it, would have been fine. Not sure if Axl spent so long pondering over each song that ideas and song structures got a little blurred. This constant tinkering is evident with almost every start and ending to each song. Adding a little here, adding a little there, all adds up. 

It's like when a great painter reaches the end of a masterpiece. They keep wanting to add a stroke. It takes someone to say "it's done, put the brushes down." but with endless money and Everest-sized power over the band, who's to tell Axl anything? One thing is for sure, these songs needed Slash's input. I think things would have been different, for the he better with his contribution. I've come to the conclusion that Axl only has a great voice if he's going balls out full tilt. Which must punish his voice, but all to often on here he calms down and tries a softer, more measured approach. This doesn't work. He sounds a bit bit silly. When he's motoring along his voice is top notch. 

Now Axl loves a piano and a string section. He played that card a few times on here. But I also sense the reluctance to create November Rain Pt II. Maybe it was deliberately done, or without Slash he couldn't, either way I felt some songs could have ended up with the same epic nature as November Rain but did not. After a lot of criticism I did think it was OK. Disjointed and lacking a bit but not as bad as everyone said it was/is. 

Jamie Phillips: Chinese Democracy was a big disappointment. An album that never lived up to the expectation and hype that surrounded it. There are some highlights on this album. The title track, Better, Sorry and Street Of Dreams are decent tracks but then you get duds such as If The World, IRS, Scraped and Riad N’ The Bedouins amongst others. The backstory to this album is ridiculous. 

There are some fans who love it and that's fair enough but when you compare it to Use Your Illusion I & II and of course Appetite for Destruction, Chinese Democracy pales in comparison. The most expensive rock album ever produced and certainly one of the most underwhelming.

Russ Oliver: I must admit, after years of hibernation this album has earned a little daylight. Chinese Democracy is a complex and challenging review for many reasons, not the least of which is the absence of 4/5ths of anything resembling GN'R. 

Awaiting its release with great anticipation, and dreading it a little as well, I made the mistake that perhaps many others have made as well, and that is being selfishly subjective. All art deserves evaluation based on it’s own merits. 

Let’s get something clear. This is not a Guns N' Roses album. That said, this album is solid and meticulously constructed. It is lavish, intricate and emotional with a bombastic industrial posture. 

The title track, Chinese Democracy, lays bare any expectations of timidity. It is big, loud, and heavy. Better gives you a taste of the Axl Rose that made GN'R such a soaring rush in their heyday. Street Of Dreams and Catcher In The Rye are both beautiful and sad, much like November Rain, melancholy with a hint of hope. Prostitute is Axl Rose at his most raw and emotional state. 

There are 14 tracks on Chinese Democracy. Several are average, but most are quite frankly great. Epic effort from Robin Finck, as well as killer shredding from Buckethead and Bumblefoot, and countless other musicians, allow for a remarkable offering. 

This is, in the end, not GN'R, and it may have well been called the Magnum Opus of Axl Rose. Whatever the case, it is a lavish and layered, hard rocking, soulful and a sadly sweet work of art.

Iain Swan: It's Axl Rose's flawed solo masterpiece. Overproduced and incoherent , it is an ill-fated and badly conceived attempt to make the greatest rock record ever, driven by the biggest, most tortured ego in the business: sorely lacking Izzy's co-writing talent and Duff's punk mentality song arranging ability but there is still some of the old Rose magic there. He remains the last great rock star and hopefully now that he has got all of that out of his system he might get back to recording proper Guns N' Roses material.

Barney Schauer: brilliant album, and ahead of its time. Phenomenal guitar playing all through it. One of my all time favourites. Bought it the day it came out, still sounds amazing a decade later. Seen them tour it in 2002, 2006 and 2009 – some of the best shows I've ever seen in my life.

Final Score: 4.83 ⁄10 (456 votes cast, with a total score of 2204)

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