Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

So let’s see here, in 2008 America’s elected its’ first African-American president, both a comic book movie (“The Dark Knight”) and an animated film (“Wall-E”) are being talked about as legitimate Best Picture contenders, gas not only hit an all-time high ($4-plus a gallon) but also dropped as far as it went down, and a neo-con MILF moosehunter from Alaska made it onto the Republican undercard as a Vice Presidential selection. Oh, and Guns N’ Roses released a new album.

Yes, I think it’s safe to say Hell has frozen over. So that’s why it’s so cold…

Mark this day- on Sunday, November 23, 2008, formidable ’80s metal powerhouse Guns N’ Roses released its’ first album of original material since the first Bush administration. I guess all it took was Dr. Pepper to offer all of America a free Dr. Pepper if the album came out by year’s end to call Axl’s bluff. I look forward to hearing this album with said Dr. Pepper in 6-8 weeks.

Little known fact folks- I’m a hard-core GN’R fan from way back. You wouldn’t know it looking at me, but the raw power of their music really resonated with me back in my teens. True, it’d take a few years to really get the full meaning of some of their tunes (“Mr. Brownstone”), and some of the tracks don’t really resonate with me to this day (stuff like “Back Off Bitch,” “Don’t Damn Me,” and “Get in the Ring”), but what rock fan can’t hear “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Don’t Cry,” “Nightrain,” “Locomotive,” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and not be swept away by the hard-driving intensity in Axl’s vocals, Slash’s guitar, and Duff’s bass playing?

Well, as is well documented by this point, the only one of those ingredients you’ll find on “Chinese Democracy”- released today- is Axl’s vocal drive. After 1993’s moderately successful cover album “The Spaghetti Incident?” and years of litigation and controversy involving Axl and the band’s live concerts- the low coming during the “Use Your Illusion” tour when a riot broke out in St. Louis- the band split up, leaving Axl- who’d gotten controlling rights of the name- the only remaining band member to work on “Democracy.” Years came and went, as did players, producers, studios, and money (a reported $6 million had already been spent as of 2000), and with the exception of the occasional live performance, single release (“Oh My God,” which was on the soundtrack for the 1999 actioner “End of Days,” and one track I still have yet to hear), and bit of news about some new business with Axl (a 2000 article by Rolling Stone really getting down to business in a compelling narrative), the album didn’t surface except in talk of whether we’d ever see it.

Well, I never did pick up the “Live Era ’87-’93” double disc set that came out in ’99 (my “Use Your Illusion” video cassettes have sufficed me well for a Live GN’R fix) nor the 2004 “Greatest Hits” CD- why bother? I’ve got it all anyway- but when word came out that “Democracy” was finally coming out, you better believe I was picking it up.

It was worth the wait. It’s just too damn bad Slash, Duff, and the other original members of GN’R (including rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and “Use Your Illusion” drummer Matt Sorum) couldn’t wait it out to share in the down-and-dirty triumph Axl delivers. True, it’s unlikely this project will produce any classic tracks in the vein of “Don’t Cry,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” “November Rain,” “Civil War,” or “Patience” (off of “GN’R Lies”), but there’s more than a few that capture the raw feel of the “Appetite for Destruction” and “Use Your Illusion” years to satisfy old-school fans of the band. Looking at the booklet for the album, to try and attribute much-deserved credit for every single person apart of this project (from guitarists Buckethead and Robin Finck to bassist Tommy Stinson and a drummer known as Brain- pick it up and read the credits to get the full scope of this project, which employed enough musicians to constitute an orchestra) would be an exercise in futility, so for convenience sake, all credit will be given to Axl and producer/engineer Caram Costanzo for finding a way to make the whole damn thing work as a cohesive and coherent work- believe me when I say that when it comes to years-in-the-making projects, that’s not the easiest thing to do (I’ve run into similar issues with my next album).

Rose takes a lot of risks with this record, which seems to encapsulate every style of music that’s surfaced since GN’R blasted onto the scene 21 years ago, making it’s cohesive feel all the more impressive. He finds a hip-hop groove with a hard rock edge in the lyrical sound of “Madagascar” (which uses snippets of Martin Luther King Jr. and “Cool Hand Luke” to maximum effect). The title track (which I’ve been listening to a lot for the past week after pre-ordering it on iTunes) is a speed-metal opening that feels more in keeping with the grunge sound of the ’90s than the sound the original band captured in the late ’80s. And “If the World”- which could be heard in the end credits to “Body of Lies”- provided an unexpected introduction to the new sound of this new GN’R when I screened the movie a month-plus ago, but a pleasantly satisfying one.

More satisfying, however, are several of the surprises Rose has for the listener on the album. Most especially are the power ballad “This I Love”- which seems like a cousin to earlier classics like “Don’t Cry” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in all the right ways; “Sorry,” a reasonably restrained ballad from Axl that seems to come from the heart; “Better,” a hard-rocking piece of slam poetry with backing guitars to get heads banging; the lyrical, piano-driven “Street of Dreams” (probably one of my faves off the album); and the closing track “Prostitute,” which takes some sharp left-turns musically that go against the all-too-blunt title. But I’m sure depending on your rock mindset, you’ll find some of the other tracks on here more to your liking than these.

But really, that’s always been part of the appeal of Guns N’ Roses. While the hard-rock party song “Paradise City” was my first introduction to the band back in the day, what kept me hooked were the tracks like “Estranged,” “November Rain,” and “Civil War,” which were less head-banging treats but ballads that touched on something deep inside of the human condition. The more one learns about Axl himself, the more surprising such insight seems, as he’s always been something of a contradiction unto himself (making the title of this album, itself a contradiction, entirely appropriate). On the one hand, his reported use of new age methods and remedies to heal past hurts is a window into a sympathetic soul. But on the other hand, there’s the volatile aggressor who lashed out at security at an Arizona airport in 1998, touched off a riot at a show in 1992, and so alienated past loves that they took him to court for years. Which is the real Axl Rose? If “Chinese Democracy” does nothing else, it indicates that both sides of Axl, while contradictory, are nonetheless essential to his artistic success. Maybe age (Axl’s now 46) will make things clearer for both Rose and his fans. One things for sure- if “Chinese Democracy” is an indication of the type of music we’ll get from Axl in the years to come, I say bring it on.

Welcome back to the jungle Axl.

Grade for “Chinese Democracy”– A-

Guns N’ Roses: The Albums:
“Appetite for Destruction” (1987)- A+
“GN’R Lies” (1988)- B+
“Use Your Illusion I” (1991)- A-
“Use Your Illusion II” (1991)- A
“The Spaghetti Incident?” (1993)- B-
“Live Era ’87-’93” (1999)- N/A
“Greatest Hits” (2004)- A+ (based on having heard all tracks previously; I don’t actually own it)

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