Welcome to the Bungle

A review of Guns N' Rose “Chinese Democracy”

Bungle in the Jungle?
Bungle in the Jungle?

Bad news first: Chinese Democracy isn’t the massacre Axel Rose deserves. Cornrow Buffy comes off smelling like a Rose, all right; the second half of the disc nearly obscures the fact that Guns N’ Roses’ first new album since 1993’s sorry The Spaghetti Incident has virtually nothing to do with Guns N’ Roses.

GNR’s full-length debut, Appetite for Destruction, like Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols a decade before it, pitched a Molotov cocktail of rage and despair into a popular culture suffocated by inept government, in this case one no longer amused by a two-term simian in the White House. And in 1987, with the recession of King George the First imminent, things weren’t going to get better anytime soon. Rabid white metal trash from L.A.’s Sunset Strip, already primed by the commercial success of Mötley Crüe, struck a nerve of defiant resolve not gonged since AC/DC’s hellish Back in Black.

Proving it wasn’t a fluke were 1991’s Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, metaldom’s version of the Clash following up London Calling with Sandinista: peak sprawl in all its squalid glory. In the aftermath of GNR finally punking out in its plate of meatballs two years later, every member of the original Appetite band either quit or was eventually fired by Rose. His first solo album, Chinese Democracy, with a list of credits almost as long as the ProTools user's manual, doesn’t approach Tiananmen Square, but only Sam Peckinpah recasting his Wild Bunch could ever hope to equal the locomotive band of marauders once branded Guns N’ Roses.

Chinese Democracy’s opening title track sounds like it might have been mined off Use Your Illusion, kicking off as lean and leathery as “You Could Be Mine” with a “Dead Horse” head thrown between the sheets. By the time the guitar solo arrives, however, the first in a long line of cavity drill bits – Laurence Olivier wasn’t this root canal in Marathon Man – the illusion’s been shattered. Succeeding, Prodigy-prone clunker “Shackler’s Revenge” sheens like every bad metal act Kurt Cobain gave his life for.

The chorus to three-spot, “Better,” snarls with vintage shithouse Rose, but the rest jumbles up a Shanghai surprise, half video game, half 1980s Kansas. First ballad “Street of Dreams” sullies the silly name of Rainbow’s original MTV perfume commercial, Rose layering his Ajax screech and Schnauser croon while wringing his own neck with piano wires. “Catcher in the Rye” curdles offensive in its evocation of J.D. Salinger – not someone above defacing, mind you – simply because the song’s author demonstrates moronic judgement in co-opting popular nomenclature with no place in a hard rock song.

“Scraped” may be the simplest, no frills banger on Chinese Democracy, short, straight-ahead, and while inadvertently high school guidance counselor, strong gateway into the album’s better second half. On a genuine GNR disc, it’d be high-grade filler. Here it’s too little too late, even if back-to-back with similarly scrappy “Riad N’ the Bedouins,” which like its predecessor exhibits no real hook. Why Replacements icon Tommy Stinson co-wrote the latter song with Rose is anyone’s guess.

“Sorry,” another power ballad whose careful, oftentimes embarrassingly emotive vocal suggests that even Axel Rose gets annoyed with his ferret shriek, approaches that which it tries to replicate: Use Your Illusion’s “November Rain.” Backer “I.R.S.,” finds Chinese Democracy beginning to stabilize melody-wise were it not for a chorus too clever for its own good. At every point Rose just can’t help but shoot himself in the thigh. That’s what happens when you think you’re Mao Zedong.

“Madagascar” also turns on the “November Rain” machine, and in title alone, achieves genuine GNR, complete with “Civil War”-type spoken sample, which ultimately undercuts the song as it loses focus and wanders until its finish. Given such stray, the piano and fairly honest opening verse of “This Is Love” works, strings assuaging Rose’s squeal. Here the solo even bottles a flash of Mr. Saul Hudson. Closer “Prostitute” plays appropriate enough as the final kiss-off, the singer’s lyric part rationalization for his own celebrity pollution.

Izzy Stradlin, burn-out from the original Gun N’ Roses, placed his “14 Years” after Use Your Illusion II opener “Civil War.” When he croaks, “You just don’t step inside to 14 years,” he sets up Rose for the wailing chorus.

But it’s been
14 years of silence.
It’s been
14 years of pain.
It’s been 14 years that are gone forever
And I’ll never have again.

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GNR's Chinese Democracy

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