Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy

Chinese Democracy will enter the annals of rock history – or at the very least music trivia – for its comical gestation period. Arriving 17 years after Guns N’ Roses’ last album of original material, recorded across 14 studios with an endless turnstile of session musicians and temporary band members, it’s a remarkable achievement Axl Rose ever got the damn thing finished.

After all, a lot can happen in 17 years. Children born at the time Guns N’ Roses were bothering the charts with Use Your Illusion I & II albums are now on the cusp of adulthood. Back then the iPod revolution was merely a twinkle in the eye of Steve Jobs’ Apple and the music industry has changed immeasurably since.

Axl Rose was like a rock and roll Howard Hughes – shut off from society, obsessing over his very own –  “Spruce Goose’. All the while, diehards, casual fans and music critics were sharpening their knives in anticipation of a grand failure. None of this affected Rose though. It didn’t matter the cost; he would take as long as he could to finish his epic. And now it has finally arrived.

First thing’s first: this is not really Guns N’ Roses any more. The idea of this being a band has long since vanished. It’s clearly the Axl Rose show – not just because of the revolving door of backing musicians but because musically and thematically it is Rose’s product. While the ghost of past glories haunts the album – specifically in the Slash-like guitar histrionics and November Rain templates – the melodies and backing are built exactly to Rose’s liking. As a result, a lot of tracks support the rusty timbre of his voice beautifully.

In fact Rose’s vocals are one of the first things to strike the listener in this dense album. His voice has aged well in its rough grain and he is still capable of skyscraping falsetto when the need arises. Witness If The World, as Rose soars against a convoluted mix of trip-hop beats and Spanish guitar. Likewise, Catcher In The Rye is as upbeat as the album allows.

It’s clear Rose has spent the intervening years polishing each of these tracks within an inch of their lives. While it means each track presents dense layers to work through, it’s a rich and rewarding listen for it. There’s no simple, straight-up rock to be found. Instead we have symphonic ballads like There Was A Time, industrial grooves in Shackler’s Revenge and an eclectic mix of styles and arrangements all over. Holding it all together is Rose’s tortured self-loathing and defiance towards a world that just doesn’t understand him.

Chinese Democracy is the ultimate expression of rock and roll narcissism. However, Rose’s lyrics and intentions actually hit home because, pity or respect him, you realise he’s spent a good chunk of his life working on this set of 14 songs. Even if it isn’t one of the best Guns N’ Roses albums, it sure as hell proves Rose has stuck to his guns with a steely dedication.

Chinese Democracy is out now through Universal.