There can only be a few words and phrases which suit an introduction to this album: Axl and Dizzy; G'n'R or not G'n'R; 50 guitarists?; and most importantly- finally! Yes the album which was spread over 2 millenniums finally arrived but could it be G'n'R as only Axl and Dizzy survived? I guess that depends on what sort of fan you are. Axl chewed his away through so many musicians on this album that it all becomes a farce, an irrelevance, and all that matters in the end as it always only does, is the music. So, is it more Appetite than Spaghetti?
`Chinese Democracy' opens with a screaming siren a cacophony of voices and sounds- Axl is back and still crazy. A chunky set of chords start, we hear that famous screech, and then the drums blast off. The song starts in high gear and progresses through a rampage of lyrics concerning the situation in China and by relation, the situation both in the US and Axl's head. and a variety of riffs and hooks. The chorus is typically brutal, the melodies and guitars are angry and more than slick, skilful, and tuneful enough to make us forget that Slash is not involved. This is a raucous opener which will force the body to move and whet your buds for more, although after repeated listens it doesn't have many memorable moments.
`Shackler's Revenge' opens with effects laden guitars, sounding almost (gasp) nu-metal. Thankfully this is forgotten as the various phases of the song bun their way into our ears. Axl's voice doesn't sound as strong as it once did here and it is clear that there has been some studio `magic' help. Having said that, he is still able to scream with the best of them, and the music is good enough here that he can simply groove along. The pre-chorus is funky, the chorus features the good old lower register of Axl's voice and has an instant singalong quality. Once again the guitars are excellent, lots of tapping and effects gadgetry which Slash was never too accustomed to using.
`Better' is probably the best song on the album and one of the most famous in the years before the album's release. This one mergers Axl's softer side with pained vocals and lyrics which show that even decades on love still has the power to confuse, anger, and enrapture him. The verse melodies are great here, especially when mixed with the child-like rhyming of the intro and the groovy guitars. Axl lets out a few raw, metal screams unlike what we are used to and the song takes a left turn half way through for an interesting, heavy middle section. There are some brilliant guitar solos here, lots of new ideas mostly based around new technologies, but some showing Axl's innovative song-writing. We know he is capable of epics, and this is as good as some of the more well known classics though cuts out the self-absorbed over the top style which annoys and entertains many.
`Street Of Dreams' is the first piano led track of the album, a stirring anthem with a fat 80s USA heart at it's centre. A song of love, hope, and inspiration with the usual sprinkling of cyanide Axl really lets loose with some soaring vocals here. It may come close to cheese for some, but for the rest of us it reminds us of all the best fist pumping moments of Paradise City et al. I was hoping this one would have a chaotic, ultra fast ending like PC but it is content to rest on a magnetic middle and calm, but affirming conclusion.
`If The World' doesn't really sound like anything the band have done before, starting with the Spanish guitars, the weird wah guitars, the synth strings, and Axl's brand new voice over some strange melodies and timing. It is quite experimental, new territory for the band and it doesn't always work for me. There are funk and jazz influences, and it should really be more interesting than it is- it's ok but I don't find the melodies capture my attention enough and I can't work out if sounds like a lost Bond or `adult' movie song.
`There Was A Time' continues with the experimentation though to a much smaller degree. The verse builds up to a crushing chorus, the following verses with emotive strings and emotional lyrics sung with Axl's heart being chewed to bits in his mouth. The song seems to reference a past love, possibly Stephanie Seymour, but you could easily make it about ex band members. He sings of once happy times corrupted into sickening memories, the solo is great and Axl's vocals at the end are as effective as anything he's ever done.
`Catcher In The Rye' gets the silver prize, but wins the `Should have been a single' award as it has the universal quality of old G'n'R- enough emotion and melody to be commercial- heavy, angry, and with enough guitars to please everyone else. Referencing the Sallinger masterpiece in name and powerful content this is a great song. We get plenty of solos in all the right places and the melodies are full of anthemic punch, with big choruses and singalong moments everywhere. This has all the hallmarks of a live classic.
`Scraped' is a weird one. We have Axl's new voice mixed with old, some interesting riffs and heavy production, guitars coming in and disappearing without warning, bizarre verses, and a big chorus which doesn't grab as much as it would like to. That said, it is still heavy enough and has plenty of head banging potential- it simply isn't as memorable as some other tracks and sounds quite similar to the next song.
`Riad N The Bedouins' opens in Immigrant Song style, lyrics covering Nomadic travel, war, and love. It's all quite cryptic and can be taken anyway you wish, but more importantly it is packed with crazy guitar antics, a decent chorus with strong vocals, and is one of the sadly few high paced songs on the album.
`Sorry' again sounds unlike anything the band has done before, beginning with downbeat lyrics and gloomy, slow paced melodies. Again this can be read as a response to the ex-bandmates who have accused him of a variety of things throughout the years, some justified, others not. In this way I find the chorus to be an apology to the fans who are unsure where their loyalties should lie- with Axl in moving forwards, or with the old band in leaving an untarnished record. The chorus edges towards doom metal, though more Sabbath style than anything recent with it's massive riff and grimy snail's pace. The more I listen to this one, the more it grows on me as there are many subtleties which you won't catch first time round.
`IRS' sees Axl dealing with the paranoia of circus of opinion surrounding him from both the media and fans. It's a good enough song with some variety in sounds and mixes heavy parts with more mellow places, but has some of the best lyrics, and best delivery on the album- it is Axl at his snarling, vitriolic, intelligent, and humourous best.
`Madagascar' was for years before the album release the most famous song. It had been played live many times, and was seen by die-hard fans as proof that Axl `still had it'. I too loved this song over those years, but now that the album is out I have to admit that it has lost something. Yes, it is still an epic, still a great song, but I think it has been somehow diluted. The song is in the fashion of (and samples, kind of) Civil War, moves through a few different time and melody changes and is packed with emotion and sound clips. There is plenty of the usual- good guitars, fine drumming, and potent melodies. I enjoy how Axl places himself in the position of a wronged God with some of the lyrics, and seeing himself as a living Madagascar- floating alone and small away from a much larger group. Nice metaphors, nice song, and in the end does prove that Axl `still has it'.
`This I Love' is the middle song of the fantastic ending trilogy of the album. This is typical anguished Axl, like November Rain but stripped back with a hundred razors- this is a skinless Axl, open and exposed to such simple of horrors of daily life like waking, breathing, and the touch of air. Axl's vocals are on top form here, the melodies are gut wrenching, and the twinning of piano and guitars is sublime, especially when their grander sister strings joins in. Axl is clearly still the tortured soul who will attack anyone in a knee jerk reaction, a man wronged who wants to have it right for once.
`Prostitute' is a brilliant ending song, similar to the previous song, but thankfully free (mostly) of the pain and is much more optimistic- make what you will of the title. It is another weaving epic with many stages, each as strong as the one which preceded it. The piano and guitars again are extremely effective, Axl is at his most emotive and questioning- of others and of himself, of coping with living `fortune and shame'. There is a ferocious solo before the song splits off into one of the best final few moments of any G'n'R song with that lonely piano.
In the end this album was never going to live up to the hype, and it would probably never live up to the excellence of those first albums. That was never the point. What it accomplishes is forever proving that the spirit of Guns'n'Roses lives on through Axl, and proves that there is still a place in the world for them and their music. Axl has moved on, the rest of the band has moved on, and it seems like many fans need to as well. We are left with an album that rocks, pleases, and frustrates- I would have personally liked to have seen some faster songs, and there aren't really any songs with a universally recognizable riff or hook; but that's just me. We have quite a personal album, packed with emotion and madness, one with quite a few great ballads, and quite a few average, forgettable rock songs. Hopefully we get to hear more from the band as Axl it seems still has a lot to say, and many more ghosts to uncover; there is a haunting sense though that this may be the end.