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Chinese Democracy

The album fifteen years in the making that sounds like a slick but robotic imitation of what it might have been long ago.

Rating: 4 / 10

Peter Murphy, 04 Dec 2008

Well, all comment is probably superfluous by now. Never has a new album review seemed so retrospective. If you care, you’ve probably heard the thing online. Even if you don’t, you’ve probably browsed the reviews out of pure curiosity. Either way you’ve got the jump on me, dear reader, for in the interests of a fair and unbiased verdict, I imposed a media blackout until clapping ears on the slow beast that is Chinese Democracy.

15 years in the making, with a budget and inbuilt mythology that makes Heaven’s Gate look like Once – could it be anything other than a glorious failure? Axl’s folly? And does anyone care?

Well, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t at least a vestige of residual affection for G N’ R. Some of us can still remember Headbanger’s Ball circa 1987: Poison, Nelson, Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Ratt – by comparison, the Gunners were guttersnipes who inhabited the same glam-punk underworld as Hanoi Rocks and Johnny Thunders. But like any totalitarianist empire, they fell foul of their own expansion plan and within four short years became that which they sought to puke all over. The stage show began to resemble a Cher production, the hair got bigger, the payroll longer, the diva strops more frequent. Were the band surrounded by so many yes-men that no one dared point out they’d become Dynasty on drugs?

Never mind. These are old jibes. It’s not news that G N’ R aren’t exactly musically relevant these days. On the other hand, how many albums are released to cries of foul from the Chinese Communist party, decrying Axl as a force for western wickedness utilising democracy as a pawn?

One thing’s for sure, G N’ R circa 2008 is no democracy. The original line-up might have resembled a parody of every sleaze-rock archetype going, but you need character to be caricatured, and Izzy, Slash, Duff and Steven had cartoon charisma. Ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson excepted, I’d be hard pressed to mention another member in the current ensemble. The cast of players assembled here are competent pros doing slick but robotic imitations of their predecessors. If anything, they sound for all the world like Velvet Revolver, with a caterwauling Rose replacing Scott Weiland.

Even the most hard hitting songs (‘Better’, the epic ruin of ‘There Was A Time’) sound cluttered and overegged: rudimentary tunes tarted up with overdubs and treatments that could’ve been hoovered up from the cutting room floor of the late 90s industrial/goth boom, or the odd blast of funk-metal dosed with designer world music flavours (‘If The World’).

No performance is left unprocessed. Rose obviously spent as many of those lost years poring over the footnotes of Modern Recording Monthly as he did writing songs (the lyrics rarely rise above the level of incoherent paranoiac ravings). Only three tunes – the rather lovely ‘Catcher In The Rye’, the broody, bluesy ‘Sorry’ and the Jim Steinman-meets-Queen big ballad ‘Street Of Dreams’ – come close to moments of clarity.

Chinese Democracy is a bewildering mess of multi-tracked vocals, scruffy metal riffage and grandiloquent synth ‘n’ string backdrops. The feeling is like meeting the great wild love of your youth at a hoi-polloi party 15 years later and realising – with some relief – that the voodoo’s worn off.

Peter Murphy

Key track: ‘Street Of Dreams’

Rating: 4 / 10
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