His Despotic Majesty
Or: He Kicked My Ass Like He Said He Would
Midnight PsiMon C. Firefly on Axl, Izzy, Bumblefoot, Guns N’ Roses, and Chinese Democracy – written in 2009
Well, I guess Axl wasn’t kidding when, on “Use Your Illusion,” he said he was in a coma. It’s been 17 years since we’ve had any original material from this guy. That’s fairly insane, especially if you consider the fact that the entire previously-existing Guns N’ Roses catalog was written from 1987-1991.
But now Axl has blessed finally us with his middle-aged near-masterpiece. Yes, a good two-thirds of this album is some of the best popular rock music released this decade, whereas a handful of songs sound like extra tracks not quite on par with the old MTV show “Daria” (Editor’s note: WTF?).
The inconsistency is unfortunate, especially because in the past even Guns N’ Roses’ bad songs still managed to be charming due to the spaced-out goofball angle.
Since I’m being negative, why not continue? The album cover is absolutely boring and terrible. Good gravy, it’s like Newsweek or something. Then again, I suppose GnR never had good album covers. “Appetite for Destruction” was fairly cool (skulls of the band on a Christian cross!!!), but as the old saying goes, “If you stare at a Guns N’ Roses album cover for too long, you die. They are not meant as targets for long-term staring practice.”
So, the cover’s a bummer. Who cares? (not me, obviously, ftw)
The album’s much-talked about industrial elements don’t fit together everywhere. It sounds like a third of this album was written in the angst-ridden ’90s, when Axl was busy being mysterious and listening to tons of industrial jibber-jabber, like NIN and La Bouche. The results of this can be heard in the first two tracks, “Chinese Democracy” and “Shackler’s Revenge.” They seem forced.
Perhaps the biggest surprise and potential letdown of this album is the fact that Axl doesn’t go off on any racist rants about Chinese people! This is the first time Axl has specifically mentioned an ethnic group in his music since 1988’s “Lies” and legions of true believers doubtless expected him to include loads of spot-on zingers. Alas, it is not so – this album’s lyrical choices are Puritan-clean, especially when compared to an average song off of the 1991 “Use Your Illusion” dual release.
Not that I think Axl is actually a racist dude; that one song off of “Lies”– it was like when your friends make an ingeniously clever, racist joke; except in Axl’s case it was an ingeniously clever, racist love song. As I was discussing with a good pal of mine who shall remain anonymous (let’s call him “Seth F.” for convenience), Axl just seems “emotionally complicated.” Much like Dave Mustaine or some other “bad boys” in metal, Axl has a ridiculously sarcastic sense of humor and had a truly unhappy (Christian) childhood, so he’s a bit upset.
Of course, the problem with (or the gift of) anger is that it alienates a lot of people and results in a lot of negative press and attention, and angry people are also always narcissistic and self-involved (I should know).
Since people love it when celebrities fall apart, they love Axl Rose because he’s such a perfect and exciting media icon in this sense. His presence yields a roller-coaster ride! You never know what’s going to happen when he’s around. Either there will be a fight, or there will not be a fight (but seriously, he is a charismatic performer in addition to being a classic “eccentric” genius).
For these reasons, Guns N’ Roses was always more entertaining to me than contemporary heavy pop music groups composed of suburban white kids with nothing to say (i.e., my band). Thus Guns ‘N Roses intrigued me as a kid because Axl’s background is so bitter—a real tale of rags-to-riches.
Axl came from a seriously abusive family filled with Christian zealots in Indiana, from which he ran away before he was legally an adult. His biological father, William Rose — whose existence he learned of while snooping as an adolescent — was considered a (perhaps sexually abusive) psychopath and was not to be spoken of within the young William Bailey’s home. This was strictly enforced, and Axl’s adoptive father was a physically abusive religious fanatic.
Axl alit and reunited with his old pal and songwriting partner Izzy Stradlin in LA and, through various incarnations of the bands LA Guns and Hollywood Rose, Guns N’ Roses came to fruition.
The band rose to prominence right before the popular reception of gangsta-rap and grunge music, and GnR always evokes some kind of old-school Americana (and not just because of the racist comments!). There are some parallels with rap music and the American dream of making it big through sheer brilliance, self-belief, persistence and hard work. The guys from GnR became successful not terribly long after moving to the sleazier side of Los Angeles, but it was no picnic — Axl and Izzy Stradlin came there from bumblefuck America in the first place (no offense to bumblefuck residents). It sounds like there was nothing at all glorious, or happy, about Axl’s early life, except his interest in music.
Overcoming personal hardships is part of what makes cultural icons romantic in the public’s eyes. In terms of drama and emotional depth, it lends credence to their artistic expressions and offers images of martyrdom for young people to fantasize about and “relate to.”
Axl’s notoriety and success are similar to those of Eminem, and I do think their seriously disadvantaged personal stories resonate with listeners nearly as much as their music does, and there’s a bluesy, country-style feel to this stuff – self-therapy through art, or whatever.
Guns N’ Roses also occupied a strange pocket of time in the post-Reagan, pre-gangsta rap, pre-grunge era, and they really epitomized rock stardom and excesses and yet remained somewhat functional (ironically, Axl was the most mercurial, unstable part of the band, but also the first to drop heavy drug use).
The controversial pop-star still exists, what with the last two decades of gangsta rap, black metal, grunge, and the troubled legacies of epic losers such as Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith. But the classic, bluesy, sexual rock n’ roll era seemed to end with Guns N’ Roses.
I cannot think of any band that has made such a serious impact on popular music since Guns N’ Roses. The only parallel in rock music one can think of from the past quarter-century is Nirvana, a band that, of course, rocketed to fame just a few years after Axl et al.
While there have certainly been other genre-defining bands since then, their songs have not penetrated the mainstream with such tenacious success; many of Guns N’ Roses songs are rock classics—cultural staples up there with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Everything off of “Appetite for Destruction” is slick as hell. Ever since I was 12, “Mr. Brownstone” has rocked my world, and I don’t mean the song.
GnR was the Scarface of American rock ‘n roll: an updated, stylized, more dangerous version of the excesses of the genre. GnR may have initially looked like hair metal, but they were a hell of a lot more dangerous. Not that the reckless, crazed, addled, violent, hedonistic sensibility made the band good, but it lent it a certain panache, and few, if any, metal bands that are so overtly violent, crazed and angry don’t write nearly as many songs about loving girls. GnR were never afraid of getting cooties. Actually, you might even say GnR really liked getting cooties.
When Guns N’ Roses first came out in 1987, they shined as something dangerous, new, and exciting. Their music was explosive, sexual, over-the-top, and raw. Guns N’ Roses were living proof that men can do an obscene amount of drugs and maintain widespread sexual allure over a generation of women!
Since then, it’s been a long, characteristically strange ride, and since GnR’s’ heyday, modern albums may not have the ability to create pop-cultural staples that they did 20 years ago. Plus, comeback albums are generally lackluster, forcing one to wonder what made the band’s earlier work so different. Was it merely youthful exuberance? Do they lack real artistic integrity? Is this artist simply inconsistent? Are they washed up?
These are the testing grounds for Axl’s new album and — along with the long, long, strange delay — are the reasons for all the media pressure and hype.
Thankfully, “Chinese Democracy” has its fair share of fine tracks.
The album opener, “Better,” has some moving melodies and contrasting dynamics — it is one of the better industrial-tinged tracks on the album; the heavy, moody, “Sorry” has some of the best hooks on the album; “This I Love” is a dirge-like power ballad with really amazing vocal moments (Axl’s finest?) that are reminiscent of Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and even newer Ihsahn and King Diamond (!); “Prostitute” and “Street of Dreams” are other mid-paced built-up ambient rockers where Axl shows how his singing has actually improved with age; and “I.R.S.” is a charming, heavy, mid-paced tune with a decent build-up to some serious and concise shredding by Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal.
Incidentally, Ron Thal is a total heartthrob of a guitarist. His solos, mixed in with those of other session guitarists such as Robin Fincke and Buckethead, are masterful. Thal is one of the craziest, most humorous, capable “shredders” on the modern fusion/rock/metal electric guitar circuit.
Bumblefoot is like Buckethead if Buckethead had a balanced, mature personality to top off all his weird social phobias (Ed.: In other words — not Buckethead). He’s pretty notable for the really cool sounds and tricks he gets out of the instrument, and though it’s reigned in here, it often complements the production on this new album. Yes, ‘Foot can really rip on the guitar, then abruptly move into slick moments of carefully controlled digital effects and feedback loops, and to (give ’em the) boot, the guy has an awesome sense of phrasing and harmonizing. His solo on “IRS” is totally sick! My only complaint is that Mr. Foot doesn’t get to go off unrestrained for more than a few measures at a time. Somebody’s gotta cut him loose! Really, though, who else could you get to replace Slash? (except maybe any other Shrapnel Records guitarist)
I guess the new style indicates that Guns N’ Roses is no longer a rough-around-the-edges blues-based heavy rock outfit.
Some of this new stuff approaches a Queen-like progressive sound, with the prevalent piano parts and occasional layered vocals, and there are some other interesting elements: reggae or dub-influenced build-ups and ambiance, or some aesthetics similar to mid-to-late-period Smashing Pumpkins stuff (consider Axl’s nasal vocals and the juxtaposition of harmonized guitars, electronic kits and some industrial influences).
Axl’s voice can be a bit weak in a couple of extremely brief, solo, single-tracked moments, but then some of his meandering vocal phrases are quite fascinating (I swear!) and he hits higher notes than usual in some places. As I said before, his performance on “This I Love” is outstanding: really phenomenal, gorgeous harmonies with drawn-out, thoughtful melodies exuding a haunting sense of melancholy unusual even for Axl. Good grief, will someone please give this man a cheesy and meaningless music award already?
This is all good news, but I have to say, I never want to hear a half-speed break-beat again in my life: This album has way too many, to the point of being comical. Half the time it sounds like some Guitar Center hipster from the late 90s is playing an electronic kit (which may actually be happening here … just who are you, “Josh Freese”). It’s annoying occasionally, but it’s not all bad. At first I thought the programmed moments and electronic drum kits would give it a new-Radiohead type of spin, but strangely enough, the big-band production and Axl’s circular wandering vocal patterns give it a soulful feel sometimes — like this is classic Sly or something (or maybe I don’t know anything about Sly and the Family Stone (I actually don’t even know who they are)).
Though I don’t dig every single industrial element, this album has certainly succeeded in creating a completely new aesthetic, some of which is very notable, and I wonder why the title track is the new single, because it absolutely does not demonstrate the appeal of this album.
Before ever hearing this album, I used to think the quality of a pop star’s music was directly related to how much plastic surgery it had received. Just look at the Jackson family – Michael and Janet’s music gets progressively lousier the closer their faces get to resembling Japanese anime (Ed: RIP (jk – good riddance to bad rubbish ftw )).
It’s as though with the release of each good pop album, the pop star has to cut another piece of its face off (please note my striking theory here, where I posit that the pop icon’s face is its actual soul), but with this album, I am pleased to see my hypothesis proven false!
While Axl may now look like the Predator (with his large red dreadlocks and plastic surgery and long bouts of invisibility) his music does not sound at all like that of the Predator!
Considering the hackneyed nonsense we’ve gotten recently from Metallica, the plethora of trashy ’80s hair metal comeback attempts, and washed-up pop stars such as Aerosmith et al., Axl’s new GnR album is startlingly fresh, although I think the industrial stuff should be shelved for a project where he does not use the Guns N’ Roses handle.
Fortunately, the above-mentioned songs and several others are really substantial works; they’re further developments of the epic ballads Axl was doing on “Use Your Illusion.” A lot of this album resembles classic GnR songs like “Locomotive,” “Coma,” “Estranged,” “Dead Horse,” “Civil War,” and other brooding, melancholy numbers written by Axl.
Some of GnR’s punk ‘tude is missing, because guitarist Izzy Stradlin and bassist Duff McKagan are no longer in the band (and neither are any of the original band members. It has been reported, incidentally, that Axl titled the album “Chinese Democracy” in the mid-90s because that’s how he governs his band. GnR is, in other words, a dictatorship). Izzy and Duff wrote many of the band’s really catchy, punked-out tunes, such as “It’s So Easy,” “I Think About You,” “Dust N’ Bones,” and “Double Talkin’ Jive.”
The absence of Izzy, who always offered simplistic, effective songs, is particularly apparent. He contributed a good portion of the band’s sound.
At the same time, Axl does prove what a large part of GnR’s brilliance he contributed (like any charismatic frontman should), but it is really a shame that Izzy and Duff are not here to contribute songs. Maybe Axl was trying to fill in those gaps with his industrial edginess, but those efforts fall a little flat.
This album definitely demonstrates some changes in attitude. The vibe throughout this one is more professional, thought-out and melancholy. This stuff is not fueled by a rage or venomous rants at specific people. Most of this sounds nostalgic, remorseful or slightly heartbroken, which I actually think is pretty cool. Although Axl may be a touchy fellow, his creative output is emotionally intelligent, which is more than I can say for the plethora of dopey indie-rock, post-rock, crust-punk, retro-metal bands making the rounds these days. This stuff even has hints of newer Katatonia, Ulver or mid-period Amorphis!
So take the plunge, dear reader! Dive into this gilded pool of high-quality Hollywood neurosis and rock n’ roll brilliance. I was all set to write something snooty about how bad this album is, but it managed to melt my heart, and my sense of humor.
Abbreviated Axl Rose Timeline:
1987: Axl records himself having sex in the studio. These recordings are mixed into the song “Rocket Queen.”
1988: On the album “Lies,” he rants about immigrants, homosexuals, black people, and police in the song “One in a Million.”
Early ’90s: In addition to punching a lot of people, he challenges Vince Neil and Kurt Cobain to get in the ring with him and also settles a pair of truly ugly lawsuits from an ex-wife and ex-GF in which he is accused of (in addition to generally unhinged, abusive behavior) anal rape.
1991, Montreal: Axl refuses to go onstage during the GnR/Metallica tour after Metallica has to cancel their show because singer James Hetfield is burned by onstage pyrotechnics. Rioting ensues, so like a good friend, Axl takes the rap for James (jk).
1992: Axl swims with the dolphins in the music video for “Estranged.”
Mid-to-late 1990s: Everyone leaves or is kicked out of GnR and Axl fights a lawsuit to retain exclusive rights to the band name. Axl lets Slash keep his top-hat.
1995-2006: Axl Rose disappears into his industrial music lab for over a decade, emerging only for the occasional mug shot.
Early 2000s: Eminem fills in for Axl as America’s bad-boy pop genius
2008: 20 years after the Tianmen Square incident, Axl releases the well-timed sixth Guns N’ Roses album, “Chinese Democracy.”
2009: Coits guitarist Psi Co. reviews “Chinese Democracy” in Seth’s fanzine.
2011: Midnight Psi’s now-classic review is reprised on DayAfterDayDC (ftw).