Guns N’ Roses was once, long ago, for a brief moment, the greatest rock band in the world. They were certainly the greatest thing to have happened to my musical world since my discovery of Metallica in about 1987. They seemed to straddle the gap between the thrash bands the boys in my class listened to — Megadeth, Exodus, Death Angel, Venom, Slayer — and the wussy bands the girls were into, like Whitesnake and Poison. Yes, they were blues-tinged and had big hair and L.A. rock-star clothes, all of which thrash had rejected as affectations. But they rocked undeniably, and both boys and girls knew it. For a while there, they were my definition of cool.
So it was with great disappointment that I watched G’N’R descend into bloated awfulness and then more than a decade of silence. Lies was a nice little acoustic experiment that was more influential than it’s given credit for, ushering in Tesla’s Five Man Acoustical Jam in 1990 and MTV’s Unplugged in 1989, but it was a stop-gap, and its real bite was the 1986 recording Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide. Use Your Illusion was hyperextended, bland and self-indulgent, and The Spaghetti Incident? was both a holding pattern and an embarrassment.
For the last decade or so, Axl has been working on a solo project that would probably have received a tenth the attention if he didn’t retain the rights to the Guns N’ Roses name. But he does, and at long last, it looks like the long-awaited Chinese Democracy may actually emerge from the wreckage of a once-great band. Three tracks have been leaked, two of which are supposedly on the record. How are they?
I wanted whatever G’N’R came back with to be good. I guess it would’ve been sort of lame for Axl just to rehash their old sound, and there’s never been anything to indicate that he had anything else to give, but they were once so biting and lean and street-hungry and gritty, and I guess I hoped some of that intensity and snarl could somehow be recaptured.
These three songs aren’t exactly awful, but they don’t have it. On “I.R.S.,” Axl sounds like Ozzy Osbourne in his Lita Ford period of suckage, while the near-seven-minute “There Was a Time” has the squishy fat of Use Your Illusion, complete with strings to back the anodyne guitar solos. “Blues” is the worst of the lot, opening with the kind of piano that Axl mysteriously thinks is cool or arty or something and wandering through the ballad-lands until it drags itself up for the kind of climax you’d expect if “Sweet Child O’ Mine” had been written and arranged by Neil Sedaka.
If they were by anyone but Axl, none of these songs would be worthy of much attention. If this is what Chinese Democracy is like, maybe Hu Jintao is right after all.