The most anticipated record in rock history begins with a big noise — but it’s ultimately more of a whimper than a bang. The opening title track amounts to a Pro Tools mess of guitar processing that pours out of the speakers loud and hard but never rocks, never swings, never grabs you the way, say, the entire first side of Appetite for Destruction did. Axl Rose’s voice, though, remains an awesomely sadistic growl, a reminder that, yes, it has been missed during the past 15 years.
Chinese Democracy improves with the industrial-informed freakout “Shackler’s Revenge” and again with the muscular guitar kiss-off “Better” — because no one delivers bitter quite like Axl. The same theme is explored on the power ballad “Street of Dreams” (previously leaked as “The Blues”). Keyboards, strings, face-melting guitar solos (courtesy of both Buckethead and Robin Finck), it’s Axl at the helm, the musical madman at his postmodern, Wall of Sound best. The only bummer is when the singer dips into his lower register. I can’t help but hear Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s “Dracula’s Lament.” On the terrifically bombastic “Catcher in the Rye,” Rose offers an update on his mental health. “If I thought that I was crazy,” he muses. “Well, I’d guess I’d have more fun.” Outside of power ballad mode, the last Gunner standing largely strikes out. “If the World” is a regrettable hodgepodge of moody rave beats, Spanish guitar and banal lyrics. “Scraped” is an awfully pedestrian modern rock track that gives way to the only slightly meatier arena rocker “Riad N’ The Bedouin” and the snail-paced “Sorry” brings the album to its knees. But not down for the count.
Finally, with track 11, “I.R.S.,” we get a blast of rock urgency, at least for the most part. It’s hard for anything to sound vital when it’s undergone as much digital editing as the tracks on Chinese Democracy. Axl bids farewell with the most piss-poor power ballad of the bunch, “Prostitute.” And that’s a shame. Chinese Democracy is better than the vast majority of hard rock records being peddled these days. Critics would be hailing it as a triumph if a new band had issued this 71-minute behemoth. But it’s Chinese [fucking] Democracy, a record that took 15 years to make and includes four pages of credits. Yet there’s no “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Stairway to Heaven” or even a song that holds up to “November Rain.” (Black Frog/Geffen) ***