The pop music world was a very different place in September 1991, the last time Guns N' Roses released new material. The albums - Use Your Illusion I and II, issued simultaneously - debuted atop the charts and would eventually sell more than 14 million copies combined. At the time, Axl Rose and crew dominated MTV, the network was barely a decade old and the World Wide Web had only been around for about a month.
Many people bought the latest hits on compact discs and cassettes. The iPod wouldn't come for another 10 years. Some of today's biggest pop sensations - Taylor Swift, Chris Brown and Rihanna - were still in diapers. Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, the Disney tween queens, weren't even born. Resplendent in sparkly genie pants, his feet shuffling at warp speed, MC Hammer was the hottest "rapper" in America. Garth Brooks was the country king of pop.
Two years later, Guns N' Roses, perhaps the most visible hard-rock band in the world, put out The Spaghetti Incident? set of glam-rock covers. Not long after that, the group started work on a collection of new songs. That album, Chinese Democracy, would take 14 arduous years and a reported $14 million to complete. Finally, it arrives today, sold exclusively at Best Buy and BestBuy.com.
The reasons for the holdup are numerous and convoluted. Heated personnel changes, obsessive tinkering, leaked album cuts and Rose's overdeliberation are just a few. With so many missed released dates, fans and even some of GNR's original members thought the album would never come out.
Although no CD is worth such an exhausting wait, Chinese Democracy should appease hard-core GNR fans, and it may pull in new ones. The big, searing guitar riffs and grinding, steel-bolted grooves are as solid as anything the group has done before. At times, Rose folds in different instrumental touches: a wash of orchestral strings, an Indian sitar and French horns. Samples of Braveheart and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. even haunt the mix. But the various musical additives and incongruous vocal excerpts aren't necessarily game-changing. They're just there.
With a battalion of producers and musicians contributing to the project in the past 14 years, Chinese Democracy can't help but sound overstuffed and laborious in spots. The title track and first single, which opens the album, is a prime example.
But afterward, in the first half, the music is a bit leaner and more pointed. "Shackler's Revenge," a standout, is an unrelenting metal-dance number that perfectly sets up "Better," another danceable marriage of pop and metal. After a few body-slamming cuts, Rose ventures into power balladry. The soaring, almost cinematic backdrop of "Street of Dreams" is nicely juxtaposed with Rose's melodic, feet-on-fire screams.
Many of the tracks were recorded in the '90s, and the production touches sometimes echo the era. But it's apparent, especially in the latter half of the album, that the reclusive Rose kept an ear to the trends. A swaggering, R&B-friendly groove drives "If the World," and a slight techno pulse informs "Riad N' the Bedouins."
Although the arrangements are overcooked in spots and a few songs don't quite congeal right away, Rose sounds invested. His signature vocals blaze through the metallic thicket of jagged guitars, drums and keyboards. Chinese Democracy surely isn't the classic that Appetite for Destruction is. Given pop's fragmentation in the past 14 years, the album probably won't achieve the cultural ubiquity of the Use Your Illusion sets. But the most-delayed album in modern-rock history is hardly an overpriced letdown.
Guns N' Roses
(Black Frog/Geffen Records) ***