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Review: Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy

Myspace_music_to_globally_p My review of Guns N' Roses' long-awaited Chinese Democracy runs in Monday's Miami Herald, Tropical Life. Here's what it will say:

Gun Guns N' Roses, Chinese Democracy (Black Frog/Geffen). 2.5 stars

   Democracy hasn't come to China, but two President Bushes, two terms for Clinton and the Obama election all came and went in the 17 years since Guns N' Roses released Use Your Illusion I and II, its last collection of original material.

  Singer and songwriter Axl Rose, the band's sole remaining original member, and a cast of characters so voluminous it takes five pages in the CD's liner notes to credit, spent 14 years recording Chinese Democracy in 14 studios from Los Angeles to London. The cost, millions.

Seldom has any album come out under this crushing weight of expectations. Though Rose, 46, goes above the call of duty, employing five guitarists to replace the departed Slash, Chinese Democracy isn't upper-case Great.

   Too much of the 71-minute, 14-track album is overthought and, its worst offense, it's sonically thin and poorly mixed. Unlike recent top-shelf hard rock albums from Metallica, AC/DC and Nickelback, Chinese Democracy has no bottom end. We knew we'd miss Slash; who figured GNR's departed rhythm section would be missed even more?

   But some of Chinese Democracy -- two gorgeous, Elton John-inspired tracks, Street of Dreams and This I Love, plus There Was a Time, another massive epic, which features six guitarists, a Mellotron, a choir, Rose's barbed-wire squeal and an orchestral arrangement it took five men to handle -- are, at the very least, lower-case great. This is music on par with the best from the sprawling Use Your Illusion.

   Then there's Madagascar, another windswept tune in the November Rain vein. Madagascar employs sampled elements from two Martin Luther King Jr. speeches plus movie soundbites from Cool Hand Luke, Braveheart, Seven, Casualties of War and Mississippi Burning. All of this interweaves with more orchestra, French horns and guitars.

   This is where some longtime fans might start to bail. Those hoping for the leaner, sleazier hard rock muscle of GNR's 1987 landmark Appetite for Destruction, get less attention from an indulgent Rose this time.

   But Rose issues his critics a challenge up front: "[I]t would take a lot more hate than you/To end the fascination'' and then closes more than an hour later with the confessional Prostitute. "Seems like forever and a day/If my intentions are misunderstood/Please be kind/I've done all I should.''

   For the most part, yes, he has. Given the ambition, the majesty of its best material,and the return of a singular hard rock voice, the flawed but compelling Chinese Democracy impresses.

  Pod Picks: There Was a Time, Street of Dreams, Shackler's Revenge.

Photo: Business Wire

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St. Robster

I can only imagine the letdown of hearing this infinitessimally overdue album. I envision a better Use Your Illusion which ain't saying much. Axl petered out long ago. Let's just leave the nice memories of early GNR untainted by this spectacle. Slash should have sued to prevent him from calling it GNR.

Earle Stevens

LOL Sue Axl? He owns the name. He couldn't sue Axl anymoe than you or I could.

Ol

Lol!

You complain about the sound quality?? This is one of the BEST produced albums of the last decade. What were you listening to it on? An Ipod? You didnt hear any bottom end? Get a new system mate! You obviously have a garbage stereo! And you state "Death Magnetic" as a guide for GOOD sound? Are you nuts??!? That album sounds bloody terrible!

HoCo

I played GNR on an expensive home system, a good car stereo AND iPod and it's thin and overproduced on all of them and requires that I boost the volume a full 4 to 5 positions on the knob higher than I have to do for most any other current CD, not just in the rock vein.
As for Metallica, I've heard all the complaints about its overloud sound mix and compression. It sounds terrific in my car. Certainly has more presence than the GNR CD. And the Nickelback has a whomping big bottom sound. There's no bass on this GNR CD despite at least 2 bassists credited in the liner notes.
A colleague of mine at another paper even called me last week to ask if it was just him or was there something wrong with the sound? Not just him.

Tom

This is utterly ridiculous. It's a pretty sad day when someone, a critic, who should be at least a little bit "in the know," points to one of the absolute WORST sounding mainstream, big release albums, Death Magnetic, as a high point of sound quality, and pans the sound quality of an actually well-mastered album in this new Guns 'N Roses album.

If you are listening in your car, Howard, and Death Magnetic sounds good, you must have a very poorly balanced system. It is truly awful sounding, which is unfortunate because it has some good music on it. Get thee some good speakers, and probably an amp and a sub, stat!

Chinese Democracy is one of the few albums that actually sounds like real instruments being played by live musicians, rather than something churned out by computers, which is rather ironic given the piece-meal nature of the album. Unfortunately, you sound like a victim of modern compression, like I was for years. You would do yourself a lot of good finding the old CD versions of some of your favorite older albums and playing them side-by-side with their current remasters, *at the same volume* (this is important - most people just write off older CDs because they're a bit quieter, which is very lazy.) I'm betting you will be surprised at how much more dynamic the original versions are. Music should be quiet and loud, not all loud, all the time, and that's how Chinese Democracy sounds - turn it up loud, and it is surprisingly dynamic, and fun, to listen to.

Erik

For real, Howard? This album sounds superb. The "expensive home system" didn't have the letters B O S and E in it, did it? I have an extremely indulgent, high-end home system and the album sounds better than any other mainstream release in the past few years. Tell ya what -- if you're coming to DC for the inauguration, you can come by my house and have a listen. I'm serious.

HoCo

80s CDs sounded AWFUL. The current "louder" remasters are way better than those flat, lifeless original CDs. I'd rather listen to the original vinyl cuz vinyl, on a decent turntable/system, sounded better than the original wave of CDs.
As for GNR, even without the Metallica comparison, it sounds like crap. I'm not the first critic to point out its sonic failings. Check out the Dallas Morning News review, for one. Sorry, we'll have to agree to disagree. It's thin. It's also inconsistent owing to the fact it was recorded over the course of 14 years in 14 studios, so some tracks are louder than others. it's overproduced and as far as "real humans playing the instruments" this new album sounds like it was pro-tooled to death. The guitars are all technique, no personality. Slash is missed. And where's the bottom end? There's no bass or drum on this album. The drummers sound like they are banging on plastic. Compare this new GNR to Use Your Illusion or Appetite and it's night and day. There's no warmth or body to this production. It's just a big overbaked cake and you have to turn it up loud just to get any presence on it and, in doing so, it makes Axl's screechy voice turn annoying.
As a big GNR fan (I think the two Illusion albums rank among the best rock music the 90s had to offer) I can't get beyond the crummy sound on this record and the overblown, overarranged production. The songwriting is fine but I find it very unpleasant to endure over its endless 71 minute sprawl.

Daren Rasmussen

Wow. I never in my life thought I would read such senseless tripe from a "critic". Now I've read some reviews that I didn't agree with, but this? This goes completely beyond just ones own taste, or a difference of opinion.

The fact is Howard...you're completely wrong & a complete idiot. If you don't like the songs themselves that's perfectly fine because in all honestly - I'm not a GNR fan in the slightest way. But for you to say that Chinese Democracy has "sonic failings" is...wow. I don't even know what to say.

Current "louder" remasters are better sounding than the 80's versions of any said cd? You're out of your mind! Seriously man, somethings completely wrong here. "Sonically thin"? LMAO!!! You have to "boost the volume a full 4 to 5 positions on the knob higher than I have to do for most any other current CD"? Ummmm. HELLO?!?!?! Knock knock! Anyone home?

The obvious problem here Howie, is that you're very uneducated regarding the topic. Do you even know what sonic clarity & dynamics are? IF you answer "yes", you're lying through your teeth.

Death Magnetic as a reference point for a "good" sounding & well produced album? God...now I've heard everything. This is THE single lamest review I've read in my life.

Elijah M

Sorry Howard, but you have no ear for what a properly mastered CD sounds like. You just don't. Please seek employment for which you are qualified.

HoCo

If this thin sounding, total lack of bottom CD is what you all consider a great sounding disc, then it's not I who has no conception of what proper mastering sounds like. Any of you actually study recording engineering at a major studio? I have.
Metallica's controversial new disc may lack dynamic range but at least the group employed a drummer and a bass player! There is NO bass on this GNR disc and the drummers whoever this "Brain" is in the credits, can't come CLOSE to Stephen Adler or Matt Sorum from the earlier and real GNR. The songs on this Axl Rose solo album are very good, I don't actively dislike any of them. But the music is badly produced.
Go pick up ANY other rock CD or country CD or pop CD or R&B CD or hell, children's CD, and you'll hear a more solid rhythm section bottom than this GNR disc has.
You can insult me all you wish, thrilled you're reading. But we're just going to have to agree to disagree and move on.

Elijah M

If you were a journalist, Howard, you would have done some research about loudness before you chose to write about it. Here is some info you may find helpful in developing an informed opinion:

Wikipedia: The Loudness War:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

The Loudness War Video by Audio Engineer Matt Mayfield:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gmex_4hreQ

Rolling Stone: The Death of High Fidelity:
http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/17777619/the_death_of_high_fidelity/print

Wall Street Journal: Even Heavy-Metal Fans Complain That Today's Music Is Too Loud!:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122228767729272339.html

LOUDNESS WAR IS OVER IF YOU WANT IT

"it's sonically thin and poorly mixed"

looool, bullshiiit! If it sounds thin, turn up your volume!!

Loudness war is over if you want it!!!
I feel so disgusted if someone say that LOUD cd's sound better than cd's from the 80's!
Well let me tell you, I prefer 80's cd's because if I turn up the VOLUME, it kicks ass!!

Look at the remastered cd's of AC/DC, sure they are loud compared to the original 80's cd's. But still I prefer the 80's releases because they don't give me headaches, even I turned the volume all the way up!

Deep

I think the critic announced to the world what his ears were made of when he said that current louder CDs sound better than their 80's counterparts! Dude, get your ears cleaned. If you can't hear the distortion on Death Magnetic, then you're deaf! I spend time and money finding CDs which do not have those two terrible words "digitally remastered" written on them. Thanks to people like you, the industry is ruining music, OUR music!

Audiophile

Here's what Bob Ludwig, the mastering legend, had to say about the sound quality of Chines Democracy:

http://gatewaymastering.com/gateway_LoudnessWars.asp

On Sunday, November 23rd the new Guns ‘N Roses record Chinese Democracy was finally released after many years of waiting and many millions spent making it. 14 different recording studios are credited. I was thrilled to have been chosen to master the album.

In October, when I first heard some of final mixes which were incredibly multi-layered and dense, I was surprised by two things: The mixes were so finally honed that doing the smallest move sounded like I had done a lot and also that adding the typical amount of compression used in mastering these days took the life and musicality out of the recordings in a big way.

The trial disc I submitted to the producers had 3 versions: The one I personally liked had no compression that was used just for loudness, only compression that was needed for great sounding rock and roll. Then, knowing how competitive everything is these days, I made two more masterings, one with more compression and another with yet more compression, but even the loudest one wasn’t remotely as loud as some recent CDs. Hoping that at least one of these would satisfy Axl and Caram Costanzo, the co-producers of the record, I was floored when I heard they decided to go with my full dynamics version and the loudness-for-loudness-sake versions be damned.

I think the fan and press backlash against the recent heavily compressed recordings finally set the context for someone to take a stand and return to putting music and dynamics above sheer level.

The dynamics vs. volume trade-offs include the act of simply turning your playback volume clockwise a little. True, when shopping the iTunes store your song may not blast out as loudly as other songs. When trying to impress the radio station PD it may be an issue if you don’t have the guaranteed attention this record deserves, however level on the radio broadcast is NOT an issue. As I have been lecturing to people for years, the radio stations are all in competition with each other and they all have devices to make loud things soft and soft things loud and indeed, I heard a critic’s review of Chinese Democracy on NPR and the song examples they played screamed over my portable radio. Even with the radio station compression you can still hear detail in the car… amazing!
I’m hoping that Chinese Democracy will mark the beginning of people returning to sane levels and musicality triumphing over distortion and grunge. I have already seen a new awareness and appreciation for quality from some other producers, I pray it is the end of the level wars.

Person with Ears

So Bob Ludwig, who cut one of the LPs with most bottom end of all time (the legendary first LP pressing of Led Zeppelin II), proudly cites the dynamics in this allegedly "sonicly thin" GNR CD while Ted Jensen, the well-known mastering engineer who was forced to compress the new Metallica to make it loud, had to APOLOGIZE publicly for its lack of dynamics. LOL, so much for Howard Cohen's knowledge of sound. But he's like all music critics for most publications: clueless about the sound of a record. I give him credit for at least commenting on the sound of a CD but too bad he got it totally bassackwards.

Smafdy

This is one of the best mixed albums of the last few years. It's such a pleasure to finally hear a rock record that wasn't obliterated in mastering. Kudos to Bob Ludwig for giving them the option of dynamics (it's so sad this is the exception).

I assume Howard Cohen has a cheap system or at least one that is in need of calibration. The mixes on this album are amazingly balanced. Andy Wallace certainly hit the ball out of the park. I knew there would be schmucks on the internet trying to stir things up but I never thought they'd pick on the sound quality. Go pick a fight you can win.

And yes, I am a professional engineer. I even have one of those Grammy awards. Get a new stereo my friend, or at least educate yourself on good engineering before you even think about writing about it again.

von wegen

Sonically thin & poorly mixed?!

Anyone who thinks Chinese Democracy is poorly mixed & mastered is listening to it on a friggin' $20 Chinese boombox!

One of the biggest attractions of buying this CD is for the excellent mix and mastering--silky smooth & punchy, and I can crank it up on my top-line Maranz amp without having to endure that horribly harsh "loudness" compression that RUINS 99% of today's CD releases and re-issues.

ShowsOn

[requires that I boost the volume a full 4 to 5 positions on the knob higher than I have to do for most any other current CD,]

WHAT! A CD is bad because you have to use the volume control!?

Did you write that yourself? Or do you have a team of comedy writers working on material for you?

NoCo

'80s CDs sound terrible? Death Magnetic sounds great?

I always wondered what type of credentials or skills were needed to be a critic. Now I can clearly see...

None.

Mark B

Howard... Have you heard the original 80's Zep cd's, not the Page and Marino remasters? Turn them up and compare to recent Mothership, no comparision. Disappointing Journalism like this is the reason for the current state of loud and over compressed CD's.

Horace Greeley

Are you kidding me? Death Magnetic is the sonic equivalent of a 2x4. It's depressing to imagine how the music industry continually would allow itself to cater solely to these fickle listeners (such as the original critic) instead of those sensible amongst us who simply want their dynamics back. At least Axl gets it.

Too lazy to walk into a music store, too inept to turn up the volume. Cuz how much louder can recorded music get before becoming a square wave, dude? Ever cozied up to one of those on your iPod? Didn't think so. No soup for you.

Mattias

No bottom end? Before you write a review, you should maybe check if your stereo is working? There is a lot of energy at 30 hz and even lower, in what universe is that "no bottom end"? Click on my name and see the graph for the first singel.

recordinggeek

I get a kick when people who don't know anything about audio production use the phrase "pro tooled to death".What does that even mean. I'm not even going to bother getting in to that one. As for the sound of the record, its a result of recording the record in different recording studios as well as modern day mixing and mastering techniques. If any thing its guilty of being to load just like every other modern day record. Personaly I think the record sounds great. The Drum sounds are fantastic.

Xavier

I do agree that it's overproduced... OK
But please, just listen and turn your knob up, it's one of the best "masters" (I'm talkin about mastering here) of 2008 for sure. I can't say the same about the mix, but don't get me wrong, apart from the guitars and drum sounds, it sounds really great. And those sounds aren't problem that come from the mixing stage... maybe the musicians and the producer's choices.

F*** loudness wars and Mc Donald's music consumption.

chris

Poor me......I had to turn the volume up WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

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