Guns N’ Roses, Chinese Democracy / Metallica, Death Magnetic

Guns N' Roses, Chinese Democracy / Metallica, Death Magnetic

In 1988, while I was in high school, I received the Holy Grail from a friend of mine who prided himself on his collection of tapes: a copied 60-minute Memorex with Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction on one side and Metallica’s Ride the Lightning on the other (at the end of RTL, there was also the last song from AC/DC’s Back in Black, “Rock and Roll ain’t Noise Pollution,” making this tape probably the awesomest thing, since, well, awesome).

I had waited up for hours until 2AM to see the debut of a music video (remember those?) from this band from California that was creating a huge buzz with teens all over America, and when MTV played it as the finale that night, I was floored. There was nothing better than this, ever. An insane lead singer with the greatest rock voice ever, this monster on guitar (back then, Slash wore his hair in front of his face and pulled his hat down, so you couldn’t see anything), a craaaazy drummer, the quiet savant on rhythm guitar, and a lanky bass player. Being a poor highschooler, I couldn’t afford the tape, so I was out of luck until my friend bestowed his charity on me. I wore that tape out rewinding and rewinding, savoring every swear word, every cool guitar riff, every rubbery groove. Depending on the day, each song was a highlight.

It took me a few months to warm to the other side of the tape. I started to play guitar when I was about nine and was into the hair-metal scene much more than the New York/California thrash stuff (in fact, I hadn’t really heard it; that’s what you get from growing up in the sticks). I learned all my Poison and Dokken songs, and then GnR happened, and I learned that album front to back, yearning for a Les Paul. It took a few times of forgetting to set the automatic rewind on my little tape deck to realize what was really going on on RTL.

It was “Creeping Death” that really set the hook. All of a sudden, I got the power of Metallica. That, coupled with a five-minute section on MTV about them being on the Monsters of Rock tour in 1988, blew the doors open on “real” metal, and made me realize that Poison was not the future. I bought every album from each band when they came out, ending with Use Your Illusion I and II and …And Justice For All. I didn’t buy The Black Album, since every other person on this planet had it, and, well, it didn’t sound like Metallica anymore…

It is no small irony that the two bands that most influenced my musical upbringing are releasing their most important albums in more than fifteen years at the same time. The birthing of Chinese Democracy is the stuff of legend: the culmination of nearly 15 years of fits and starts, the exorcism and subsequent increasing isolation of Axl Rose from the original band line-up (although original drummer Stephen Adler was such a mess by the turn of the decade he was jettisoned because he did too many drugs as compared to the other members), various Internet leaks and demos, constantly slipping release dates, skin peels and hair weaves, and finally, an album that some, like Chuck Klosterman, suggest is the last “traditional” album to be released under the traditional and increasingly archaic model of record company influence.

Death Magnetic, on the other hand, is a different kind of comeback. After the hateful failures of the Load albums and the embarrassment of the Some Kind Of Monster debacle, Metallica knew they had to reestablish their cred with an album that recaptured at least the spirit of their earlier recordings. So, how do I handle these monumental releases by the two bands that basically defined my musical existence for the better part of my life?

Yep, I’m going to use one of the oldest, most clich├ęd writing crutches known to man to try and disentangle these albums: The TALE O’ THE TAPE! I’ll break this down into a few categories, make a few points, and then give the category to one of the bands.

Without further ado…

Expectations (which album had the greatest expectations going in, and which album best met those expectations?)
This one is no contest: at least Metallica has been releasing albums. Chinese Democracy has been in the pipeline for almost seventeen years. It is impossible to live up to the hype and legend Axl created. On the other hand, Metallica’s releases, while for the most part terrible, still seem to sell well (although it isn’t clear who keeps buying them, since I have never met anyone who likes anything that Metallica has done post-Black Album).

Winner: Axl, by a giant margin

How good are the songs?
Chinese Democracy is fourteen songs of pure bliss, an absolute masterpiece of songwriting and arrangement. The sounds, drums, guitars, and especially the vocal parts reflect a stunning attention to detail that, frankly, I was surprised to hear, even though the album has been in production for so long. I can’t imagine the focus and mental fortitude it took for Axl to see this project through. There isn’t one dud, from the industrial intro “Chinese Democracy” to the straight-ahead ripping of “Riad N’ the Beduins” and “Shackler’s Revenge,” and the “Yesterdays” cum “November Rain” stylings of “Street of Dreams” and “Catcher in the Rye.”

Axl’s vocal melodies are arguably the strongest part of the album (savor the flipping between a previously unheard mid-range yowl and his patented screech in the verses of “Scraped,” as Axl changes viewpoints), while each guitarist (Buckethead, Ron Thal, and Robin Finck provide most of the gunslinging) sounds like himself, not just in playing style but their tone and rhytym parts are clearly written by them rather than instructed by Axl. Highlights include the solos on “If The World” or “Catcher” for a more traditional take, or the crazy reversed-sounding solo on “Scraped” (I’m pretty sure that it’s not a studio trick or a pedal) and straight-out insanity of “Riad.” While on first listen the album sounds overstuffed, repeated listens reveal how crucial each instrument is in the building of these songs. They are long, but none peak too early or devolve into meaningless extended jams.

Death Magnetic has its high points as well, but is much less well-executed. The best part? The riffs. Absolutely killer, from the intro riff from “This Was Just Your Life” to the old-school “Broken, Beat And Scarred,” the killer main riff from “All Nightmare Long,” to the swing of “Cyanide” and “The Judas Kiss.” “The End…” has some of the best guitar tones Metallica has ever recorded, a perfect combo of loose real distortion (almost a, dare I say it, Slash-like sound) and ’90s thrash. There is some theft here, as well, both from other bands and from themselves. “The End Of The Line” rips the main riff from Tool’s latest album, and the vocal part is ripped from “Creeping Death.”

Some of the songs seem to meander rather than build. “Broken…” is a perfect example: three sick riffs stuffed into a powerful framework, a killer solo, but offset by overly repetitive, simplistic vocals that don’t move things forward. “The Day…” suffers from a lumbering outro that starts about five minutes in, so poorly played (i.e., not in sync) as to be distracting, ending with harmonized tapping that is embarassingly uninspired and poorly executed. Kirk Hammet uses many of his stock riffs in the outro solo, including the decending finger-exercise that appeared first on …And Justice For All‘s “Blackened” outro. And then more tapping. Ugh. Top it off with a horrendous tempo change (due to Lars’s inability to come in properly), and one wishes the song was over after four minutes.

“All Nightmare Long” is wonderful, probably the strongest, most accessible song on the album, with a great vocal hook. But again, Kurt’s first solo goes nowhere. And the vocals are buried. But god, what a great main riff. “Judas Kiss” is another sick riff anchored by Robert Trujillo’s bass. It feels lyrically like “Master of Puppets” (the song), copping the phrasing and urgence of James Hetfield’s delivery. “Cyanide” has BASS (yay!) and a killer groove, very different from what you’d expect from Metallica.

In general, every song on Chinese Democracy builds to cresendo, while they just continue on on Death Magnetic. Everything is in its place on Chinese Democracy, while most of the songs on Death Magnetic have little cohesion or direction. Overall, the nod goes to Axl.

Winner: Axl

Quality of the album (which album is the best sonically?)
Chinese Democracy sounds phenomenal. Bob Ludwig’s interview here suggests that we may just be seeing the first crack in the wall-of-sound destroying of audio CDs with the release of CD. My first listen was on the studio monitors. I was flat out shocked at the dynamics of the album, especially after suffering through the DM tragedy. CD is a masterpiece of engineering, with dynamic, clear, massive separation between the instruments (except when chaos takes over). And the different sounds, samples; the palate is so expansive, you really don’t know where to start.

All you need to know about the production on Death Magnetic is that I reviewed the Guitar Hero 3 ripped and fixed version rather than the CD. The GH3 version was pulled from the game software, EQed a bit, and released anonymously. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that the mix/master of the CD release of Death Magnetic was a disaster. No non-fanboi denies it. Lars’s comments are here.

Essentially, the songs themselves are good, but the album sounds pretty terrible, especially the mix. “This Was…” sounds totally different from the rest of the album, as does “The End…,” as if two completely different engineers recorded the songs on the album. There just isn’t any cohesion. The songs all feel very live, as if they were recorded all together, but then all the overdubs sound obvious, pasted-on. Probably the worst example of this is the solo on “The End.” It’s not just that the solo is in your face: it sounds 5-10 decibels louder, completely out of the soundscape of the song, as painful as it is jarring. Is this a case where talent has overrun competency? There just seems to be a lack of attention to detail throughout the album.

Winner: Axl

Final Thoughts
If you tally the scores above, it is pretty obvious that Chinese Democracy is the clear winner. But make no mistake: this is not a Guns N’ Roses album, this is an Axl Rose solo album. It is all him; his ideas, his life and experiences. This is totally off the planet for Guns N’ Roses, and I bet that’s where any pushback will come from. It is fundamentally brilliant, self-indulgent, overstuffed, ponderous, crammed full of all the insanity in Axl’s head. This is an album I’ll listen to for years, hoping to uncover yet another layer of complexity and detail that was so purposefully hidden in this modern masterpiece.

What do we do with Death Magnetic? Here’s the problem. The album is also a masterpiece…sort of. It’s what we have been asking for for the past decade and a half, a return to the pre-Black Album Metallica. And when looked at that way, it’s wonderful. Unfortunately, there are such serious production issues with the album that it detracts from what should have been a five-star return to form for Metallica, and that’s what is the most disappointing. Metallica’s earlier albums are canon, existing outside the band but in the collective consciousness of our culture. It is odd to say this, but Death Magnetic sometimes feels like it is stealing from previous work, rather than building on it. Overall, everything kind of works, and that’s what is so frustrating about it.

(Geffen/Interscope Records --; Warner Bros. Records -- 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA. 91505;; Guns N' Roses --; Metallica --
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Saturday, January 3rd, 2009. Filed under Reviews.

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