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Guns N' Roses gets prickly

October 24, 2008|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

No pop star has built a fortress as maze-filled and ironclad as one W. Axl Rose. Not Michael Jackson, whose retreat was forced by scandal as much as by artistic crisis and who seems ever more weakened by his reputation's slide. Not Zack de la Rocha, who (like Rose) went down countless collaborative roads before revamping the Rage Against the Machine template with his new project, One Day As a Lion. Not Garth Brooks, who also turned hermit but craved the crowds too much to stay inside.

Rose, the most ambitious hard rocker of the late 20th century -- shout-outs to your Trents and your Bonos, but Axl is the most vividly driven -- essentially quarantined the Guns N' Roses brand for 15 years, unable, perhaps, to reconcile the sounds in his head with what is humanly possible. "Chinese Democracy," the title track from the album finally coming out Nov. 23, hits like an offering pushed through a crack in a locked gate, hinting that those sounds, never completely apprehended, have now coalesced into something Rose can face.

The sound is murky, ugly and evocative of a dark cityscape; you could call it " 'Blade Runner' rock," because like that 1982 film, it's a very dirty vision of the future.

Siren-like effects kick off the track, and then a slicing guitar riff (courtesy of Robin Finck or Buckethead -- the credits should be clarified whenever Rose deigns to do so) punctuated by squiggling, pedal-heavy licks, sets up Rose's multiple-tracked vocal.

"It don't really matter," he sings. "You'll find out for yourself." As the cryptic verses unfold, it becomes clear that this is one of Rose's songs from inside the cage of fame, attacking external forces he despises but can't ignore or repel. Like "Get in the Ring" or "You Could Be Mine," this is Rose as the nastiest kind of punk.

On one level, it's a protest song about Chinese state oppression. More important, it's a spit back at the audience that's been waiting for what has to be a masterpiece, if Rose is to survive artistically.

The song builds like bile. It doesn't behave the way radio-friendly singles usually do. The chorus is just an extension of the verses, rising a little in pitch and compression. There isn't really a proper hook; the sweet release that Slash's solos always brought to the mix never comes. But the refrain sticks after several listens.

"It would take a lot more . . ." is the key phrase, the one that Rose sings in still-powerful midrange. More hate, more time. (There's a weird reference to masturbation too that will have critics and possibly 12-year-olds snickering for a while.) These are the points when the song sounds the most like Nine Inch Nails -- a shot of aggression that somehow contains its own alienated retreat.

"Chinese Democracy" also recalls "I'm Afraid of Americans," David Bowie's 1997 foray with NIN. Both songs have a suffocated quality, as if their makers are pushing through smoke to express these thoughts. It's the sound of florid, romantic rockers aiming for something cold and modern.

But Rose can never really be cold. He's a Heat Miser -- whatever he touches starts to melt in his clutch. That's why these paranoid rockers never quite satisfy the way his grandiose ballads can. As real as Rose's anger may be, in song it starts to feel overly put on, in need of a sweeping chorus or Slash-like ringing solo to relieve the tension of the pose.

Still, for all the pooh-poohing this song will inevitably earn because it's just been too long in coming to fulfill all hopes, "Chinese Democracy" brings back a passionate weirdness that the hard-rock airwaves have lacked. However overwrought or undercooked the whole album might be, it's good to have this mad king venturing forth over his moat.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

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latimes.com /popandhiss

Words on sound

This article and others about pop music can be found online at the new Pop & Hiss blog.

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