Those of you who pay the minute attention that I do to these things will be aware that Guns 'N Roses long-awaited (15 years!) Chinese Democracy leaked this weekend. I haven't reviewed an album properly since about 2001 but I thought I'd give you a track-by-track praisee and flex some of the old muscles. So Guns 'N Roses are back, back back. And what a journey it's been. Countless band members, a procession of producers, scrapped sessions - but forget that... here's the product.
Seldom has an album's stall been set out so brutally. Over an almost avant-garde string arrangement (strongly reminiscent of Scott Walker's Tilt), Axl essays the making of Chinese Democracy. But after a strong start, 'IRS' degenerates into a laundry list of complaints against various band members, delivered in what seems to be an improvised half-rap. "Buckethead/ his real name's Fred", spits the autocratic frontman. The song ends with the refrain "Dizzy Reed/ you gonna bleed", repeated upwards of thirty times.
2. There Was a Time
On the evidence of Use Your Illusions 1 and 2, Rose's musical palette extended far beyond hard rock. But few would have anticipated 'There Was A Time', a Beatlesque mini-suite delivered in a risible cod-Liverpudlian drawl; "let's all have a spot of tea/ crumpets for you/ scones for me". Paying tribute to an unrecognisable England, the song features yeoman guest work from Ringo Starr and Jeff Lynne.
3. Rhiad & the Bedouins
This minute-long instrumental has been notorious for years, allegedly featuring the (sampled) sound of Axl Rose's wet fist being repeatedly driven into the side of Duff McKagan's head.
A return to the classic GNR sound after the free-form experimentation of the first three tracks. Over hot blues licks, Axl announces that he will 'ride a hot train wearing a top hat'. Lyrical references to Oliver North, St Elsewhere and Paula Abdul suggest that the band has been sitting on this one for a while, but a breath of contemporary fresh air comes at 2'40 with a brief sample of 'Because I Got High' by Afroman.
Long talked-about as a potential single, the blistering Madagascar (a feature of Guns 'N Roses frequent water-treading tours during the wilderness years) is delivered on record at half-speed with vocals by the (plainly inebriated) bass-player Tommy Stinson. "Madagascar man/ like the movie with the animals/ the beaver thing had eyebrows/ there was a lion". Geffen Records will no doubt be delighted.
6. The Blues
Perhaps the reason that the Chinese Democracy project has continued to fascinate fans and critics is Axl Rose's reputation as a sonic perfectionist. The Blues is a showcase for his obsessive studio work, featuring a reputed 400 tracks of guitars, all playing the exact same blues riff, at the exact same time. And credit to Rose, it really does sound like just one guitar. The lyrics reflect the same combination of simplicity and depth: "I'm mad, I'm sad, I'm feeling bad, he sings. "Later on, I'm gonna get glad."
7. Chinese Democracy
Self-confessed Queen nut Rose has already delivered his own Bohemian Rhapsody in November Rain (which ran at times to almost 20 minutes!). But Brian May's reported appearance on this song flagged it up as the tribute to end all tributes. And so it proves to be. Demonstrating a surprisingly agile knowledge of Far Eastern politics, over a full 23 minutes, Guns 'N Roses attempt to educate, inform and entertain. Ten individual guitar solos are heard, delivered in both western and pentatonic forms. Then, around the 20 minute mark, Brian May steps forward to deliver his 1992 smash, 'Driven By You', played in its entirety on the koto. The koto is a Japanese instrument, but it's impossible not to take his point. An absolute triumph - arguably the best song ever written.
8. If The World
Some of the songs on Chinese Democracy bear evidence of 15 years of shifting musical trends. The full-on rap-rock assault of 'If The World' has all the hallmarks of a very good Korn b-side. But lifting it out of the mire of 1999, the chorus is delivered in the complex barber-shop harmony style of Manhattan Transfer. If this had emerged pre-millennium, it's difficult to imagine that the world would be in the trouble it is today.
9. This I Love
Featuring the trademark 'shredding' style of the great Yngwie Malmsteen, this could feasibly be the last Guns 'N Roses song you ever hear. It's relatively standard fare, but distinguished by Malmsteen stepping up for a solo every 16 bars and being audibly subdued by his infuriated bandmates.
This may be the most important album ever released... or the least important. Either way, it is important that you listen to it if you have the inclination to. Seminal stuff.