21 February 2007
Welcome (Back) to the Jungle
Apologies for interrupting the scheduled programming like this, and I know I don’t normally make news-based posts, but I am making an exception here. See, the new Guns N’ Roses song has ‘leaked’ and, being a big GNR fan, I have been listening to it. A lot.
Let me preface this by saying I am not expecting much from the new album, should it ever come out (and I must admit this is definitely a sign the album might be on its way). The Spaghetti Incident is something I would rather not have happened, and even the Use Your Illusions albums were pretty patchy (the classics ‘Civil War’ and ‘You Could be Mine’ aside). Oh yeah, I say I am a big fan of the band based almost entirely around the first album and the personalities of the band.
For the last couple of years, I have been of the opinion that the making of impending Axl Rose-a-thon Chinese Democracy is pretty much the greatest rock and roll story of the last decade – as long as it never came out. I will try to find a link to the story, but the epic tale of producers and band members getting fired left, right and centre, along with the increasing despotism of Rose, is wonderfully compelling. It is just such a pants-explodingly strong story that, no matter how good the album may be, the release could not avoid being an anti-climax.
So for the longest time it seemed as though my wish would come true, and the record would never see the light of day. However, with some tangible taste of the impending record, I feel it pertinent to take a look at what it means to be Axl Rose releasing music in 2007. The track in question is named ‘Better’ and, seeing as it is ‘just’ a song, with no news of lead singles or anything, it will be treated as ‘just a song’.
The opening sequence of the tune is actually very heartening; I was concerned it was a fake for a while, given the falsetto, harmonics & beats intro. Soon, though, that high-register, abrasive voice comes to the fore and it is unmistakeably Rose (or at least an inordinately proficient impersonator). The vocal melody of the verse is quality, and throughsilver is happy. There is just one thing awry at this stage.
The rhythm guitar in the verse is rather, and I will endeavour to put this politely, ‘traditional’. A simple sequence (not even really a riff, though it is in the technical sense that it is a repeating musical motif. It just doesn’t hang together like a good riff does), it is pedestrian staccato-groove stuff from another era. And that is what concerns me about the song as a whole. The lyrical content seems to concern his being wronged, maybe by people in the industry or something. The hook of ‘no-one ever told me when I was alone / they just thought I’d know better’ suggests a personal relationship, so we’ll go with that.
See, the single story thread through the history of this albums making was that of Rose’s desire to sound modern. This was a big problem considering it has taken over a decade to make. Every couple of years in the nineteen nineties the ‘cool’ sounds changed. Perhaps it is the current air of musical stagnation that imbued him with the confidence to release now? But this is just not modern.
Amusingly enough, despite Rose’s mission to sound modern, this is something that could have been released a decade ago. In fact, it is very reminiscent, in both guitar and vocals, of when then-erstwhile (and of course, current once again) Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson decided to ‘go Grunge’ in 1996. He enlisted Jack Endino to produce, and protested his new project Skunkworks was a real band, and not just him and a bunch of session musicians. It wasn’t great (but it was miles better than the Maiden album of the time, the woeful The X Factor, with ex-Wolfsbane singer Blaze Bayley on vocals), but had a few really good tracks, and the next year he hooked up with ex-Maiden axeman Adrian Smith and got back to the heavy metal.
So it’s just a bit of a concern that this is so not ‘now’. As a song, it is high quality. I was disappointed on the first listen but [checks his Audioscrobbler] after some seven listens, I can report the tune is a definite grower. The trad riff gets more effective the longer it goes; that whole joy of repetition thing. The vocals are very strong, but I should hope so too, after he spent trillions of man-hours in the studio. Yeah, the song is very polished. The backing vocals are really good, the build is gradual and we get a very satisfying finish as the layered mix gives way to a mellow echo of the intro.
‘Better’ is not great, nor is it bad. I sincerely hope it is far from the best song on Chinese Democracy, or we’re in trouble. Commercially, I was going to say I have my doubts, but then I remember the biggest band in the world is Red Hot Chili Peppers and this is better than any single they have released since the turn of the century. It’s also better than any Velvet Revolver (the ex-Guns with perennial also-ran Scott Weiland on vocals) song I have heard. That, combined with the mythology of Chinese Democracy would lead me to believe it won’t be such a bust, but they are never going to make their money back on this particular investment.
2005 Countdown will resume when I have written up a particularly awkward album…