Hey, remember this guy? Of course - at least, this is how we'd prefer to remember him. This uncharacteristically placid candid was snapped back when Axl was my age. That was twenty years ago.
More recently, when the titular first single from Chinese Democracy hit the air, it was swiftly ripped and uploaded for all to hear. Appetite For Destruction was the first cassette I ever bought, so of course I gave it a listen. The tune opened with the hiss of that same cavernous reverb that swells at the beginning of Historical Military Epics For Dummies movie trailers. Slithering in the background was that pterodactyl-call throat-clearing effect that Axl famously bellowed over the intro to "Welcome To the Jungle" - a recollection Rose undoubtedly is counting on his listeners making. After the yawn of another several seconds of ebow drones, the first power chord hit - that metallic teeth-gnash of fleshless guitar recorded direct-to-DAW, toasted by SansAmp then reheated by Guitar Rig. You know it: that digindustrial distortion perfected fifteen years ago by Trent Reznor on the Broken EP.
That was fifty seconds I could have spent refilling my coffee cup. I sighed and closed the audio stream, and haven't listened to a minute more of Chinese Democracy.
Though I was pretty certain I already knew what the rest of the album would sound like, all my suspicions were confirmed by a friend last week. "It's pretty bizarre to hear someone just lose their mind via ProTools," he said. "I mean, it's a Nine Inch Nails record. Just not a very good one."
It's long been part of the G'n'R folklore that Axl's fixation on the post-Ministry industrial sound (by way of 120 Minutes) irreparably split band consensus on their 1990s direction. By almost all accounts, Rose had become smitten with the little-known electro-hysteric act that opened a European leg of the Use Your Illusion tour and never looked back. Rose probably saw more than a little of himself in the up-and-coming Reznor: a pasty, brooding frontman fighting an intermittent heroin addiction, prone to onstage tantrums at shows that occasionally descended into violence, screaming songs of distinctly male adolescent angst that exuded enough sass to get girls to the gigs. Axl also probably knew that, having been the hood ornament on the ugly transitional moment sandwiched between the Reagan & Clinton eras, Guns 'N' Roses would not enjoy the same predominance in the dawning decade.
Chinese Democracy's stylistic nods to NIN (not to mention poaching a member or two) are oft-remarked-upon enough as to be unavoidable, which casts the whole album in a very odd, unseemly light. This ersatz fourteen-track parade float to ProTools is a desperate attempt by Axl Rose to surpass younger, harder, faster rivals who first reared their heads fifteen years ago. The album was only ever deemed done (enough to release, at least) once Rose had stared so deeply into his own megalomania that the project became its own hypotextual simulacrum, Synecdoche, New York-style. Of course, as such & without the barest hint of objectivity, Axl was in no position to guage if the album was any good, let alone whether he'd surmounted The Downward Spiral. That it took him this long to decide that he had guarantees that he hasn't.
Surely it hasn't escaped Axl that the Elvis engraved upon our cultural memories is not the young, hip, dangerously sexy Elvis, but the bloated caricature bedecked in gold lamé, an asphyxiating bullfrog lamely executing karate kicks with a rock of coke in each nostril. That should have been warning enough for Axl to enjoy the mystique that compounded with each additional year of silent seclusion. But it's too late to leave well-enough alone now. He could have been the Syd Barrett of the LA jet(trash)set. Instead...
Non-sequitorial postscript: And you didn't even have to wait 17 years for it.