Death Magnetic vs. Chinese Democracy

Death Magnetic vs. Chinese Democracy

Music Review by: Witney Seibold

 Death Magnetic

 Chinese Democracy

             This article is going to be a bit of a departure for me. Those who know me, know that I am not really up on my pop music. I listened to mostly novelty music as a young teenager (God bless Dr. Demento), and later, in college, got into jazz and talk radio; it rarely occurred to me to turn my radio on at all, much less to the stations playing top hits of the day. In recent years, I’ve been giving myself a classic rock education (I own a Black Flag album!), but I’m still pretty much in the dark when it comes to new music.


            But I had my moments of clarity when I was young. I wasn’t into any music scene, but I was closer to being a metalhead kid than I was to anything else. I was a big fan of Faith No More’s “The Real Thing” (1989), Metallica’s “Black Album” (1991), and, like everyone else my age, Gun N’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction” (1987). I appreciated, and still appreciate to this day, the metal aesthetic. I even went to some legit concerts in my day.


            In the early hours of a July morning in 1992, when I was 14, my best friend and I trekked down to our local Ticketmaster outlet at 5 a.m. to be first in line to pick up tickets to the much talked-about and notoriously expensive Guns N’ Roses/Metallica tour. Motorhead was the opening act. It cost $31, which was a fortune for a 14-year-old in 1992. It remains one of the best concerts I have ever attended. It was on September 27th rain or shine. I still have the ticket stub. Here it is:


 Guns Metallica


            Since 1992, Metallica has jumped the shark. Infighting and a pushy producer led to some miserable and low-selling albums. Most hardcore Metallica fans come down pretty hard on albums like “Load,” “Reload,” and “St. Anger.”  The troubled production of “St. Anger” is outlined in a fascinating documentary called “Some Kind of Monster.” We get to see hardcore metalheads in group therapy.


            Since 1992, Guns N’ Roses has put out a single not-so impressive album (“The Spaghetti Incident?”, 1993), and coasted largely on the good faith of “Appetite” and 1991’s two-volume “Use Your Illusion.” The group’s frontman, Axl Rose, promised the next revolution in rock music was to be his next album, “Chinese Democracy.” The announcement was made in 1993.


            In 2008, both of my childhood metal gods made huge comebacks. Metallica put out “Death Magnetic.” And, after 15 years of personnel changes, rewrites, and politics, Axl Rose finally made good one delivering “Chinese Democracy.”


            How do they stack up? Let’s look, shall we?


            Death Magnetic


            Born to push you around

            Better just stay down.

            You pull away

            He hits the flesh, you hit the ground.

            Mouth so full of lies.

            Tend to black your eyes.

            Just keep them closed

            Keep praying, just keep waiting.

            Waiting for the one, the day that never comes.


            “Death Magnetic” is an excellent album. After the floundering success of their last few albums, Metallica had fired their old producer, replaced their bassist, and hired legendary music producer Rick Rubin to reinvent their sound. Rubin had already had recent successes in rebirthing other classic acts like Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, and was known for his founding of Def Jam records and making Red Hot Chili Peppers’ classic album “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” Getting Rick Ribin to produce your album is, I imagine, the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of getting The Pope’s blessing.


            Rubin, as I understand, forced Metallica to listen to their older albums from the mid 1980s a lot in the studio, the goal being a return to roots; a modern reinterpretation of the classic Metallica sound. i.e. Pounding baselines, grim, darkly spiritual lyrics, a raw, unprocessed aesthetic.


            The result is nothing short of amazing. After many years of overproduced and ultramixed rock ‘n’ roll, “Death Magnetic” is a breath of fresh air. There are no special effects here. No overlapping of several guitar solos. No echoing over vocal overlapping. Nothing but the bare strength of the instruments, and the strong vocals of frontman James Hetfield. Indeed, Hetfield’s vocals are so strong, that he sounds younger on “Death Magnetic” then he did on the Black Album. Even the album’s cover features the band’s old logo.


            Indeed the album has such a bare-bones quality that many people called into radio stations complaining that the mix was a little off; too many had become used to the over-processed sound.


            The lyrics to all of the songs deal with familiar metal tropes. The albums hit single, “The Day That Never Comes” is a depressing ballad about domestic abuse. Some of the songs may be a bit cryptic (Need more and more tainted misery./Bleed battle scars, chemical affinity./Reign legacy, innocence corrode./Stain, rot away, catatonic overload), but are certainly evocative. They’re the perfect metal lyrics, things that sound deep when you’re 15, and don’t hold up to serious analysis. But then, it’s a metal song. Its function is to zip in and out of your consciousness, leaving a trail of exhilarating misplaced anger and speciously empty depression. By that definition, “Death Magnetic” is a flying success.


            I also like the return of the guitar solo. A lot of the recent rock I’ve overheard on friends’ radios has been of a mealymouthed variety; more whiny than angry. They have a few four-chord verses, a chorus, and then a long break. Metallica is not content to have a mere long break. They take every opportunity to showcase their bare-bones talent. Hence, every song on “Death Magnetic is at leas seven minutes long, and features an extended and amazing guitar solo.


            The penultimate track on “Death Magnetic” is a 10-minute instrumental called “Suicide & Redemption.” This track, with its rich varied solos and tough speed, gave me flashbacks to the fall of 1992, when I was joyfully headbanging in my bedroom, singing along to The Black Album, trying to sound as tough as Hetfield.


            Chinese Democracy


            Seems like forever and a day.

            If my intentions are misunderstood,

            Please be kind.

            I’ve done all I should,

            I won’t ask of you

            What I would not do.

            Oh, I saw the damage in you,

            My fortunate one,

            The envy of youth.


            If “Death Magnetic” was all bare bones and unsullied, unprocessed rawness, then “Chinese Democracy” is the opposite. Axl Rose has been working on this album for 15 years, and it sounds like it.


            We have not one guitarist, but seven. We have not just a baseline, but a complicated gumbo of various techno beats, overlaid with the unka-chicka of a club DJ. We have several drummers playing at once. The vocals are nearly always Axl Rose singing a duet with himself. We have vocal samples having conversations with one another. This is an album that would be impossible to hear live, at least not in the way you get when you’re listening on headphones.


            Axl Rose, notoriously a control freak to the point of alienating all his own band members, has clearly recorded and rerecorded and remixed and scrapped and rebuilt “Chinese Democracy” several times in the last 15 years. He is not one to let his album grow organically from the hands and talents of himself and his associates. He seems hellbent on producing the perfect version of Platonic rock ’n’ roll ideal he has in his head, leading to remix after remix until you have a sound that is so hugely overwhelming, it’s difficult to listen to. Indeed, you may want to listen to “Chinese Democracy” in shifts, as all 14 tracks at once will be a bit too much.


            This album has been talked about a lot since its announcement 15 years ago, so it’s hard to listen to the lyrics without thinking of that checkered history of promises and delays. Indeed, most of the lyrics almost seem like Axl Rose is talking about his own creative struggle to ring “Chinese Democracy” to us. It’s largely an album about itself.


            Listen to lyrics like “No one ever told me when I was alone. They just thought I’d know better.” “It was a long time,” or anything from the track “Scraped,” which includes “Sometimes I feel like the world is on top of me, breakin’ me down with endless monotony/ Sometimes I feel like there’s nothing that’s stopping me, all things are possible, I am unstoppable/ Some may convince you no one can break through. I’m here to tell you you’re worth more than they tell you.” It’s almost as if Axl is writing that song to himself.


            Every song may be alienating and labyrinthine and even intentionally opaque, but it is endlessly fascinating. Despite its noisy arena-rock sound, “Chinese Democracy” almost comes across like an oddball experimental album, in which Rose clearly has huge things on his mind, and has finally produced the ideal package for those things.  Indeed, he even compares his struggle to the civil right movement in one song. You may not be able to decipher the sound or the lyrics, but seeing Axl try is a beautiful thing.


            Indeed, “Chinese Democracy” has one of the stongest throughlines I’ve heard of any recent album. Most music consumption these days has been sadly relegated to individual downloads from the Internet, soundtracks for video games, and easily-digestible nuggets of radio fluff. It’s a glorious thing to see Axl Rose try to reinvent a real rock album (like a physical piece of media with connected songs).


            It’s a difficult album, but it rocks hard, is a fascinating look in the narcissistic mind of its creator, and may be one of the final throwback we’re going to have to a certain kind of music culture. I encourage you to buy “Chinese Democracy.”


            The verdict


            “Death Magnetic” is the clear champion in this battle. It’s a great album, and a strong comeback from a classic band. After “Death Magnetic,” one wants to see Metallica make more.


            “Chinese Democracy” was such a long wait, and such a grueling experience that, while a great experience in itself, does not make me want to hear more of the same. If Rose decides to make more music, he either needs to take another 15 years, or needs to try something more organic and out-of-control.


            If Guns N’ Roses and Metallica were to go on another tour together, though, I would get up at 5 a.m. again to pick up a few more tickets.

Published in: on May 8, 2009 at 9:24 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I do agree with you on most things. ChDis a big album, with a big sound. A good album in short. I just think it was released at the wrong time. It’s technically and musically very advanced, and the lyrics go deeper into ones mind that most things these days. But it’s an advanced album that has been released when “music fashion” is going “back to basic” Simple lyrics, simple beats – stuff any kid with a touch of talent can play. you gotta know what you’re doing with your instrument of choice if you’re gonna play anything off of ChD. It’s not a ‘beginners’ album, in my opinion, which is what people want these days (apparently)

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