DF's picture

    Monsters of Rock, 2008: "Chinese Democracy" versus "Death Magnetic"

    What hath God rocked?  The last several months have seen major studio releases from both Guns N' Roses (who?) and Metallica.  However, these aren't just any major studio releases.  Guns N' Roses latest offering, Chinese Democracy, has been some 14 years in the making.  I won't go into the whole sordid story here, but Axl Rose is the sole remaining member of the original GnR lineup at this point.  This album took so long to put out that many joked China would see democratic rule before the album saw the light of day.  Millions of dollars later, Axl showed you jokers!

    What does this have to do with Metallica?  To some, the comparison already seemed unavoidable.  For those that don't see it, allow me to elaborate.  Metallica, through a somewhat bizarre turn of events that involved an online petition, fired long-time producer/engineer Bob Rock before recording this latest album.  Bob Rock, who had been producing Metallica since their eponymous "black album", was replaced by none other than Rick Rubin.  For those that don't know, Rick Rubin is something of a prodigy in the world of popular music production.  As a college student, he started Def Jam and his resumé reads like a who's who of hit records.  If you have ever listened to American popular music in the late 20th or early 21st centuries, you have probably heard an album produced by Rubin.  He reaches across all genres.  He's produced hip-hop, metal, country, alternative, dance/club, R&B.  From Danzig to Donovan, from Slayer to Shakira, he's produced it and has nine grammies to show for it.

    Okay, so Rubin is kind of a big deal, but why?  Rick Rubin is known for an uncommonly minimalist approach to music production.  Where many producers just can't stop layering the strings and effects, Rubin begs off and strips the mix down in search of a raw sound.  This has given cause for many Metallica fans to perk up their ears.  In the time since Bob Rock joined their team, they've gone progressively in the "big sound" direction, even putting out an album of full orchestral arrangements.  Compared to what they've been doing since the early nineties, Rubin is the anti-Rock.  This is good news for people like me who were fans of their 1980s offerings, but lost interest in their Bob Rock years.  In this respect, I think one can listen to Death Magnetic as a follow-up to their earlier recordings and, in doing so, it becomes an offering akin to Chinese Democracy.

    What, then, is the verdict?  Let's start with the Red One and Chinese Democracy.

    It is unfair, first of all, for me to write anything about this album.  Axl Rose has spent the last fourteen years working on this album.  I, on the other hand, will spend a scant fews minutes critiquing it.  Having that said, this is an album.  Say whatever you want about the man, but Rose did finally put out a new album.  That's part of the difficulty here.  Even listening to this stuff seems a bit odd.  It's as curious as Axl's corn-rows.  I, like many others, had pretty much given up on ever hearing it.  However, the novelty quickly gives way to some of the highest expectations that popular music has ever known.  I mean, if this thing took 14 years, millions of dollars and myriad broken relationships to create, then it's gotta be damned good, right?

    Kids, this ain't your absentee father's Guns N' Roses.  There is little left here of the group that tore it up on Appetite for Destruction.  I still love that album.  It's packed with rocking goodness.  If you were hoping for more of that, you'll be disappointed.  This album has a few rocking moments, most notably on the title track, but most of it is further into the stratosphere of largesse that was hinted at on the Use Your Illusion double album.

    However, there's a lot of fun, weird stuff on this album.  Rose has it jam-packed with all kinds of different sounds and not just the virtuoso licks of Buckethead.  The production is thick.  Oh, there's piano.  There's club beats you might hear in a Britney Spears track.  There's that MLK sample on Madagascar (what?).  Also, Axl Rose can still sing.

    Still, I find myself wondering just what this album actually is.  It's really not Guns N' Roses.  Slash, Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan weren't just session musicians.  They made the band.  Some of what remains still sounds like Guns N' Roses, but this is unmistakably a different animal.

    One has to assume, after all of the power struggles, that what is found on this disc is at least somewhere in the neighborhood of Axl Rose's musical vision.  I can only imagine who Axl is in his own head, but if his ego is at all commensurate with his musical ambitions, well.. better him than me.  Even so, this is an interesting album, and not in the "yeah, he/she is a really interesting person" sense.  It's genuinely interesting.  There's a lot of different sounds on it.  In fact, most people could probably find a track that they like.  That is, except for those who find Rose himself to be intolerable.  Anyhow, for my money the title track is the best, which unfortunately is the first track.  That's always disappointing.

    Metallica's Death Magnetic, on the other hand, would really be unremarkable if not for the personnel change which I described above.  It would probably be just incrementally different than St. Anger and I would probably not want to listen to it at all.  I really used to love Metallica, but I'm from the Cliff Burton camp of fans.  IMHO, they really haven't done anything better than Master of Puppets.  In fact, I consider the first three Metallica albums to have a striking similarity to the original Star Wars trilogy.  Kill 'Em All is good fun, if a bit immature.  Even so, you knew you hadn't heard anything like that before.  Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets hold the same distinction that do The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the JediEmpire, like Lightning, has always been a personal favorite of mine for its darkness, but Jedi, like Puppets, is an undeniable masterpiece.

    And I've often thought that perhaps both Lucas and Metallica should have quit while they were ahead.  Their more recent offerings seem to consistently attempt at recreating something great, but can't quite get there.  Whatever happened, whether it was losing Cliff Burton or the money or the rehab, Metallica just hasn't done anything that I've enjoyed since ...And Justice For All.  As a bass player, I find that I can only even enjoy that album reluctantly.  It's really the last taste of that era's Metallica, but the band was so heavy-handed in mixing out newcomer bassist Jason Newstead that sometimes I have to just turn it off.  The compositions are right where they had always been, some of them arguably better than anything they'd done before, but the mix is atrocious.

    Ah, the mix.  Enter Rubin.  Was Rick Rubin going to resurrect the Metallica of old?  Could he strip them back down to basics and give their older fans something to appreciate?

    The answer is: Yes and no.  Death Magnetic is most certainly a departure from their recent trajectory and it does sound more like older Metallica.  It's faster, thrashier and the tracks are less radio-friendly, clocking in between six and ten minutes.  In fact, the whole album moves quickly, despite longer track times.  And it does sound older.  In fact, the album's biggest failure in my view is that it tries too hard to sound old.  At times they even sound like 1980s metal compatriots Megadeth or even Iron Maiden, but only briefly.  The second failure is that I really don't hear any stand-out tracks.  For a Metallica album, this is surprising.  The album's sound strikes me as being rather homogenous instead of cohesive.

    It's a mixed bag for me.  If I had heard this after the black album, perhaps my faith may have been renewed.  However, after more than a decade of sub-par stuff, this is hardly the dose of redemption required.

    So, who is the winner in this battle for the ages (aged?)?  I'm going to have to say no one.  Personally, I think that the Metallica album is arguably much better and represents a welcome offering from a band that is still in many ways what it always has been.  However, despite majors improvements it's not nearly as good as I would have hoped and, ultimately, I don't see myself listening to it very much in the future.  On the other hand we have a bizarre and tortured offering from a group that can only in the loosest sense even be considered to be Guns N' Roses any longer.  The best thing about this album is that it is weird.  Even so, I also don't think that I will find myself spending much time re-listening in the future.

    As a matter of fact, I had to listen to Appetite for Destruction and Ride the Lightning in order to cleanse my musical palette after hearing these albums.  My hope for Axl Rose and whatever he continues to call Guns N' Roses is that they just get weirder.  I'm thinking somewhere between George Clinton and Howard Hughes weird.  I predict that when Axl Rose has a multi-colored bouffant of cornrows and is meticulously collecting his toenail clippings, he will create his magnus opus.  My hope for Metallica is that they continue to work with Rubin and maybe, just maybe, write some stuff that I don't feel like I've heard before.

    Keep on rocking.


    While you were listening to these bands, I was listening to U2 and the Depeche Mode and lots of classic rock. I never really liked Guns and Roses and I couldn't name a Metallica song so I'm really unqualified to comment. But you obviously put a lot of time into it, so thanks for writing it. 



    Oh, I was listening to a lot more than this (and still do).  I'll readily confess to a bit of nostalgia here.  Both of these bands are way past relevance, even in their genre, but I felt I owed it to myself to do a bit of re-visiting.  Plus, it was an opportunity to make a post outside of the 'Politics' category!  Also, it was a chance to make a really sweet custom graphic.

    appetite for destruction is a hell of an album - one of the better ones when it comes to that genre. i love trying to belt out welcome to the jungle when i karaoke, tho sweet child o mine is a much better song. kind of curious to listen to chinese democracy tho i'm much more inclined to think anything that takes this long to publish is going to suck, rather than have inflated expectations.

    GNR fucking BLOWS NOW!  Metallica absolutely kicks the shit out of them, now and in the past.

    I heard Death Magnetic and Chinese democracy and found them both weird! I coudn't stand Death magentic...i dont understand how u find the sound closer to their earlier albums cos i don't! as for chinese democracy....its kinda ok...i mean u know u can't expect much without Slash & co.

    Great article, however I believe that Metallica's Death Magnetic was in many ways the superior offering. First of all, listen to the tracks that aren't on the radio i.e. Suicide and Redemption. That my fellow bassist is true metal, when the band tells James to shut it while they work thier magic. Also, the progressive elements are back (intro solos anyone?). Overall, DM was a return to thier Black Album days and possibly is a return in the future to thier 80s godliness.

    Chinese Democracy on the other hand is a tragedy of the music industry. While the songs are tolerable to listen to, they are most certainly NOT G&R. Bucket Head is an awesome musician but he does not have the same tone and sound as Slash. Axl should have started the band under a new name for the new sound. This sound is the sound of the mainstream eventually flowing into the forgotten sea. From what I can tell, Axl was either tired of or forced to quit producing the never ending album and took shortcuts. They sound just like everything else out there today.

    Don't get me wrong, I LOVE both Metallica and G&R equally but Metallica wins this time.

    Fav G&R Album: Appetite for Destruction

    Fav Metallica Album: ...And Justice For All(look from a guitarist's perpective and you'll find the Holy Grail of metal)

    DM is, pound for pound, a better album.  I think that it's mostly the long detour they've taken to get there.  I've gotten older in the meantime and my tastes have evolved.  There were parts of the album that I definitely enjoyed, but overall I couldn't shake the feeling that it was too little, too late.  Even so, it's a marked improvement over what they've been doing since the black album.  I hope they keep working with Rubin.

    RE: GnR, you're absolutely right about Buckethead/Slash.  Buckethead should stick with just being weird and talented and avoid people like Axl.

    I love ..And Justice for the guitar work, but the mix always gets to me.  It's so trebly that you can hear the string chirps as the guitar players slide up and down their strings.  For me, Master of Puppets is still the ultimate 80s thrash album.  I can listen to it from beginning to end over and over again.

    Thanks for stopping by, Ken.

    I am not really all that interested in talking about Chinese Travesty, or whatever it's called. What a steaming pile of hubris. It's friggin' ridiculous.


    What I'm commenting on is Death Magnetic and the resurfacing of Metallica since Justice. When I was in high school, I decided to embark on Metal as my musical choice, and went and bought all the Metallica albums to date, including Justice and Garage Days Rerevisited. It took me a long time to get out of the first two and into the older albums, and it's because Justice and Garage Days were just...so good to me. Justice especially.

    Fast forward what...15-20 years, and a handful of HORRIBLE albums, and I had totally lost my appreciation for Metallica and had moved to death metal. The Black album started Metallica down the sad path of over-production.

    Then...I heard what I at first thought was a cover band that sounded a lot like old Metallica by the name of Death Magnetic, and the song, Day that Never Comes, was super-excellent. Turns out I misheard the radio announcer, and found out Metallica finally did something right.

    Here's what they did right. Drums. Hold Death Magnetic up to Justice and listen to the similarities in the snappy, sharp drums. They aren't awash in reverb, and unlike St. Anger..you can hear them and the drums are in tune.

    Glory be! Makes me hope that a bunch of 40-somethings can sound hard!

    Don't get me wrong, I LOVE both Metallica and G&R equally but Metallica wins this time.

    Fav G&R Album: Appetite for Destruction

    Fav Metallica Album: ...And Justice For All(look from a guitarist's perpective and you'll find the Holy Grail of metal)

    nicely written
    I like Dunk Guns N Roses but i would change some of ur choices :)

    Latest Comments