The nervy, enthralling thickets of hard-rock riffola and cascades of wrathful pain will come as no surprise to Guns N' Roses fans. The biggest shocker is that "Chinese Democracy" (* * * out of four) is here at all after 15 years, 14 studios and an estimated $13 million.
Erratic résumé aside, much of the 71-minute album, due Sunday at Best Buy and iTunes, packs an undeniable wallop. Axl Rose's feral yowl remains potent and pliable. Though the futuristic industrial sound he once promised is in short supply, he leans heavily on synthesizers, samples and machined beats without abandoning metallic rock drama, especially in convulsive guitar wig-outs. Such hyperactive bashers as "Shackler's Revenge" and the title track recall GNR splendor, and Rose displays a nimble contemporary touch in techno-poppy "If the World."
Chinese sags when Rose indulges melodramatic tendencies in the cheeseball "Street of Dreams" and overwrought "There Was a Time." Bloat results elsewhere as Rose's studio rat-packing brings a brass band, choirs, hip-hop rhythms, movie dialogue and snippets of Martin Luther King Jr. into the mix. And his tech fixation buries GNR's former menacing grit and swagger under ProTools and digital editors. Lyrics? Rants from a hothead narcissist shut-in, bristling with paranoia and spite. Rose conjures magic in a studio, but it's a suffocating lifestyle.
>Download: title track, "If the World"
>Skip: "Street of Dreams," "There Was a Time"