WITHER WITHOUT YOU 


It might have been upon hearing Axl Rose's shot at honky-tonk on the leaked version of his mythical album-in-the-works Chinese Democracy (editor's note: Yes, it's exactly as bad as you imagine) when I first felt a twinge that said, "This isn't going to end well."

Listening to the Guns N' Roses frontman — sans Slash and Co. — turn his famously nasal and epic voice into an unintentionally hilarious frowny-face vessel for what he approximates as "The Blues" ("All the love in the world couldn't save you/Ooo-oooh-oh-hoo-hoo") while staring headlong at a CD queue that consisted, incidentally, of Zack de la Rocha's Rage-less return and System of a Down's Serj-less effort, there was even a short moment — all of a millisecond — where a baritone flight character in the back of my head actually spoke.

"Run."

I should've listened. The unofficial Axl experience aside, July's tandem of bad side and solo projects is especially glaring.

I'll admit, I started buying into the "Where is Zack de la Rocha?" mythos over the last few years — watching the country sink itself into a pitch-black morass will do that. (Something's wrong when the only rabble-rousing protest song anyone gives a second look comes from Eminem.) De la Rocha's call-and-response Howard Zinn anthems began to seem desperately needed, and, in retrospect, my rage was directed at Rage itself. How could they waste all that political energy railing against the '90s government, which now looks like the JV squad of bullshitters? Why not now, when we really need it?

I'd heard tall tales that he was working on a straight hip-hop album with the legendary DJ Shadow. Then it was some dark and dank techno-clash record with Trent Reznor. In 2006, he was spotted playing a jarana at a farmers' rights protest. My frustration grew, especially with his guitarist/soulmate Tom Morello doing a bang-up job in Audioslave despite having to lug around a colicky Chris Cornell in a Gypsy Mama baby sling for years.

Then suddenly, One Day as a Lion appeared and nothing has been made right. A five-song EP collaboration with former Mars Volta member Jon Theodore, it's a sloppily engineered caricature of de la Rocha's patented list- current-events-in-an-outraged-B-boy-snarl formula that now rings redundant. From the opening track, "Wild International" (which de la Rocha pronounces "internation-owl," naturally), de la Rocha's vocals are buried under 6 feet of fuzz and Theodore's outstanding, distorted noise-rock backbeat. Aside from de la Rocha's barely discernible "So What'cha Want"—style cadence, the EP's pressing concern is his one-note Morello impersonation. For 20 minutes without pause, Zack's keyboards are tweaked to sound like a tinny guitar, pounding that major chord until it's nothing more than tenderized white noise that's all too easy to tune out. By the record's closing song, "One Day as a Lion" (in case you needed reminding of the project's moniker), the whole outing feels like a cassette bootleg of de la Rocha's garage noodling.

The System of a Down boys fare better in the expectations department. The California rockers are just as outspoken as RATM — Armenian-American singer Serj Tankian formed a nonprofit that fights for social justice, called Axis of Justice, with (ironically) Tom Morello — and have just as many best-selling albums, but Tankian's more subdued frontman status has shielded them from much of the savior baggage that Rage was saddled with.

Tankian released a modestly successful solo album, Elect the Dead, last year with Axl Rose's current drummer Bryan "Brain" Mantia, and now we have the other Downers reincarnated as Scars on Broadway. System of a Down's guitarist, Daron Malakian, takes the lead on the effort, with SOAD drummer John Dolmayan assisting.

Their self-titled album has three times as many tracks as One Day as a Lion and it's twice as long, but the results are equally disastrous.

Malakian opts for a polished, Rainbow Room cock-metal feel; his throaty squeal may serve as foil to Tankian's taffy-stretched growl on System of a Down projects, but it's a joke on its own. By-the-numbers '80s metal ballad "Insane" is a throwback to the worst kind of hair-metal sentimentality. "Let's go insane again/Bring back the pain again," Malakian pouts. "I like suicide/Mixed with Jesus Christ/Yeah!" he pontificates on the high-school poetry contest entry "Exploding/Reloading."

Respect is due to Scars on Broadway for keeping each track around the two- minute mark, which, on songs like "Enemy," a cringe-worthy Killers knockoff, is sweet relief. Otherwise, there isn't much of any worth here unless you're the type who thinks your stoned buddy is really deep: "Mother/Are we flying through the universe/Are we dying through the universe?" Malakian asks on the downright embarrassing "Universe."

Listening to Chinese Democracy again after spinning RATM's and SOAD's afterbirth, I'm struck with a sudden sympathy for Mr. Rose. It's not easy to lose the one who got away, and it's even more devastating to watch them succeed without you. (Slash briefly found solace in the popular Scott Weiland project Velvet Revolver, though the rebound fling ended bitterly.) Throw in the fact that Rose has succumbed to his money, hiding away in his Xanadu studio for the last decade and a half and closely following every trend that hits mainstream radio — Democracy track "Better" is a halfway-decent stab at Linkin Park's programmable pretension — and you have a recipe for the kind of indecisiveness that bankrupts a music label and agitates fans worldwide.

I think I understand it now. Chinese Democracy, if it's ever released, is the album we deserve for carrying such a GNR torch. But One Day as a Lion and Scars on Broadway will always be bad.

jstrout@orlandoweekly.com

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