GUNS N' ROSES Chinese Democracy (Helicon) In the works for over a decade, Chinese Democracy has all the trappings of an epic album - booming beats, crunching metallic production and yowling high register Guns N' Roses trademark vocals from Axl Rose, the only band member remaining from the band's last album, 1993's Spaghetti Incident. But while the pomp and circumstance may be worthy of all those years of effort, the substance is somewhat lacking. Guns N' Roses used to be known for its off-the-cuff feistiness and nasty revved-up Stones riffs, but Chinese Democracy sounds like the GNR Orchestra, as composed and conducted by Rose. Listening to the involved, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production of songs like the overreaching "Madagascar," it becomes clear why Rose spent so many years on the album, ultimately sucking out most of its lifeblood. On some tracks like "Better," "If The World" and "There Was a Time," there's an attempt to combine urban hip-hop rhythms and production techniques within the GNR framework, resulting in the most compelling moments on the album. A close second are the more "mature" "November Rain"-style mid-tempo offerings, like "Street of Dreams" and "Catcher in the Rye," which sound like like they could have been tuneful follow-ups to the band's last albums of original material, 1991's Use Your Illusion I and II. The songs, which attempt to reestablish GNR's hard rock credentials - like the title cut, "Riad n' the Bedouins" and "Scraped" - suffer in comparison, sounding forced and outdated. The guitar solos, from a virtual gunslinger army of five, are high on proficiency and low on soul and emotion. Lightning fast, they usually go absolutely nowhere in a hurry, with a couple exceptions - like Buckethead's finessed solo on the bluesy ballad "Sorry." The sound is so condensed and pro-tools anonymous, however, that unless Rose is singing, you'd be hard-pressed to identify which band was performing. The enigmatic presence has lost none of his vocal prowess, and it's his personality alone that drives the 14 songs forward. But even there, his arias, falsettos and double-tracked multi-octave singing reeks of overwrought and overthought, like each note was painstakingly planned on reams of sheet music. All bets are off on the worst offender - "This I Love" - a piano ballad that finds Rose reaching the depths of self parody. If Chinese Democracy had been released 10 years ago, it might have been compared favorably to Use Your Illusion I and II. Coming now, with Rose's delayed release after delayed release causing a huge buildup, it sounds mainly like a well-intentioned curiosity, sort of like a Michael Jackson or Britney Spears album that you may listen to for its potential car-crash quotient. Thankfully, Chinese Democracy is no car crash, but its smooth, luxurious ride embellished with strings, female choruses and a million other sounds crammed into every nook and cranny just doesn't sit well. Here's hoping that the next GNR effort is a stripped-down one, and that it won't be another decade in the making. And while he's at it, maybe Rose can beg for Slash's forgiveness. PANIC AT THE DISCO Welcome to the Sound of Pretty Odd (Hatav Hashmini) Panic at the Disco has made one crafty album with Welcome to the Sound of Pretty Odd. Nothing the Las Vegas-based emo buzz band has previously done prepares for this aural pop assault: one part '60s psychedelic Sgt. Pepper/Pet Sounds pop, one part 10cc-harmonized shenanigans, one part indie shimmer, ala The Shins - and all parts great. Bouncing all over the place from the upbeat pop symphonies of "Nine in the Afternoon" and "She's a Handsome Woman" to the Brit-pop sing-along "Do You Know What I'm Seeing," vaudevillian "I Have Friends in Holy Spaces" and killer vintage country rock of "Folkin' Around," the quartet seems as versatile and inventive as a certain role model British quartet from the '60s. Pretty Odd is one of the albums that come out of nowhere with few expectations, and ends up on repeat on the CD player, and on a lot of end-of-year top-10 lists.