LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The day many rock fans never expected to see in their lifetimes is nigh.
Guns N' Roses, the rock band that ruled the music world in the early 1990s and then self-destructed in a slow-motion death march, will release its first album of new material in more than 17 years worldwide on Sunday.
Some equate "Chinese Democracy" to the Second Coming, or at least to the resurrection of Elvis Presley.
"It's just a remarkable moment in popular culture," said Blender magazine editor-in-chief Joe Levy, without a trace of hyperbole. "It really is. We never thought we would get here."
Others are hedging their bets. Reclusive singer Axl Rose, 46, is the only original member left. His volatile behavior drove out key members such as top-hatted guitarist Slash years ago. Some purists say he should not have used the Guns N' Roses name with this new project.
Either way, "Chinese Democracy" has assumed mythical proportions over the years. Fans and skeptics alike are driven by sheer curiosity to see whether the album justifies its status as a lost masterpiece, or whether it turns out to be the anti-climactic equivalent of "The Godfather III."
"Chinese Democracy" was originally envisaged as a 1995 release, the follow-up to the pair of "Use Your Illusion" albums that came out simultaneously in September 1991. But as work proceeded at a snail's pace, Rose took control of the group, and parted ways not only with all his original bandmates but with several of their replacements. He tinkered on the project with a succession of producers at his Malibu hideaway.
Release dates came and went, along with presidential administrations and bull markets. By 2005, the cost of the project was estimated at more than $13 million. The band's Geffen Records label declined to discuss financials.
But fans never forgot about Guns N' Roses. This year alone, a hits record released in 2004 has sold 388,000 copies in the United States, and 4.3 million to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The band's 1987 full-length debut "Appetite for Destruction" has sold 106,000 copies this year. It is the biggest debut of all time, with U.S. shipments of more than 18 million copies. The band's worldwide sales are estimated at more than 90 million, according to its Geffen Records label.
Electronics retailer Best Buy Co Inc will release "Chinese Democracy" exclusively in the United States, pricing it cheaply at $11.99. It will go on sale internationally through traditional retailers.
Best Buy Senior Entertainment Officer Gary Arnold was confident consumers would cast their ballots for "Chinese Democracy," predicting it would be the week's top seller, ahead of a new album by hip-hop star Kanye West, whose last release kicked off with 957,000 copies last September.
But is the record any good? Rolling Stone magazine declared it "audacious, unhinged and uncompromising," while Blender's Levy said the ballads were "completely killer." Arnold said the album was on par with such classics as the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street."
The enthusiasm seemed a little more restrained at a listening event in Los Angeles on Tuesday, one of six that Best Buy organized nationwide for fans.
About 400 people packed the Roxy on the Sunset Strip and awkwardly faced the stage, perhaps expecting a surprise appearance by the band itself. The music was piped in at ear-splitting volume through the public address system.
In such a setting, the 14 largely unfamiliar songs coalesced into a complex symphony of layered guitars punctuated by Rose's trademark wailing. Instant classics, along the lines of the epic piano ballad "November Rain" or their early hit "Welcome to the Jungle," were not immediately evident.
Among the fans was Tom Zutaut, the talent scout who discovered the band in 1985 when it was a scrappy group of kids playing the neighborhood clubs. But relations are frayed these days: A security guard asked him to leave the Roxy late in the evening, apparently at the behest of Rose's camp.
"It sounded like a pretty amazingly well-produced record, definitely the work of the genius of Axl," Zutaut said. But he cautioned that fans will need to devote a lot of time to digest the music, the lyrics and the CD packaging.
Veteran metal journalist Lonn Friend, who reported extensively on Guns N' Roses during their heyday, said the album sounded "angry, like a purging of sorts." He considered it more of a solo record, "an Axl experiment."
A 36-year-old fan Diamond King was in no doubt. He said he was "overly stoked" about the album, and described Rose as "the Mozart of our lifetime."
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Mary Milliken and Bob Tourtellotte