In a cultural event rivalling the discovery of a unicorn or Big Foot, Guns N' Roses' "Chinese Democracy" hit stores Sunday morning.

"Chinese Democracy" was released 17 years after the band's last original studio albums landed. Music stores around the country are opening at midnight for the Sunday release.

However, it won't be available everywhere in the world -- it has been banned in China.

The reclusive Axl Rose is the sole remaining original member of the band that took the world by storm in late 1980s with their distinct gritty punk-metal sound, which was in sharp contrast to the pop-focused "hair metal" bands such as Poison or Warrant, which dominated the charts at the time.

In the estimated 14 years spent working on the album, numerous personnel changes were made to the band, and producers such as Youth, Moby, Sean Beaven and the legendary Roy Thomas Baker (Queen) came and went.

The album's release also means that soft drink maker Dr. Pepper has to pony up a free pop for every American (minus former guitarists Slash and Buckethead) after the company promised to do so if the album was released in 2008.

Americans can log on to Dr. Pepper's website for 24 hours starting Sunday to download a coupon to get their free pop. It is estimated that the bet could cost the company as much as US$20 million, even more than the massive amount it cost to produce "Chinese Democracy."

Is it any good?

The album had become a punch line for artistic indulgence in the music community and was never expected to see the light of day by many after numerous delays.

And as time passed, Rose was stuck more and more between a rock and a hard place, making the album's release even more unlikely.

Expectations for the record have grown to such levels that anything other than the perfect album would be considered a letdown for many. Critics would have a field day with it saying, "17 years for this?"

But "Chinese Democracy" has not been ruthlessly plundered in many of the early reviews of the album.

Rolling Stone magazine called it "great, audacious, unhinged and uncompromising hard-rock record."

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the album: "The end result is a cyborgian blend of pop expressiveness, traditional rock bravado and Brian Wilson-style beautiful weirdness."

Spin magazine, the BBC, the National Post, and influential writer Chuck Klosterman also gave positive to glowing notices of the album.

"There are a lot of Guns N' Roses fans . . . and the overall response is 'everyone loves it,'" David Caplan of People magazine told CTV Newsnet Saturday evening. "At People, we were listening to it and we all sort of agreed that it has a charged, high-octane energy.

"Other reviews described it as a high-velocity, almost a guttural kind of sound. It is really great for Guns N' Roses fans because it's pure Guns N' Roses."

Certainly, the album - with its wall of sound worthy of Phil Spector and wide-ranging musical influences, many far from the original Guns N' Roses sound - is not totally well-received.

The New York Times said the album "sounds like a loud last gasp from the reign of the indulged pop star" and compared it to the Titanic (the sunken ship, not the movie.)

Financial success?

Considering the album is believed to have cost at least US$13 million, executives at Rose's record label Universal are no doubt watching with baited breath at how well the album sells.

Early indications suggest there is still a massive fanbase for the band. "Chinese Democracy" is being streamed on MySpace and broke records on the website, with more than three million spins of the album's songs in one day. That's about 25 plays per second.

The album is being released exclusively through Best Buy in the United States but is available at all record stores in other countries. The marketing ploy proved successful this fall when AC/DC scored the year's biggest selling debut after going exclusive with Wal-Mart in the U.S.

"We're expecting it to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, albums of the year," HMV Canada president Humphrey Kadaner told in October.

Still, Guns N' Roses will have some major competition from Kanye West, The Killers and Ludacris, who all have new albums coming out next week as well.  

The American Music Awards take place Sunday night and there are rumours that Guns N' Roses could make an appearance. However, Rose rarely makes public appearances, and is generally rumoured to be appearing at every single music awards show.

Rose is joined on "Chinese Democracy" by some combination of bassist Tommy Stinson (The Replacements), keyboardist Dizzy Reed (who joined GNR in 1990), guitarists Robin Finck (currently in Nine Inch Nails), Buckethead (who left GNR in 2004), Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, Richard Fortus (Love Spit Love) and drummers Brian Mantia (Primus) and Frank Ferrer.