Tuesday 7 March 2023

The Winery Dogs - III (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Feb 2023
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There may not be a more overused word in rock music than "supergroup", which nowadays ends up slapped onto any group of musicians who used to be in other bands but are now in a new one. That covers about half the bands I review and I'm trying to dig deep. If there's an actual supergroup out there nowadays that lives up to that spirit of that name, it's this one, reuniting Billy Sheehan with Richie Kotzen, after a stretch together in Mr. Big decades ago, but with the best rock drummer on the planet added for good measure, Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater fame. Supergroups don't get much more accurate than that.

This is their third album as the Winery Dogs so they clearly know each other well and that's exactly what I got out of Xanadu, which is a killer opener and, as far as I'm concerned, the best song on the album. Everyone shines on this one, each member demonstrating clear virtuosity but showing off in such a way that it never hurts the song. It's a sassy number in the Van Hagar style, right down to the handclaps, and it's Kotzen who shows off first, turning what some guitarists would consider a solo into a mere riff. It works magnificently and I could listen to this one all day.

The album stays good but not that good. Kotzen is often the most notable musician, unsurprisingly as both the band's lead vocalist and only guitarist, but I appreciated that he never goes wild on his solos. None of them are outrageous. They're all good, but they're hard rock guitar solos not stunts and, especially in such virtuoso company, it must have felt natural for him to show off and he kept away from the temptation, even during what could be comfortably be described as duels between him and Sheehan on songs like Rise and Gaslight.

I think of Kotzen as a guitarist but he's a capable singer too. He reminds the most of Sammy Hagar but there's some Paul Rodgers in his voice and some David Coverdale too. Sometimes one shifts to the fore but then fades back again and that always feels natural. Occasionally he tries something different and it feels exactly like he's trying something different. That's most overt on two songs that dip into grunge: Breakthrough introduces that and Pharaoh brings it back. Neither of them is restricted to grunge, but there's definitely some Pearl Jam in there.

The default style is hard rock, with fancy guitarwork that never wants to be still, a prominent bass that sometimes refuses to not play lead and thoroughly serious beats. Sure, they get delightfully loose late in Pharaoh but they don't drift too far from that mindset for most of the album. The two grunge songs end up there too, even if they start out as departures, and there aren't many others that look to something different. Lorelei gets bluesy, just to underline how this old fashioned hard rock grew out of the blues, and Stars gets softer, a melodic rock song with a very recognisable bass line. Is that Strange Kind of Woman? I think that's Strange Kind of Woman.

Beyond those, I'd have to stretch and talk about how loose Pharaoh gets late on. It's still hard rock in much the same vein as most of the album but, soon before the four minute mark, Mike Portnoy decides to relax his ruthless timekeeping and let everyone jam for a few minutes. It's delightfully loose and Kotzen especially feels freed by the shift in mood, delivering the most flamboyant solo on the album. It's feelgood stuff, for the band as much as for us. It would be much too easy to state that I wanted more of that, because I don't know that it would help the album. It's there when the time is right, as a wlecome change, and then they kick back into high gear for the next song, which is Gaslight, demonstrating the highest gear that the Winery Dogs use here.

I like this a lot, but I don't know that I'm willing to give it an 8/10. Xanadu is too clearly a standout and, while nothing lets the side down, quite a few are songs I don't feel much of a need to go back to. So this is a 7/10 from me, but it's an effortless 7/10.

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