Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Winery Dogs - Rock 'N' Roll's DNA Runs Wild

The Winery Dogs is a hit - in spite of the name, there's not a dog on the record, and what in an earlier era could have been an ego fueled nightmare is instead an album full of cool tunes and fantastic musicianship that reveals a definite connection between the birth of the power trio and today.

The Winery Dogs are, of course, Richie Kotzen (guitars/vocals), Billy Sheehan (bass, vocals), and Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals). Between them, I'd guess they've laid tracks on a few thousand tracks, and it goes without saying that their formidable reputations precede them. When I heard they were picking up the pieces of a failed project that had included long missing-in-action guitar star John Sykes, my first concern was that the finished product may have ended up sounding piecemeal, or half baked. I'm very pleased to say that my fears were unfounded, and Kotzen's arrival truly saved the day for this, the latest in a series of successful 'supergroups' that seem to be making the sound of classic hard rock again something new and exciting.

The first comparison I draw is to the ill-fated, but brilliant supergroup, Beck, Bogert, and Appice. You've got three guys who are world class instrumentalists, have been around more than a few blocks throwing their hats into the ring, and instead of this being any sort of shredfest, you have an album full of songs that happen to feature some (well, a lot) of incredible playing. A more recent comparison may be to the a supergroup success for earlier this year, Pinnick Gales Pridgen, who also elected to go for the emphasis on song and group vibe, as opposed to the 'Hey, look at me' approach. It's a shame that the brightest lights in big guitar rock are not young bands but rather aging veterans, but it is what it is - The Winery Dogs are picking it up and putting it down in grand style.

Richie Kotzen may be the star of this show, if only for the fact that he is the least well known member of the band - in spite of stints with Mr. Big, Poison, and an impressive solo resume, Kotzen has never been given such a platform from which to display his huge skills as a singer, songwriter, and guitar slinger. Less than thirty seconds into the album, the Dogs reveal that they've been on board since before the dawn of 1970, and that they've never missed a trick. By the one minute mark, the chorus kicks in and the summer has a great hard rock single in Elevate, and indeed, Sheehan and Portnoy do elevate Kotzen with a tornadic swirl of thunder - Portnoy finally gets a shot at throwing down straight up rock, Sheehan has never sounded better, and when their vocals join Richie's for the refrain, it's nirvana, baby. In fact, it's as if Nirvana hadn't happened. Of course, there's the solo section, and this bunch wastes no time in showing just what they are about. There's not a ball hog in sight, and everyone gets a chance to shine.

Desire comes in with a swagger as the boys fire up the funk and shake it down. Kotzen switches between big rock vocals and skronky wah blasts with a deftness that is fairly mindblowing, and the rhythm section never gives him a chance to do anything but keep moving forward - these guys are in fantastic shape, and their energy is matched by their legendary skills.

The Winery Dogs do an outstanding job at straddling genres and purpose - We Are One is certainly a commercial tune, but the musical miracles prevent one from saying that this is an attempt at radio ready rock (a term that I use only for those lucky enough to still remember rock 'n' roll radio). Kotzen sings like an angel, then plays like the damned devil. His solo on this one is a melody infused shred that keeps me smiling as he pulls licks out from deeper and deeper in his dictionary of tones. He and Sheehan must have exchanged a lot of grins as they play unison and harmony fills that boggle, while all the while Portnoy shows why he's the best drummer in rock.

I'm No Angel is as close to the blues as this record will get, and that's a beautiful thing - Kotzen is a very sophisticated writer, and even when he lays out a big chewy chorus like this one, there's more going on than meets the eye. Portnoy still manages to throw in some amazing stick work, and Sheehan continues to earn the title of rock's best bassist. Billy has tremendous chops, but it's his tone and his note choice and placement that have always thrilled me the most.

Portnoy kicks into The Other Side sounding more like Bun E. Carlos than Dream Theater, and it's great to hear him throwing down a (nearly) straight beat until he turns the pre-chorus into a roller coaster of smooth time changes. Great drumming makes great rock and roll, and it's often only when you look close that you realize how much impact the kit and the drummer makes. These guys prove again and again that there are still plenty of memorable hooks to be mined. Kotzen plays a blinder of a solo that sounds like it got sent through an '80s synth hook hotline before he goes into some stunning alternate picking.

Billy Sheehan plucks us into the intro of You Saved Me, and the sequenced sounding beginning is just some great playing, as Kotzen joins in on some subtly effected guitar. Portnoy plays great straight rock and yes, it's tasteful. When he starts having fun in the second verse, listen close - you'll be bloody bedazzled, the guy is incredibly tactile and musical. Another cool composition, another great chorus, more of the same - great stuff.

Not Hopeless is one of those riffs that sounds very smooth and simple unless you listen close - then you realize that these are masters of time and space. This is a fast paced rocker that suggests a beautiful mating of Hagar era Van Halen with the best days of Soundgarden. Sheehan gets a solo, and he makes the most of the opportunity to shine. Portnoy plays some of the best on the edge of control rock drumming that I've heard since the passing of the Moon.

Southern Rock? One More Time suggests that the band has heard some, but, of course, they put it through their strainer of virtuosity, and turn it a bit funky. The solo section takes me straight back to the days of Eat 'Em And Smile, then Kotzen takes us warmly back into the verses. Some great stop and go, stutter stepping keeps this fresh to the end.

Kotzen seldom seems to sing of a perfect world, in fact, it all seems a bit rough in the world of love according to Richie. Damaged is the perfect example as he sings his blues, maybe some of the best blues this side of Gary Moore's passing. I can't think of a guy besides the late Irishman who could as well wield both axe and voice. If this record doesn't make Kotzen a superstar, it's a fucked up world, indeed.

Six Feet Deeper barrels forward with a barrage of riffing and some fierce power chords. The Dogs specialize in great gang vocals - it's refreshing to hear harmonies on hard rock, I'd almost thought it a lost art. If I sound like a broken record for touting the relative skills on tap here, I apologize, but it's great to hear. Ever moment of this record drips with not just crazy skill levels, but more importantly skills applied with passion - when this tune breaks down into a dinosaur stomp, you can't but groove.

Time Machine shows why every guitarist should cross collateralize their skill set, as Kotzen throws some very country vibed bends into the proceeding and makes them sound like rockin' soul. Great choruses, and obvious hooks like this are damned hard to write and make convincing, but this sounds as fresh as the day. It's one of the album's more obvious moments, and you'll be glad that it is.

Kotzen is sure an intriguing writer. He's part soul shouter, part jazzman, full pull out all stops rocker, and it usually sounds like he has his heart full of the blues. The Dying is one of the darker songs on the record, but it leaves me the most hopeful. Talk about your heavy choruses - damn this is a mile wide, and two miles deep. Portnoy pulls off more Moon inspired madness, and Billy is just always, always right where he should be. Celebrate rock this good.

Wrapping up a gale force rock record with a bit of sultry soul, Regret is a slight departure, filled with piano and some juicy Hammond organ. It's a nice way to waltz into the sunset and take a deep breath as we head this one out the door. A Kotzen tour de force, but that can be said of the whole album. This one gets bigger and bigger, and the kid tears off another blazing guitar solo before heading to the barn.

The Winery Dogs is everything that was promised - if you bemoaned the late in the game disappearance of mystery man John Sykes, I will say that I believe that the Universe knows what it was doing and that there are no mistakes. Hopefully, we'll get new Sykes music soon, but it was a lucky day when someone picked up the phone and invited Richie Kotzen into this band. This is certainly to be one of the year's best.

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