Why are some musicians vagabonds, jumping from project to project in a constant state of motion? There's a cynical answer about the undying desire to find the band that will break through and bring fame and fortune, but for most it has to do with a need to make music. For a certain group of musicians, music is an addiction, something they have to constantly be involved with or else they go crazy. It's hard to separate these honestly passionate creators from the more shrewd businessmen, but every so often the answer becomes clear.
The Winery Dogs are a band made up of those music junkies, a group that exists simply because these three guys love making music. Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan, and Richie Kotzen aren't names that are going to move the dial in the mainstream, but that's not the point of this band. The Winery Dogs is all about going back to the roots of hard rock, stripping away all the excess that has built up over the decades, and focusing on delivering great songs played by people with the skill and passion to back them up.
All three members of the band are exceptional musicians, some of the best at what they do. You might expect a gathering of such talent to be heavy on instrumental prowess, but “The Winery Dogs” is an unexpectedly reserved outing. There are some fiery bits of playing, like the winding technical riff that anchors the opener “Elevate”, but those moments are tastefully utilized, and not overdone. Rather, “The Winery Dogs” is as song-focused an album as can be.
Resurrecting the power trio format, The Winery Dogs prove that less can indeed be more. Without the bells and whistles, the limitations of having just three instruments allows each member of the band to have enough space to make their mark, all without bringing down the most important aspect; the songs.
What makes “The Winery Dogs” a great album isn't the names, or the legacies they bring, it's the songs. Simply put, this is the best collection of hard rock songs I've heard all year. The harder-edged songs rock, the more pop-oriented songs are addictive, and the softer songs are simply beautiful. The Winery Dogs show mastery over more elements of hard rock in one album than most similar bands can show in a career. Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan prove throughout that their reputations as among the very best are well deserved. Both are able to fit their massive skill inside the framework of the songs.
The biggest revelation about the album is the massive talent that is Richie Kotzen. A man who's never received the acclaim in America of his band mates, he is the absolute star of the record. His playing is unique to himself, a technical yet soulful ability to blend melodic blues with the power of hard rock. But even that takes a back seat to his singing, which anchors the album. His vocals, and the melodies he writes, catapult these from songs that must have been fun to record into truly great songs.
Whether listening to the huge swelling chorus of “Elevate”, the soulful delivery in “The Dying”, or the stunningly perfect “Damaged”, Kotzen spins beautiful melodies that match the prowess of the music he's fronting. There is no weak moment on the album. Every song is packed with fantastic playing, inventive ideas, and a vocal that makes me wonder how Kotzen has spent his whole career under the radar.
“The Winery Dogs” is the type of album I wish more hard rock bands could make. It's everything good about this kind of music, and one of my favorite records so far this year.
[Note: The American release includes “Time Machine” in place of “Criminal”. Both are good songs, but I feel “Criminal” is a slightly better song, and a far better fit for it's place in the album.]