2015-10-19

Album Review: The Winery Dogs - Hot Streak

I've been struggling for about a week now to figure out how to write a review of the new Winery Dogs album, Hot Streak. The struggle I'm having is that the album is so good that I don't just want to write "a" review, I want to write the review that needs to be written.

If I wanted to write "a" review of the album, then I'd do what other reviews appear to be doing: I'd start with a brief synopsis of how the band came together (there's a bit of music history in that story), mention the respective band members' musical pedigrees, make a big deal about their musical chops, mention that this is their second album, and then say something to the effect of, "The Winery Dogs continue on a hot streak, indeed! Yuk yuk yuk..."

I don't fault other reviewers for writing that sort of thing, but my criticism is that nothing in those reviews gives the reader any incentive to take an involved and critical journey into Hot Streak and come to a real appreciation for what they've managed to accomplish here.

I'm not even sure that I myself can write a review like that - hence my aforementioned struggle. But, I'm going to try, so here it is...

And Now, For The Review...

People write a lot about Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan, and Mike Portnoy, because all three musicians are famous for being technically proficient players. Furthermore, it's not as if any of them has worked very hard to reduce their reputation for being that way - and why should they? But their reputation for technique follows them, and makes up part of the "context" in which the listener hears new Winery Dogs music.

However, there is another part of the "context" that doesn't get written about quite as often: all three players, in addition to being some of the most gifted players in rock music, happen to have some serious jazz chops. Kotzen and Sheehan have explicitly explored jazz fusion on previous records and in prior bands. While Portnoy may not have done so, there's no denying that he has referenced jazz music many times in the course of his prog-metal career. 

I bring this up because, when you really dive deeply into Hot Streak, you start to notice its strong jazz underpinnings.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the album's title track. While the crux of the song is a set of straight-ahead, crashing power chords and rhythms, the band uses the spaces between the "important parts," to jettison into some admirably crazy jazz soloing. This culminates in what might be the standout solo of the album - maybe "solo of the year," if they gave awards for this sort of thing - from Richie Kotzen, near the end of the song.

Then there's the explosive, improvisational character of the music, an attribute that is driven home, song after song, by the drumming. While it's easy to criticize Dream Theater's back catalogue for being a little over-rehearsed, Mike Portnoy seems to have overcome all that with the Winery Dogs. This is especially true of the new album. The other criticism Portnoy recieves is that he "over-plays," and while those who are inclined to make that criticism will find plenty to object to on Hot Streak, the band really wouldn't "work" if he played any differently. He injects each track with an explosive energy that seems to elevate (no pun intended) the other members of the band to a degree of explosiveness that is not always there in their prior work. But, more than that, the improvisational feel in his drumming makes each song unfold like a controlled explosion the likes of which I have only really heard before in that other jazz-inflected rock band, Living Colour.

Just when you think that this is all Mike Portnoy has in his tool kit, however, he takes things way down for songs like "Fire" and "Think It Over," keeping the spirit of the songs in mind. In particular, his work on "Think It Over" is some of the most thoughtfully under-stated work of his career, involving some tasty hi-hat work that punctuates rhythm and lyrics alike.

Richie Kotzen, for his part, is in fine jazz form. I really enjoy the fact that he doesn't hesitate to play some deliciously jazzy electric piano and keyboards all over Hot Streak, especially since my favorite track on the previous record was the piano-inflected "Regret." Still, he never over-does it, so the band keeps their feet planted firmly in the kind of hard rock that appeals to their audience. As for his guitar playing, Kozten breaks out some phrasing we haven't heard from him since his work with Virtu and the Kotzen/Howe albums. I love this side of Kotzen's playing, so it's a delight for me to hear him break it out. Kotzen's having ditched the pick for a few years now, has managed to really develop his finger-style playing. His touch on the strings, combined with his Telecaster-into-a-Plexi setup gives his playing a bright top-end sparkle that we don't typically hear from shredders these days.

One great upshot of this, is that it leaves a midrange wedge large enough for Billy Sheehan's bass playing. This is so important, and so different from some of Sheehan's previous work, which I feel has often been diminished by a guitarist dominating the band's midrange spectrum and decreasing the listener's ability to really appreciate the Sheehanisms going on at the bottom-end. Indeed, Hot Streak, even more than the Winery Dogs debut album, manages to put Sheehan's tone right where it needs to be, and the result puts us in a better position to love what he's bringing to the table.

And what he happens to have brought is a groovy, R&B or maybe funk vibe to the overall sound. The contrast between Sheehan's overtly rock bass tones and the sort of jazzy, soul-music vibe in the bass lines on this album plays against type and expectation, and that very much works in the band's favor. It's like a series of pleasant surprises that unfold with each subsequent track.

This jazzy quality is present in each of the players' performances throughout the Hot Streak album. It is such a delightful surprise from a band that one expects to deliver straight-ahead, 80s-inflected hard rock. On one level, it makes each song more explosive, and on another level, it makes things so much tastier than they would be if they just stuck to the basic rock songwriting that made each of them individually famous.

Explosive and tasty - that's what you get with Hot Streak. The deeper you dive, the tastier it gets. There is no question that this is the best album I've heard this year. The Winery Dogs have put together a really great record, and I look forward to catching their nearest stop on their nation-wide tour.