Everyone has that one buddy who’s broken up with a serious, long-time girlfriend and then just gone completely non-linear. You know, the guy who talks about how great his girlfriend is the entire time they’re dating, hints at even marrying her, and then she leaves him without warning for a Swedish hair model or something, and your buddy is completely inconsolable? Well, for about a week or two, of course, and then he starts nailing everything in sight. That’s basically how I’ve viewed Mike Portnoy over the past year or so. Ever since his very public break-up with Dream Theater, he’s bounced from band to band, rarely sticking around for more than an album or two. He was the drummer for Avenged Sevenfold for roughly a year. He formed Flying Colors with prog giants Steve Morse and Neal Morse (unrelated, for the trivia-challenged), which still exists but was always intended as a side project for all involved. He recently rebanded with Transatlantic for a new epic progressive album, but again that’s a transient project. For a while, it seemed like Adrenaline Mob, a straight-up metal outfit, would become his primary project amongst the myriad of groups to which he belonged, but recently he announced he would be leaving that band as well.
That brings us to his most recent project, The Winery Dogs. Originally intended to be a classic rock-oriented power trio project with the mighty John Sykes (Whitesnake/Blue Murder) and uber-bassist Billy Sheehan (Talus/David Lee Roth/Mr. Big), the membership changed up when Sykes bowed out. Portnoy and Sheehan joined forces with shredder Ritchie Kotzen (Mr. Big/Poison) on guitar and lead vocals; the trio felt that they had a great vibe, and the lineup was locked in.
It was anyone’s guess how this would actually turn out, but what’s very clear throughout the finished product is that the guys stuck to their goal of producing an album with a classic rock feel. Of course, the term “classic rock” is a loose one these days, as rock’s catalog continues to age. I personally was a bit surprised by this particular collection, as when I think about classic rock, my mind usually drifts toward seventies-era music, like Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, Kansas, Boston, or Queen…and, generally speaking, that’s not what this album sounds like. Instead, it sounds like it came straight out of the mid-eighties.
That’s right: the eighties’ hard rock/metal acts are now classic rock. This isn’t hard for a teenager to wrap their head around, but for anyone like myself that lived through this era as a kid, it’s a little bit of a shock. It makes perfect sense, of course, and is simply an effect of the passage of time, but it meant that when I started listening to this album for the first time, I had to adjust my expectations.
I should have figured this out just by looking at the song titles: “Desire,” “Damaged,” “I’m No Angel” (a commonly-used song title that always makes me suspect of any collection of music) all suggest the 80s relationship-obsessed lyrical content. So, instead of a lot of seven-minute-long, trippy, middle-eastern-influenced epics, The Winery Dogs’ debut is, instead, filled with four-minute, catchy, flashy, straightforward rockers. This isn’t a bad thing. The popularity of the eighties has continued to grow over the past few years due to aging Gen-Xers’ feelings of nostalgia for the decade and their influence on the consumer market. What I’ve found, however, is that the primary focus on this era’s music has been largely around the big, silly, synthy hits, or on the worst kinds of hair metal. The Winery Dogs have recorded an album that reminds me more of the less-glammy rock that was the foundation upon which everyone else built, and it’s a nice reminder that there was a certain depth of content from a lot of eighties artists underneath the neon-and-big-hair veneer that covered most everything else.
So, from front-to-back, most of the songs work really well, and are primarily up-tempo rockers, resulting in a very high fun factor throughout. Anyone who is familiar with the musicians involved will have high expectations of the quality of playing, and the guys do not disappoint for one second. Ritchie’s fingers are as fast as ever, and the rhythm section is insane, with Sheehan not infrequently stepping out and taking melody on the bass for short runs. The band is super tight; but, that doesn’t mean that the album feels cold and technical. On the contrary, the Dogs blend naturally and play with a comfortable feeling. They certainly play a few crazy passages, but these are done for flavor and as accents, and never take away from the focus of the songs themselves. With three phenom-level players, the album could have easily descended into a technical shred-fest, but the trio wisely keeps things in the pocket, and their experience and maturity shows in knowing when to just play the damned song and not constantly show off. Major kudos go especially to Portnoy who is tastefully restrained except when the song calls for big breaks, something that he proved he could do brilliantly in Flying Colors.
The biggest surprise on the album is what a fantastic singer Ritchie Kotzen really is. His voice is versatile, soaring on the high notes, bluesy and rich on the ballads, and growling when called for. His choice of vocal timbre throughout is excellent. Even his use of falsetto is generally very strong. The backing vocals are fairly solid, especially considering that they consist primarily of just Mike Portnoy. There’s probably a little too much pure melodic falsetto in the backing vocals, which I don’t think is Mike’s strong suit, but bearing in mind that he’s trying to keep up with Ritchie’s big leads while playing a mean kit, I think we can safely give him a pass on that.
There are a couple of moments when the band does hearken back to seventies-era classic rock patterns, probably most notably on “One More Time,” a more dirty swing tune with heavy blues-rock influence. The ballads like “Damaged,” “The Dying,” and “Regret” tend to blend aspects of the two eras, mostly to good effect, other than the group vocals sometimes being a little too focused on the treble and sounding a bit thin.
All together, the album is really very solid. The chinks in the armor are primarily minor, but fairly consistent throughout the album. The first is that, even when songs seem very heavy, minor, and lyrically aggressive, the choruses often break into a big major chord progression, often with some sort of uplifting lyrics to boot. It’s an old trick, and when used occasionally, can be very effective. However, in this collection, it seems to be the go-to methodology for around 70% of the songs, and I often find myself wishing that the guys had just kept things heavy and darker every now and again. This ties in closely with the second flaw, which is that Kotzen’s lyrics are pretty pedestrian across the board. They’re filled with clichéd phrases and predictable direction. Few of them are actually bad (other than “You can’t put your faith in the devil when you worship God” on “I’m No Angel” – yikes), but mostly just fall short of the potential impact that there could have been on this album given that the music is so good.
The issues here don’t really detract from the overall appeal of the collection, and The Winery Dogs definitely achieve what they set out to do: create an album that sounds like it was recorded in a time when classic rock was king. While I didn’t quite get the OMG-level reaction I had hoped for (as I did with the first Black Country Communion album), it’s a really strong starting point for the group, and one that actually has potential to get radio play and still appeal to the album-focused rock fan. Touring behind this collection should be successful, as the songs should translate really well live.
The real question is: will Portnoy stick around and make this a primary project, investing enough time and energy to see it through to financial success? It could and should happen, and still leave him with enough time to date other girls…er, play in other side projects. Regardless of the band’s eventual fate, The Winery Dogs have given us a minimum of one good classic rock-style power trio album – thankfully, without the hairspray and spandex.