Monday, May 19, 2014

WINGER "Better Days Comin'"

(c) 2014 Frontiers Records

  1. Midnight Driver of a Love Machine
  2. Queen Babylon
  3. Rat Race
  4. Better Days Comin'
  5. Tin Soldier
  6. Ever Wonder
  7. So Long China
  8. Storm In Me
  9. Be Who You Are, Now
  10. Another Beautiful Day (Bonus)
  11. Out Of This World
Kip Winger--Lead Vocals, Bass
Reb Beach--Lead Guitar
Rod Morgenstein--Drums
John Roth--Guitars

Winger is a band of multiple personalities and dimensions.  On the one hand you have a band that many consider to be the epitome of 80's/early 90's ridiculousness and cheesiness, all because of one song: "Seventeen".  Endlessly bagged on by MTV and, in particular, Beavis And Butthead, its a wonder the band survived to make a second album!  Add in the fact that they had the gall (some say balls) to re-record the classic Hendrix tune, "Purple Haze", and a video featuring Kip DOING BALLET!!! of all things, and you had the makings of a one-release disaster!  But the band was loved by enough people that they definitely made that next record...and kept right on going.

You also have one of the very few bands of the 1980's that survived that era largely intact, with Winger, Beach, and Morgenstein all still carrying on from the original line-up.  Paul Taylor, also an original, played on the album but has since left the band for other projects, to be replaced by Roth who has been on board since 1993.  That is a kind of continuity not often found among the hair bands that are still relevant today.

To that end, you also have one of the most musically talented bands to come out of that era and genre, hands down.  To deny Kip Winger's vocal power is ridiculous, and Reb Beach is the guitar god that somehow got lost in the shuffle of the Van Halens, Malmsteens, Lynches, DeMartinis, and all the rest.  While not as commercially successful as the first two albums, the band's Pull record is one of the best pieces of melodic hard rock to be released, in my opinion, and the band has continued in that direction, for the most part, since re-forming in 2001.  Sure, there was the less-than-great IV album, but Karma was a great record that showed this band still has a lot of good music left in them.

Which brings us to the new album, the aptly titled Better Days Comin'.  I say aptly titled because it is apparent with this record that Winger is far from done and continue to mature as songwriters, musicians, and performers, as this album, is at-or-near the peak of their catalog.  (More on that in a minute).

The album starts off with the somewhat silly sounding "Midnight Driver of a Love Machine", but it is only the title that is even remotely silly, as what we are treated to instantly is a solid melodic rocker that features everything people have come to expect from Winger: tight harmonies, a catchy hook, strong vocals, a killer riff and ripping guitar solo.  The perfect mix to start off any record, to be sure.  Yeah, lyrically this isn't the deepest cut on the record, but it's fun and catchy, so no harm-no foul.

From there, we get into the real meat of the record (on track 2?!), with "Queen Babylon", which is a song that embodies the sound that people have come to expect from Winger pretty much since the Pull record.  A big, melodic track that pushes at the boundaries of progressive rock, this upper-mid-tempo number features a bit of a darker tone to the music and lyrics, along with a crunchy riff, throbbing bass, and just a hint of keys for effect.  Kip adds an edge to his vocals here to go along with the angst of the lyrics, similar to what he did on "Spell I'm Under" on Pull, or more recently the work he did on Wrapped Around My Middle Finger, Donnie Vie's solo record from last year.  Once again, a blistering guitar solo sears through the middle of this song, leaving no doubt as to the skill levels of Beach and Roth.

"Rat Race" revs things back up to full speed, bringing a decidedly metallic sound to the album, completed by Morgensteins thunderous playing and a hard-charging rhythm guitar line.  The speed is soon forgone, however, as a...dare I say it...grungy guitar line comes oozing out of the speakers as soon as the title track hits.  "Better Days Comin'" is not what you would likely expect, especially after healthy doses of prime Winger on the first three tracks, but this song works on multiple levels.  As I stated, there is an undeniable grunge factor on this track, but it is balanced by an hyper-melodic and ultra-catchy chorus, which despite its simplicity, is nearly impossible to forget, all layered over the top of a danceable groove that will set many toes tapping.  It's this progressive mindset that keeps Winger fresh and relevant in spite of the fact that the band has been doing this music thing for nearly 30 years now.

"Tin Soldier" keeps the progressive element alive, with a trippy keyboard line laced throughout the track, a jazz-influenced undercurrent placed beneath the guitar solo, and more of the angry, biting vocal approach from Kip.  This leads directly into the album's first real ballad, "Ever Wonder", which doesn't carry the same pomp as the big-haired power ballad, but will likely still induce more than a few lighter (or cell phone) waving hands if the band chooses to perform this song live.  

"So Long China" returns the band to more straight-forward hard rock territory with a song that would have served as a great album cut even in the band's 80's heyday.  A solid number, this track does lack a bit of the hook that most of the others tracks here do, and the guitar solo is far more subdued than what many fans may be looking for, but this is a solid track nonetheless.  

"Storm In Me" is a sassy, gritty, blues-infused track that finds the band locked into a Zeppelin-ish groove with a nasty hook and some angry effects played across Kip's vocals during the chorus of the song.  "Be Who You Are, Now" touches Beatles territory in an airy, ethereal ballad that, honestly, is one of the low points on the record for me, while the album closing epic, "Out Of This World" returns the band to the progressive feel of the middle of this record.  Checking in at nearly 7 minutes in length, this is a great way to end a great disc and gives Beach one more chance to shine on an absolutely scorching solo which runs for nearly a minute and a half before Kip and the rest of the band crashes back in with the chorus of this band's "November Rain" moment...only to go back into a SECOND blistering guitar solo that takes that album to fade out.  Again, just an absolutely great way to end the record as far as quality of the music goes.

On the deluxe version of the album, there is also a bonus track called "Another Beautiful Day", which, for my money, is one of the top three songs on the album and should have been included on ALL versions.  An aggressive rocker with a bottom-heavy buzzsaw guitar riff running throughout, this song is another example of Winger reaching back to the Pull days to combine heft with melody in a straight forward way, avoiding the progressiveness that is prevalent throughout much of this disc.  A short, sweet, powerful guitar solo and more of Kip's anger-infused vocals complete a track that I would have liked to have seen placed a bit differently on this record, but it is definitely worth shelling out a couple of extra bucks for, at least to me.  

The bonus track, of course, leads me to the package.  As is typical of Frontiers Records, the digipack is the format of choice, which I do not like at all, but I am learning to live with it.  A DVD of the making of the record is included (yawn), and the videos for "Rat Race" and "Better Days Comin'" are also included, which is an okay touch, but come on, I'm not going to pop this DVD in for 8 minutes of videos after wading through all sorts of boredom.  Why people like this "making of the record" stuff I will never understand...

Is this the best Winger record ever?  For my money, no...but it is a great record.  Pull still sits atop the musical mountain that Winger has amassed over the years, and I will be the first to admit that may be at least partially due to sentimentality on my part.  That being said, this is a stellar album with mostly excellent songs and top-notch performances all over the place.  And if there truly are "better days comin'", I am going to be anxiously awaiting what's in store, because topping this album is going to be tough.

Rating:  Crank this all the way to 9!

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