Monday, November 25, 2013

The Winery Dogs fetch a winning debut

Far too often, “supergroups” prove that the whole is, sometimes, not greater than the sum of its parts. That is not the case with The Winery Dogs. Their eponymous debut is the sound of three top-caliber musicians using their talents -- and chemistry -- to craft melodic hard rock songs that give a nod to the past while offering a fresh, modern twist.

It’s also the sound of vocalist/guitarist Richie Kotzen (Poison, Mr. Big), bassist Billy Sheehan (David Lee Roth, Mr. Big) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) having fun playing as a power trio. “Elevate” is a great example of The Winery Dogs’ sound: a driving rhythm section, tasteful flourishes of virtuosity and big, bright vocal harmonies that hit you like a B12 injection.

Kotzen gives a strong vocal performance here and throughout the album. Though some may criticize him for sounding too much like Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, Kotzen’s vocal style complements the songs well. Too many guitar prodigies only deliver passable vocals when they get behind the microphone. This guitar hero has the vocal chops to front a band.

But most important, this album showcases three musicians operating as a tight unit. “The Other Side” is a driving, frantic song that showcases the monstrous rhythm section of Portnoy and Sheehan. Near the end of the song they sound like Godzilla stomping through town as Kotzen unleashes some fiery guitar work.

“Six Feet Deeper” and “We Are One” also highlight the propulsive rhythm section and a band that knows how to craft a song with a hook. When Kotzen sings on the latter: “We are one and won’t be shaken,” he might as well be referring to the band’s performance.

“Desire” offers a funky, churning bass and vocal harmonies that recall King’s X. The band’s vocal harmonies take a sinister turn on “Time Machine,” a song that evokes Alice in Chains. Sheehan’s slithering bass adds to the foreboding atmosphere until the song picks up speed as Kotzen cuts loose on the guitar.

It’s worth noting that the instrumental breaks don’t come at the expense of the songs. The Winery Dogs have taken a page from the Van Halen book of songwriting by offering well-crafted songs that just happen to include virtuoso playing. It never feels as if a song was written as an excuse to solo.

Kotzen also keeps his solos tasteful and interesting. As Sheehan has noted, the guitarist infuses a jazziness into his playing, most notably during his solo on “Not Hopeless,” which has the feel of a saxophone solo. It’s these unique touches by Kotzen and his bandmates that prevent their debut from sounding like a retro hard rock album. It’s their own unique take on the genre.

The group also shows they can slow things down for a ballad. “I’m No Angel” sounds tailor-made for a movie soundtrack. It’s the perfect song to play over the scenes following a couple’s break up. Kotzen’s blues-inflected vocals soar as the band sings: “I’m no angel, can’t you see?/I’ve got nothing that you need/My misfortune dance with me/I’m no angel.” “Regret” is another bluesy number. A piano and organ add to the atmosphere of this album closer.

Sheehan has said the band’s name comes from the dogs used years ago to keep animals from destroying vineyards. He sees the band doing the musical equivalent by protecting straightforward rock in a world where so many musicians sample sounds and Auto-Tune their vocals. If this debut is any indication, The Winery Dogs have done more than simply protect hard rock, they’ve put their own unique stamp on the genre that will leave listeners begging for more.