They say the third time’s the charm. But the third album from The Winery Dogs is more than just charmed, because we have already heard undeniable magic on their first two albums. This time, however, we witness a truly jaw-dropping breakthrough.
What is worth noting here is that we have been given a solid album with ten songs that strongly lock together. They flow inexorably, as the coherent whole of what I believe will eventually be recognized as a classic album, one even better than the merely rave reviews it has already been getting. Its magnificence gets more and more impressive with each further listen.
On previous releases, I found myself picking out favorite songs. The range of the band’s material was stunning, and while all of it was impressive, there were still standout tracks that clearly rose above the rest. On the debut, for me those were: “Elevate,” “I’m No Angel,” “Not Hopeless,” and “Regret.” On Hot Streak, they were: “The Bridge,” “War Machine,” “Devil You Know,” and “The Lamb.”
But on this release, rather than pick favorite songs, I can only pick out favorite moments within the songs. Because every track is a standout, I love them all, and I cherish those detailed special moments that each one of them contain for the dedicated listener.
“Xanadu” and “Mad World” were the two pre-release singles, which led us to expect more of the same Winery Dogs virtuosity from their earlier albums. Their magical ability is to bring Richie Kotzen’s guitar and Billy Sheehan’s bass and Mike Portnoy’s drums together in astonishing acrobatic coordination, a higher realm of musical motion which only the true greats can access, like Alex and Geddy and Neil on “Free Will.”
Yet while we get more of such magic, we also get interesting new details on this album, like the startling jazz chords in “Mad World” or the unusually intriguing lyrics to “Xanadu” which shift and change even with the musical repetitions of the chorus. Kotzen’s impassioned vocals seem to be taking an accusation (living clueless in Xanadu/Malibu) and flipping the accusation around as a badge of honor to be worn, as Kotzen makes it clear he (and the band) doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.
With that declaration of independence, and with their secession from the world’s madness, The Winery Dogs then shift direction and reveal the first two tracks to have been something of a head fake. “Breakthrough” seems to me like the kind of killer radio-friendly track that a record company would demand as the first single. But, as track three, it comes as an unexpected twist after the clever “business as usual” first two tracks.
With this twist, the album launches into the upper echelons of the most classic of classic rock territory. The punchy power chords of the chorus invite air guitar participation. Both the riff and the vocal phrasings unexpectedly remind me of Saturation-era Urge Overkill, which I found to be a delightful and obscure surprise.
“Rise” astonishes with its complexity and soulfulness, as the band continues it third-album ascent, now conducting cakewalk “business as unusual.”
But it’s “Stars” that veers off into truly delightful prog territory. Sheehan supplies a steady bass pulse for Portnoy and Kotzen to go completely bonkers around. Kotzen demonstrates beyond all doubt that he is one of the greatest of all time on this track, because his guitar solo lasts for a minute and forty seconds of such insane, imaginative, and inventive sounds that it’s unbelievable. The song enfolds all this into such a satisfying and catchy groove, it marks an outstanding conclusion to a staggeringly impressive Side A.
But the album’s B-side is astonishingly equal in achievement to the A side. The kickoff, “The Vengeance,” has one of those cathartic Kotzen vocals (like “Regret” or “The Lamb”) whose emotions are equalled by the intelligence of the lyrics (which wisely affirm that it is the weak, not the strong, who need revenge).
This track illustrates well my thesis about each album track having additional small but memorable details: here, it is the helicopter-like synth-sounding pattern which leads into each chorus, and I call it “synth-sounding” because it somehow bleeds into what sounds like a guitar. It’s a truly magical transformation, and such a thrilling little detail, yet I have no idea how it is done, but it excites the listener to no end each time it is heard.
As if that were not enough, “The Vengeance” also has more Urge Overkill overtones, with those little “ooh ooh ooh” background vocals that remind me of the musical positivity of “Positive Bleeding.”
“Pharaoh” levels the listener with a heavy riff that knows just when to hold back and also just when to smash, all while Portnoy builds pyramids with massive slabs of pounding drums.
And then there’s no respite, as the following track, “Gaslight,” delivers a musical imitation of a gaslighting assault of craziness. Its boogie blitz comes charging out of the gate with more notes per second than the human mind can possibly count. All you can do is try and shake your tail feather to keep up.
Perfectly timed for breath-catching, “Lorelei” is a slow, bluesy 6/8 waltz. It’s the type of song that would function for a lesser band as a filler cool-down track at album’s end. But for The Winery Dogs, this become merely the penultimate track, and yet another one that they use to confound listener expectations.
Sometimes nothing is more boring than a blues guitar solo, but Kotzen convinces us that we have not heard it all before, as he plays his solo lines with such feeling that we find ourselves amazed. Not only that, when he sings on the chorus, he soulfully adopts such unusual phrasing that I am reminded of Steve Perry 80s Journey. The song unexpectedly wormholes me on a journey into a magic world of nostalgic teenage school dance waltzes.
The epic final track, “The Red Wine,” begins by seeming to deliver on the promise of the album opener’s Rush-word: “Xanadu.” For the first eighteen seconds, “The Red Wine” sounds like classic Rush. I did a double-take the first time I heard those bars, and had to look again at the song name, which for those moments I thought was actually: “The Red Star.”
But after those opening flourishes, “The Red Wine” makes an abrupt stage-left turn and turns into a funky and groovy dance-along track, replete with a sing-along “party time” chorus. We even get a verse imagining senior citizens playing air guitar with their canes, as the whole world falls under the spell of The Winery Dogs’ live music.
Happily, the track ends back in Rush mode, as the camera pans up (or so I imagine) from the outside dance party, up past the patio lanterns, and then ascends into the stars as the band turns again into the Rush of the opening half-minute. We get a mellow cosmic cool-down to end the album, as the band invokes the atmospherics, yes you guessed it, of Rush’s classic “Xanadu” mood. Billy’s bass is the last one sucked into the Cygnus X-1 black hole, but it beams back a cosmic echo, advising you to buy this album and find your way to the Dogs’ dance party.
Confounding the cynics, Kotzen and Sheehan and Portnoy are clearly not just a super-group of super noodlers. With this album, they demonstrate they are one of the greatest bands to have ever rocked the Earth. With III, they leave their paw print in the pavement, preserved for all time, in the pantheon of the Rock of Fame.