Sound — 8
The early '90s were something of a strange time for rock. Metallica ditched thrash metal, Guns N' Roses were conquering the world, glam and hair metal were on their way out, grunge was just starting to take a foothold, and the traditional hard rock style was being pulled in many different directions. Surprisingly, Mr. Big, a band comprised of legendary guitar virtuoso Paul Gilbert, equally legendary bassist Billy Sheehan, vocalist Eric Martin, and drummer Pat Torpey, managed to snag a #1 hit in the US with "To Be With You", a track from their acclaimed 1991 album "Lean Into It". Despite a period with Ritchie Kotzen replacing Gilbert on guitar, and a nearly decade-long break, nine albums into their career, the band has yet to really top "To Be with You" in terms of making another hit, though they've enjoyed massive amounts of popularity in Japan.
Their third album since the original lineup reuniting in 2009, "Defying Gravity" pulls no punches in unleashing the band's signature sound. In terms of music and production, much of this album sounds like it could have easily been written and recorded during the band's early 90s heyday. Raunchy blues-rock guitar riffs drive tunes like "Open Your Eyes" and "Everybody Needs a Little Trouble", while slightly more progressive flavours a la early-80s Rush tinge tracks like the title track and "Mean to Me". Paul Gilbert's playing is absolutely on fire throughout, though he also knows when to lay back and let the music groove, particularly on the swampy closing track "Be Kind", but still unleashes his full shred fury in the blistering intro of "1992", a paean to their heyday. Tight vocal harmonies between Eric Martin and his bandmates abound throughout the album, permeating nearly every chorus you'll hear.
There aren't too many ballad-like tracks on the album, though acoustic guitars make their appearance on "Nothing Bad ('Bout Feeling Good)" and "Damn, I'm in Love Again", though neither of those tunes really seem to have the hit potential "To Be with You" had. Billy Sheehan shows his mettle throughout the album, but only really busts out here and there on the album, particularly during a duelling solo with Paul on "Mean to Me". There are some particularly interesting throwbacks in some of the riffs on the album as well, such as what sounds like a major-key rendition of Nirvana's "In Bloom" in the intro of "She's All Coming Back to Me Now".
As mentioned, the production is very reminiscent of early-'90s hard rock, a pretty stripped-down mixing arrangement that lets each instrumental track breathe quite well. There's a very good amount of sonic separation between each instrument, so you can pretty clearly hear what each member is doing at all times, which is a very welcome change from the tendency for current hard rock albums to cram nearly every space with sound. The songwriting is fairly on point, too, though the style of music has changed very little over the years, leading this to sound very much like a throwback album. But surprisingly, for a band with two highly-acclaimed virtuoso musicians, the playing is often quite restrained throughout, with each musician preferring to serve the song rather than go off on a tangent.
Lyrics — 8
In keeping with the band's early-'90s rock aesthetic, "Defying Gravity's" lyrics often stick pretty close to the themes of relationships, with Eric Martin asking the forgiveness of a past lover in "Forever and Back", reminiscing about lost love in "She's All Coming Back to Me Now". "Damn I'm in Love Again" warns of the dangers of falling in love with an ex-lover once again. There are exceptions to the rule, such as the title track, a song about experiencing freedom: "I won't be a victim of circumstances/If I don't hear the music, I can't dance/What am I worth if I don't take a turn/I crash and I burn, I took my chance/I have faith in my fate/I am not afraid/The eyes of the world/The way they weigh me down/Time has come when I'll be gone/Beyond the great unknown/I'll be flying free, defying gravity/Cut the strings and say a prayer/And take off on my own/Me, I'm flying free, defying gravity", and "1992", in which Eric Martin reminisces about the band's heyday ("I was number one in 1992").
Vocally, Eric Martin's voice has aged a little bit, but not enough to impede his vocal style in any noticeable way. He still blows this album out of the water with his stellar vocals, and fans of the band's early material have little to worry about in terms of a quarter-century of aging since the band's heyday. The band provides backing harmony vocals throughout as well, and anyone who knows Paul Gilbert's solo music and side projects (in particular, his Beatles cover band with Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse, Yellow Matter Custard) will be aware of his love of harmony vocals, and he knocks them out of the ballpark with this record.
Overall Impression — 8
For a throwback to a classic time in rock music, that strange early-'90s gap between hair metal and grunge where bands like Guns N' Roses and Extreme were on top of the charts, before grunge made a significant impact on the airwaves, "Defying Gravity" is 48 minutes of pure fun. It's a rather naive and innocent album, seemingly completely unaware of any evolution in music since the early '90s, and had this album been released during that era, there's a huge chance it could have been a massive mainstream hit. Being a throwback to such an era does kind of limit how it will be perceived by today's music fans, and let it be known that if you're bothered by nostalgia, you're probably going to find this album quite irritating. But for those of us who ignored pretty much everything after grunge, this is an album that can stand up to the classics of the era.
The playing and songwriting are on point throughout, and the production is nearly perfect. There are no major weak moments on the album, pretty much every song on the album has something to offer to fans of this early '90s hard rock sound. While this collection of songs now exists in a pretty small niche of an oversaturated market, there's a lot to love about "Defying Gravity" and not a whole lot to dislike. This record is definitely a recommended listen, and a perfect summer record for classic rock fans.