Sound — 8
The Winery Dogs consists of Richie Kotzen on guitar, keyboard and vocals, Billy Sheehan on bass and backing vocals and Mike Portnoy on drums and backing vocals. If you started adding together all the studio albums, EPs, collaborations, compilations, solo albums, and guest appearances these guys have made then you would run out of fingers and toes pretty quick. You can count over 100 without even getting to many of their more obscure releases, and that isn't even counting live albums. Mike Portnoy is, of course, the former drummer of Dream Theater who surprised pretty much everybody when he bailed out to make a full time commitment with Avenged Sevenfold, though they booted him shortly after that. Since then he has released a few albums with his various other supergroups, and the results have varied. Billy Sheehan is possibly the best living rock bass player in the world, and has worked with David Lee Roth, Mr. Big and Steve Vai. Richie Kotzen was first discovered by Shrapnel Records and started his solo career, but was snatched up pretty quick by Poison. His stint with Poison was cut short when it was discovered that he was having an affair with Rikki Rockett's fianc. Richie went on to continue with his successful solo career, several other projects, and also replaced Paul Gilbert in Mr. Big. These guys have all pretty much proved their mettle a hundred times over, but the question remains - can they live up to their own legacies?
The self-titled debut release of The Winery Dogs contains 13 tracks with the average track length somewhere around four and a half minutes. The album's full runtime is somewhere around 60 minutes. Billy, Mike and Richie have previously described this project as taking influence from classic rock as well as several alternative rock acts most popular for their work from the '90s (including The Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains). My first impression listening to the album is that it sounds what I would expect Soundgarden to sound like as a classic rock band, but that may just be because of the similarity of Richie and Chris Cornell's vocals. The album opens up with the track "Elevate," which has some classic rock-ish riffing and an interesting instrumental break that seems to especially let Billy stretch his legs on bass a little bit before a short solo by Richie that is pretty much a standard scalar-run type of solo. The track "We Are One" has a strong sense of groove and has Billy showing that he can play rhythm guitar on his bass like a champ. The track "I'm No Angel" definitely has my favorite lead guitar in it, and the track as a whole is a kind of rock 'n' roll love ballad. The track "One More Time" starts out with a riff that reminds me a little bit of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the riff does a whole lot towards carrying that whole song. The track "Criminal" has kind of a burning groove going on, and has one of the bigger choruses on the album. The track "The Dying" has a really awesome classic blues rock vibe going on and is by far my favorite song on the album. The album closes out with the track "Regret" which has an interesting minor blues thing going on and the only track on the album that I would say is pretty much dominated by keyboard/piano/organ. It is a good track for closing out the album.
Lyrics — 8
I haven't ever really noticed this with Richie Kotzen before, but he really does sound a lot like Chris Cornell. Or does Chris Cornell sound like him? The vocals definitely work for the material, which absolutely has a classic rock meets alternative rock vibe to it. Billy and Mike do a solid job of providing backing vocals for a simple harmony. I was actually pretty impressed because I've thought of Richie as a guitar virtuoso who is able to just hack through the vocals but on this album he displays some pretty impressive vocal skills. The actual lyrics on the album were a little bit more introspective than I expected from this trio, but no complaints from me. As a sample of the lyrics, here are some from the opening track, "Elevate": "Lost in the dark/ I feel like a shadow of myself/ I'm not what I was/ I keep looking for another second chance/ To get me... clean/ Elevate me/ Take me higher/ I don't wanna be wasted/ I've got nothing left to lose/ It's a little known fact/ I see everything black/ And I don't wanna face it/ Elevate me/ Take me higher." Usually when you get such a strong group of instrumental musicians together the lyrics are kind of like an afterthought, but they did a good job with the vocals on this album.
Overall Impression — 9
This is one of those albums that manages to be solid from beginning to end. With each listen, the album grew on me a little bit more. I really enjoy the dynamic between the three of them, especially how often the bass is utilized more like a rhythm guitar freeing up Richie to get creative with the guitar. In general, I found myself most impressed with Billy Sheehan's playing and tone, and Richie's vocals were really solid as well. All three musicians are geniuses at their chosen instrument and they display it on this album, not just Billy's bass and Richie's vocals that I mentioned. Mike Portnoy, while he annoys me outside of his playing, is really a sublime drummer. Richie's playing was a creative blend of lead and rhythm playing. I was impressed with the introspective nature of the lyrics and the fact that they had substance, which honestly wasn't something I was expecting. My overall favorite track is "The Dying," but I also really enjoyed "We Are One" and "I'm No Angel." My least favorite track on the album would probably be the opening track, "Elevate." Quite honestly, I think you gotta give credit where credit is due, and while I don't think this album is necessarily going to chart great, I think this is one of the better albums I've heard this year.