There’s a sound at the end of the first song here, “Xanadu” (its not a Rush cover). It’s Mike Portnoy tossing his sticks. In anger? No, not a bit of it. It’s the drumming equivalent of a mic drop. He’s done. Boom.
The thing is a belter. A copper-bottomed song of the year contender. No arguments. But its more than that here. Here. I’d venture, it’s the Winery Dogs announcing their return. It’s a simple: “missed us?”
It’s the perfect introduction to the band (re-introduction may be a better word) after eight years away. It’s Richie Kotzen playing his guitar as only he can, that voice, that roar. It’s Billy Sheehan laying down bass lines so thick you could swing from them, and it’s Portnoy. The worlds most versatile drummer, doing his thing.
The over-riding point here is it’s the Winery Dogs, for the first time for eight years and it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.
“Maybe I got too soft out here in Malibu” Kotzen sings on that one, and for sure there’s a crackling energy to this, “Mad World” for example seems to offer its take on 2023, while the arena ready rock n roll of “Breakthrough” is the type of clever hard rock that WD have been doing for a decade. The type of song you don’t even know has wormed its way into your brain until you are singing the hook without realising.
Basically I could sum this up in one word and save the other 600 odd. “Groove”. That’s it. This lives in the grooves. “Rise” is a shining example, and the harmonies here are done with such glee that you imagine everyone loved it.
Indeed, although the trio are equal players in this passion project, Sheehan is the MVP here. He is sensational on “Stars” for example, and its tempting to imagine the three as a trio of mad musical scientists, creating these things in Kotzen’s studio, experimenting to make the perfect sound. Nothing seems off limits, and all ten of these tracks have their own stories and flavour. “Vengeance” seems to hide a darkness in its words, and the lead is good as it gets. The slower, more deliberate, “Pharaoh” is a highlight, while “Gaslight” changes the tempo again. “I am much better when I am on my own” offers Kotzen on this, and its not too much of a leap to suggest that the same goes for this album. Produced by the band, this is their vision, no one else’s.
Jay Ruston (a long time associate of the group and producer to the stars) makes this sound like a million dollars, and if the more blues orientated ballad “Lorelei” is yet another different colour to these paint pots, then it’s a marvellous diversion.
The last one is the longest one. “The Red Wine” is one that you can imagine them jamming on live, even allowing for Kotzen’s statement that he doesn’t write songs thinking about how he can play them live. It sounds like every classic US hard rock band from Gran Funk Railroad onwards, yet it sounds like none of them. It sounds like The Winery Dogs, and “III” is that good it belongs with any comparison you want to give it.
One of the best hard records that will be released this year, but moreover, this is greater than the sum of its already wonderful parts – and that’s worth a mic drop.