Monday, May 19, 2014

Winger Gives Melodic Rock Fans Big-Time Reason For Optimism With "Better Days Comin'"

For most long-time hard rock aficionados, it probably seems like it has been a while since they've heard from Winger.  But the band best known for its late-80's/early-90's take on hair metal has actually had its comeback in the works for a while now.

After the 1993 release of Pull, the band released IV in 2006 and Karma in 2009, with neither one garnering much notice by critics nor fans.  However, something feels noticeably different about their new release, Better Days Comin'

If this is indeed your first re-exposure to Winger since "Miles Away" was almost as ubiquitous on pop radio as Miley Cyrus is now, then you'll notice some changes right away.  On the first song, "Midnight Driver of a Love Machine," it's clear that Kip Winger's comfortable vocal range is a little lower and his attack a little grittier.  Then, on the second track, "Queen Babylon," you might detect in Reb Beach's guitar tone a little more of the bottom end that makes today's riffs sound so much heavier than those from glam rock's heyday.

After that two-tune introduction to the updated, though still mighty familiar, Winger sound, it feels like the album truly gets its kickstart with "Rat Race."  The song is an undeniable barnburner with its ultra-fast tempo and simply slammin' overall feel full of youth, freshness, vigor, edginess, balls - you know, the type of stuff that you usually don't hear from middle-aged dudes.  But Winger makes it clear that they aren't your typical hair metal hasbeens trying to relive their glory days.  They have something to prove and "Rat Race" proves that they can hang with their 20-something peers in the music industry.  The fact that they follow up "Rat Race" with the feelgood earworm title track makes Better Days Comin' an album that you'll want to keep listening to right to the last note.

One thing that differentiated Winger from their contemporaries back in the day was that they could play their instruments like the best prog-rock bands but also write songs simple enough to win the hearts of the mainstream, Poison-thirsty masses.  Well, with "Tin Soldier," Winger obviously doesn't want you to forget the type of musical proficiency they have.  The composition - not song, composition - with its constantly shifting odd time signatures and jazz-fusion sound would seem more at home in a university's school of music recital hall than a rock club.  But that's Winger:  talented and not the least bit ashamed of it.

While Beach has historically gotten noticed mostly for his speedy playing and the amount of finger tapping he used in his solos, on "Be Who You Are, Now," he shows a heretofore undisplayed knack for making musical statements with an economy of notes.  Additionally, the album closes out with "Out of This World," which features not one, but two solos of the more blistering variety from the Pittsburgh-bred six stringer.  This extended opportunity to listen to his guitar work makes you realize that Beach has one of the more distinctive styles of guitarists releasing new material in 2014.  While it wasn't hard to tell the top guitarists apart in '80's music - think Slash, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen - today's players sound a bit homogenous.  Not Beach.  His fine work on Better Days Comin' puts him in a class by himself.

Though this isn't Winger's first 21st Century release, the quality of the music on Better Days Comin' is likely to give the band its best-known release since the days when rock stars used to kick back in Hollywood salons while getting perms.  Though it's a different world today, Winger deserves equal props for both their legacy and their current efforts.