Thursday, 15 May 2014

Winger's 'Better Days Comin'' - Album Review

Despite their 1980s heyday being long over now, Winger still remain very popular. They were always one of the more interesting bands to come out of the hair metal genre, and in recent years have strayed away from the hairspray slightly into much harder, tougher territory. I have never really bought the 'progressive' tag that some people apply to them, but there is no doubt that they were always more diverse and musically gifted than many of their contemporaries. Winger's line-up still contains most of their original members too. Frontman/bass guitarist Kip Winger, guitarist Reb Beach and drummer Rod Morgenstein - joined by long standing guitarist John Roth - are a tight unit, and their years of playing and writing together really shows. Ever since their third album, 1993's Pull, Winger have been moving away from the big keyboards and soaring melodies that characterised their early, commercially successful albums. When they reunited in 2006 and released IV, they continued with the more stripped-back heavier sound that was introduced on Pull. 2009's Karma also followed down this route and brought Beach and Roth's guitar playing to the front of the band's sound. This style continues on Better Days Comin' and the guitar riffs and solos are now the main focus point of Winger's music, but of course Kip Winger's vocals are as good as ever, and there are still plenty of big choruses to sing a long with. I like the fact that, with each album, Roth is becoming more and more integrated into the band. On IV he just played the guitar, on Karma he co-wrote a song and contributed a bit of lead guitar, but on Better Days Comin' he has co-written three songs and solos on four. Beach is an excellent guitarist, but I am glad that Roth is getting more chances to shine as he clearly has a lot to offer too. Kip Winger also produces the album, and for the most part it sounds very good. There is a good balance between all the different instruments, with plenty of bass for a big sound. However, in places it does sound a little flat and a lusher production would have helped. I understand that they are going for a heavier sound these days, but a few more keyboards here and there, along with more backing vocals in some of the choruses would have enhanced some of the songs. It is also interesting to note that this album is a partial reunion of the IV-era line-up as former keyboardist Cenk Eroglu is credited with additional keyboard parts throughout.

The album starst well with the fun Midnight Driver of a Love Machine which definitely sounds more like something they would have released in the 1980s. It starts off sounding quite odd with just Kip Winger's vocals and some strange sounding guitar lines before Morgenstein's drums come crashing in and the song turns into a sleazy rocker with catchy 'woohoo'-type lines throughout and a really catchy chorus that is up there with anything the band has produced so far. Beach's trademark guitar tapping skills are used well in the fluid solo, and it is the first of many excellent guitar moments on the album. Queen Babylon is more what I was expecting going in. It is quite similar to the music found on Karma, although the subtle keyboards behind Beach and Roth's riffing helps to bulk out the sound. There is an excellent groove throughout the verses here, but the chorus is as melodic as it is understated and after a few listens really imprints itself in your brain. The bass guitar plays a big part in this song and it really drives the pre-chorus, giving it a heavier feel. Rat Race is another riff-heavy number that steams along at a good pace. Now this is a rock song! A pulsing bassline propels the song and some simple, but flashy riffs provide the main meat on the bones. It is a real headbangers' song, and features some truely excellent twin lead guitar work from Beach and Roth. The solo that they perform together is something right out of the 1980s and is sure to impress anyone who likes good guitar work. The album's title track is up next and is one of the more left-field songs that Winger like to write. The verses are quite bluesy, based around a slightly funky bassline; but the chorus takes that funk element further with plenty of big backing vocals and slightly strange rhythms. It sounds like something Extreme might write if they were doing an album of laid back rock songs. It's enjoyable however, and after a few listens it really opens out and you realise how good the song is. Tin Solider gets back to the heavier riffing, although the keyboards in the introduction might fool you the first time you hear it. The verses show how good the rhythm section of Kip Winger and Morgenstein are. They are locked in tight and create a big sound without much help from any other instruments. The choruses have some excellent guitar lines in them though, and keyboards remain throughout - despite this song sounding very different from their keyboard-heavy early days. This sort of song contains everything that Winger are about these days though, and it rocks!

Ever Wonder is a classic Winger ballad with a real 'lighters in the air' chorus and plenty of layers of delicate keyboards to create a relaxing atmosphere. Winger have always written excellent ballads, and while this might not be as good as things like Heading for a Heartbreak, it is still a beautiful song that is heartfelt and interesting. Appropriately, there is also a slow solo from Beach that contains lots of sustained, bended notes for that classic ballad sound. So Long China is another song with a very 1980s sound to it. The main guitar riff is excellent and it actually has a keyboard accompaniment that sounds like something original keyboardist Paul Taylor might have done. The verses are tougher though and are more like the Winger we know today. I like the contrast in sounds and styles though, and shows that both eras of the band can sit together well. Storm in Me is another heavier piece. The guitars have a real crunch on this number and a few little dissonant stabs help to create an strange atmosphere. There is an odd effect on Kip Winger's voice throughout the chorus but it works and adds to the modern, weird overall sound of the song. We also get an nice guitar solo from Roth that sounds different to something Beach would have done in the same situation. It is always good having two guitarists who can solo well in a band, as you get to hear lots of different guitar styles and it keeps things from becoming stale. Be Who You Are Now is another ballad but a bit more 'odd' than your traditional one. It is hard to explain, but it sounds quite creepy in places with a hypnotising combination of bass guitar and drums that just gets under your skin and keeps up a tight groove throughout the song. It is a hard song to describe, but I like it and it adds something new to the Winger cannon. It also has another excellent solo from Roth! The album comes to an end with Out of this World which is classic modern Winger. Again, it is another slower song but there is something about it that is infectious. It gets heavier as the song progresses though, with some big guitars supporting Kip Winger in the soaring, yet simple chorus. Beach's solo on this song is long and full of many different sections. It starts out slow, but builds up as the instrumentation builds up around him and finishes when another chorus starts. From this album, it is clear that Winger still have a lot to say. This might be their most diverse collection of songs to date, and it is great that a band that has been around since 1987 still has the courage to experiment.

The album was released on 21st April 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Midnight Driver of a Love Machine.

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