Some players are so good, so talented, their resumes precede them. They have played with everyone, and everyone wants to play with them. It is rare that supporting players, hired guns, stand out against the foreground of stadium level bands. Still, each member of Winery Dogs, Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, Steve Vai), and Ritchie Kotzen (Poison, Stanley Clarke), do just that. Now, they have returned with their first release in seven years as an aptly described supergroup. III, the third album from the trio, is a machine of technical precision and melodic delivery that must be experienced to be believed.
The opening track and first single, Xanadu, with its synchronized runs, sets the pace for an album that is pure metallic groove. It tears into the album and zigzags from punctuated riffs to powerfully accessible choruses that will have the listener breathless and off-balance. Xanadu manages to blend jazz, metal, and pop, setting us up for an unforgettable journey. Kotzen lyrically explores the pull of passion and the cult of personality in an anthem to individualism that mirrors III as a cohesive work. It is an artillery volley. Take cover…or not. This is a battlefield, and you will emerge from your bunker changed.
The Winery Dogs are not overtly political, but this doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Mad World is a direct repudiation of conformity. While musically it moves with a steadfast blues pulse, lyrically it rides the line between irony and conviction. “You’d better bite your tongue, So you sound the same” is followed by “Get off the bus and go make your own life.” The placement of beats, ala Portnoy and Sheehan, adds poetry and soul to the piece. The track features an almost R&B groove, yet it unapologetically pours gasoline and tosses the match on Portnoy’s syncopated beats. Kotzen’s solos incinerate everything, but the napalm drop is Sheehan’s outro bass solo. Funky but molten in pace and feel. A Mad World indeed and a reminder of what these guys are capable of.
While comparatively brief, both musically and lyrically, Rise emerges as one of the most powerful entries on III. Kotzen’s signature Telecaster tone shines here. Pushed gain is sharpened by his single-coil attack. The song makes great use of space—the guitar drops into punctuated bursts during verses to give Portnoy and Sheehan the driver’s seat: tight and carrying the load like a sixteen-wheeler on the downshift. Kotzen’s vocals fall somewhere between Chris Cornell and Otis Redding—modern in execution but reverential to the best soul singers of 1960s Stax Records. You will hear blood and sweat dripping from every impassioned note Kotzen delivers.
Then there is Lorelei, a stunningly bluesy song that highlights Kotzen’s range. The hypnotic falsetto of the choruses is chill inducing and perfectly matched to the emotive straight-razor of his word choice. The frenetic double-bass of Portnoy on Gaslight will feel like a vacation after the measured subtlety here. You may lose your breath on Gaslight and Pharaoh, but you will be authentically moved by this track.
III is a distinctly different album than The Winery Dogs’ previous outing, Hot Streak. Make no mistake, they have retained their essential sound, but The Winery Dogs have come into their own. A supergroup? Sure. But, more than ever, they sound like a seasoned band. They have hit their apex with III, and the music’s power rises track by track. It is easily the most naturally felt, comfortably achieved of their releases. The Winery Dogs are a collection of three of the best rock musicians on the planet. Sonically, they had something to prove out of the gate. Now, they are a collective no more. The Winery Dogs are one on III.