Album Review: Winger – “Better Days Comin”
It’s fair to say the 1990s were not a great time for dear old Charles Frederick. It had all started so promisingly, a platinum selling debut album, a string of hit videos in heavy rotation on MTV. Few seemed as well positioned to lead the cock-rock gravy train into the decade of heroin chic as the classically trained pin-up from Denver, Colarado. And then, there was grunge.
As the tide turned against the pomposity of pop-metal, above all it would be Winger, who found themselves at the pointy end. Literally so, in Kip’s case. The video for Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters famously includes a clip of cherubic troglodyte Lars Ulrich playing darts into a Kip Winger centrefold. If that was the opening shot, the Enola Gay of the band’s career soon followed. MTV’s Beavis and Butthead provided the voice of a new generation and the “wussy” Winger became victims of a brutal running gag. In contrast to the AC-DC and Metallica t-shirts worn by the show’s leads, Winger’s logo would appear throughout the shows run adorning the tee of the hapless, white n’ nerdy, bedwetter Stewart Stevenson. The hip priests of hair metal had nowhere to go. By 1994, Winger had split.
But hey kids, Better Days Comin’... the Winger story starts over in the post-Seattle afterglow.
After a trio of Kip solo albums, the band reunited for 2006’s IV, following up with Karma in 2009. The sting of rejection seems to sit hard over this era. The lighter tropes of rock n’ roll were eschewed in favour of a more aggressive, progressive metal and darker subject matter.
It’s here the prosecution gains some traction. It’s not like all the lampooning was entirely unjustified. Individually acknowledged as virtuosos, the band were happy to trade on Kip’s movie-star good looks and invest heavily in the trend for poodle-perms and power ballads. Rather than simply laugh off criticism, Kip’s attitude has often appeared bullish and boastful. Material by fellow hair metal heart-throbs Poison and Warrant was dismissed as “primitive”, Metallica were savaged for their inferiority, “they couldn’t play the music we do, they literally could not play it”. Whilst Winger themselves were proclaimed as “the hair-metal Dream Theater”.
Thankfully, Better Days Comin’ lets the music do the talking. Midnight Driver of a Love Machine is every bit the 80s cheesefest you might expect, but it’s immediately trumped by Queen Babylon, a spiky, lyrically barbed dissection of America’s double standards towards the sex industry. Rat Race blasts off the blocks harder and faster than any track lurking in the band’s back catalogue, whilst the title track opts for slap bass and a southern gospel feel.
Pushing deeper into the album, Ever Wonder and Out of This World break out the synths, both are throwback ballads reminiscent of the radio-friendly Winger the world scorns. However, there’s plenty of technical, more progressive songwriting on show here too. Tin Soldier in particular is a flat-out freakshow of changing time signatures, soaring vocals and guitar harmonics, but fortunately stops short of disappearing up its own rectal orifice.
It’s all resoundingly defiant, full of chutzpah and variety, whereas once a desire to prove musical credibility appeared to actively push the band away from their populist up-tempo early work. Winger now seem at ease, happy to mix the esoteric thought-rock approach of Storm in Me with the simpler, more laconic songwriting of So Long China, happy to let a track bounce along on nothing more than a jaunty guitar hook.
In summary then, the court finds Better Days Comin’ to be a record free of both burden and blame. A dance partner to the long forgotten corporate rock approach of Dan Reed Network, or perhaps a hitherto unknown missing link between Bryan Adams and Rush. It’s not punk, it’s not hardcore, and if you had no time for Winger before, it’s doubtful you will now. However, if the idea of cock-rock elaborated into an intricate and more progressive direction teases you, this record should appeal. Maybe they really are the hair metal Dream Theater.
(Judge and Jury, the Right Dishonourable Judge Karl L Eisenhauer)