Review Summary: Haters gonna hate. Wingers gonna wing.
Winger has been a cultural icon for over two decades for all the wrong reasons. The band, and its frontman, have long been held up as the poster-boys for everything that was wrong with ‘80s “hair” metal by everyone from Beavis and Butthead to Lars Ulrich. However, while Kip Winger did himself and his band no favours with his propensity for banal lyrics, early in the band’s career anyway, and literal balletic pirouettes that made their way into his stage act, few of the band’s detractors have ever been able to see through the frontman’s spectacularly coiffed face and chest to the musical muscle being flexed beneath. The music, at least on Winger’s debut album is the (un?)holy matrimony of progressive rock and pop metal, not too dissimilar from what you would expect a beefed up Toto or Kansas to sound like for the MTV generation (RIP).
To be fair, Winger’s brief flirtation with pop cultural relevance rested on the back of the rather disturbing Seventeen
which finds Kip Winger serenading the (hopefully hypothetical) seventeen year old object of his affections, and the completely groove and soul-less cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze
. These are the absolute low points of the album and the rest of the album is several notches above these regrettable songs. Winger does slip into cliché on several occasions over the course of the album, but more often than not finds ways to redeem even the low moments.
Most of the redemption comes on the form of the musicians themselves. Reb Beach is an unmitigated virtuoso and he never sacrifices melody for technicality though he is more than capable. Even in the saturated shredder market that was the late-‘80s, Reb Beach managed to set himself apart with his inventive melodic sensibilities and every solo on the album is a standout, except for Purple Haze of course.
Beach’s flights of fancy are ably supported by the rhythm section of drummer Rod Morgenstein (also of the Dixie Dregs), guitarist/keyboardist Paul Taylor, and Kip Winger himself on bass. The interesting thing about them is that while each musician is individually extremely capable, they all rein in their shredding impulses to serve the song and they do it well. Winger’s bass work is minimalistic and pulsing and plays the most constant supporting rhythmic role. Morgenstein’s work is extremely understated but he still finds ways to shine in completely unobtrusive ways. Taylor’s keyboard work is often what ties the songs together and provides some of the prettiest melodic counterpoints on the album.
The end result is that if you removed the vocals and lyrics from the mix, the album shines as a muscular combination of hard and progressive rock. While the first half of the album consists of most of the bands singles and radio-ready material the deeper one gets into the album the more the band stretches out and impresses. The best combination of the band’s colliding aesthetics is the effervescent Heading for a Heartbreak
which combines insanely catchy vocal lines with undeniable musical progressiveness. However, the lead up to the song, consisting of Seventeen
(yes, despite the lyrics), Without the Night
, State of Emergency
, and Hangin’ On
are occasionally saccharine in parts, but manage to consistently sustain interest.
What made and broke Winger was Kip Winger. His singing here is often typical hair metal fare, but while Kip Winger only very occasionally breaks out of the David Lee Roth/Joe Elliot mold, he is arguably the best singer to come out of the hair metal scene. The hooks might not be original, but they’re still catchy and performed with terrific conviction and impressive range and tonality. In addition, his gift for composition will often outshine his habit for vocal cliché, if you let it.
Ultimately, Winger is hair metal for musicians. It’s compositionally excellent and performed admirably, but it’s also a relic of its time. Still, as far as ‘80s albums go there are few better than this one.