Sunday, February 15, 2009

Exclamation Point

WINO – “Punctuated Equilibrium” CD ’09 (Southern Lord, US) – While the mainstream may stare blankly into space when you mention the name Wino, there isn’t a person in the metal/heavy/etc. underground who doesn’t know his name. Yes, that includes me. I know his name, it’s Scott Weinrich, although Wino will do just fine. One memory I have of this man is one that also says a helluva lot. It was February of 2000, as I recall, and I’d made my solitary way down to a place called Phantasmagoria to check out Matt Pike’s new High On Fire. Opening was Wino’s band of the day, SPIRIT CARAVAN. To say they pillaged would be correct. My moment of reference, however, came shortly into HOF’s set when Mr. Pike, noticing Wino standing approvingly near the stage, yelled “I want to thank Wino for tonight. He’s the stoner messiah!” That was quite a statement. When you think about it, though, the description may not even be adequate. As another example, think about Neil Young. When the early ‘90’s rolled around and everybody at college was wearing plaid shirts, long greasy hair & singing the praises of “Nevermind,” folks described ol’ Neil as “the godfather of grunge.” In truth, Young had been playing music that sounded like this stuff only far better (and many other styles as well) for close to 20 years, yet when the world of youth somehow synced to his vision in 1991, he was suddenly it’s “godfather.” The general pop., in it’s disposable way, would soon move on, leaving names like Tad, Munhoney & Mother Love Bone like tumbleweed on the road shoulder. Neil, however, would continue to ply his trade, issuing plundering records like “Living With War” & “Chrome Dreams 2” spaced nicely with folk records such as “Prairie Wind.”

In great correlation, WINO has been around forever…or it surely seems like it. I remember walking into a roadside bar in Laurel MD, back in the very early ‘80’s. I was there to see the seminal melodic speed metal gods, Deuce. Walking across the parking lot, however, I noticed a flyer slapped on a telephone pole advertising a show by THE OBSESSED. I can still envision the picture, 3 seriously bad-assed looking dudes, all denim, leather & long hair and thinking “I’ve gotta check this shit out.” I did and was blown away by a rugged, nasty amalgam of metal, jammy hard rock and punk. It was music that was feral & pulverizing yet it still somehow embodied a sense of melody that, while foreboding, was also strangely uplifting. This combination emanated directly from the guitar work and vocals of Wino…something that would continue for years in his work with Saint Vitus (albeit sans guitar in that outfit), THE OBSESSED (again), SHINE, SPIRIT CARAVAN, PLACE OF SKULLS and THE HIDDEN HAND. And yes, when albums like Kyuss’ “Sky Valley” & Fu Manchu’s “Daredevil” made noise in the mid-nineties, delivering a similar sound and ethic, it wasn’t long before Mr. Weinrich was going to be called, yes, a “stoner messiah.” Still, while the “stoner” genre has brought along some great music, the Kyuss & Fu stuff joined by worthy contenders like Datura and, even today, Birch Hill Dam, I can easily see the day when those names may be but memories while one man continues on, his vision unwavering. This is all brought to the fore by his wonderful new solo release, “Punctuated Equlibrium.”

In one sense, it might be argued that “Punctuated Equilibrium” is a compilation of all of WINO’s many years of styles. To me, however, that’s a broad brushstroke that doesn’t begin to tell the tale. Rather, I see it as the coming together of a great artists strengths, doing so in a way that’s as smooth-flowing as it is hard-hitting: a man reaching his zenith yet, paradoxically still on the rise. To begin with, WINO has put together a really nice band for this disc. With no disrespect to any of the fine musicians he’s worked with in the past, this is clearly the most organic unit he’s had. Jon Blank (bass) is known for his work in Fragment 37, Soulmower and perhaps more so, Rezin. His style is one of flowing, melodic lines, not unlike Butler in the early Sabs. On drums we have Jean Paul Gaster, from Clutch, and in my opinion, one of the best drummers you’re going to ever dream of in music of any persuasion these days. This cat has the plunder to be as heavy as Bonzo and yet so deft a feel & touch that my money says he could tackle the labyrinths of Coltrane & come up trumps. Listen here to “Wild Blue Yonder,” one of my favourite tracks from an album of highs. The musical interaction between these 3 guys takes me back to Side Two of the first Sabbath disc. Yes, it’s that good.

Elsewhere on this release, the results are equally staggering and, as hinted at before so is the cohesion of the variety. Speaking of a “release,” you can look right to the disc’s opener “Release Me.” Not the smoky lounge number offered once by a seductive Peggy Lee, this one is based on a riff from the old OBSESSED days. It’s a jaunty rhythm not-unlike something Leslie West might’ve unleashed in his “Dreams Of Milk & Honey” days and points out WINO’s understanding of things far beyond the typical power chord. This harkens from a time when guitar players understood that a “riff” was not simply slamming down a barre. Blurring the distinction between lead & rhythm, WINO not only calls to mind the great axemen from the past but puts himself among ‘em! That quick, we’re into the title track and getting a taste of the Motorhead/punk side of things. The melodic guitar breaks in this 2 ½ minute ripper display the kind of unexpected flair this man really knows how to nail. Remember how albums would often be in the ‘70’s? You knew they were going to be good, but didn’t know exactly HOW they’d get there? Check out “The Woman In The Orange Pants.” Man, all the sudden we’re listening to something that could be a lost neighbor of Billy Cobham’s “Spectrum!” And so it goes…the thundering psych-doom of “Secret Realm Devotion,” the “Embryo/Orchid” respite of “Water Crane” or the metallic fire storm of closer “Silver Lining.” It’s all good. No, it’s all fucking great and inasmuch, it’s easy to get lost in not only the masterful guitar work but the serious cooking going on with all 3 musicians. That aside, you need to take time to listen to WINO’s vocals. While some consider the guy to have a pedestrian voice, I submit that’s way unfair. Weinrich’s mid-tone may not have a multi-octave range, but it’s got more of an emotional impact than any power metal screecher I’ve ever heard (well, outside of Rob Halford). Lyrically, especially lately, WINO’s lyrics have been a source of hot-point discussion during THE HIDDEN HAND days, with him delving deeply into conspiracy theories and the like. Personally, I dig it because it’s interesting, well-written and different. Things political & such do take their place in the slicing number “Gods, Frauds, Neo-Cons & Demagogues.” Still, cuts like “Release Me” & “Smili’n Road” tell of a far deeper look into a man’s soul, an individual look at pain, hope and all between. And, tell me, folks, can you imagine a more concise yet lyrical look at life than the words of closer “Silver Lining?” “And as I ride through life I’m gonna keep on trying to bring the love and keep the hopes and dreams alive. On every dark cloud there is a silver lining, the gleaming fortress of spirit, it will shine.”

Special stuff and completing it all is the ultra-cool booklet. Not only does it feature a couple great pics of WINO but also something that raises this guy even higher, in my estimation. Preceding the song lyrics are 4 pages of him talking about the songs in an engaging, entertaining and self-effacing manner. The stoner messiah? Way more than that, WINO is a legend and also a regular dude. The highest praise possible is due here. 10.0

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