Boxed Set Review: Winger – Chapter One: Atlantic Years 1988-1993 (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

Winger (1988)
Shimmering acoustic guitar opens “Madalaine,” and a hard-rock yowl leads the full band into the arrangement. That tune sets the tone, and Winger never lets up for even a moment. But even with the hair metal tropes – lockstep riffage chief among them – the pop values shine through. Production is crystalline, and while there are occasional pig-squeal guitar fills and hard-on-the-bell cymbal rhythms, Winger is fine indeed. The shadow of shredders like Eddie Van Halen all but requires that the songs serve as vehicles for fiddly-bit guitar solos, but well-executed bridges, super-tight harmonies and strong melodic sense are all highlights of this consistently engaging album.

A cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” might have been welcome in 1988, but it hasn’t aged well. Best skipped. Happily, that’s the only time most listeners will feel any need to lift the needle and move it to the next band on the platter.

The big hit, of course, was “Seventeen,” a song that continues hard rock’s somewhat (in retrospect, at least) unhealthy obsession with underage females (it was a different time, folks). “Headed for a Heartbreak” is better even, with some nicely chosen keyboard textures that serve to broaden Winger’s sonic palette beyond most of the band’s contemporaries. Thirty-five years on, those gated reverb snares do irritate; it would have been easy enough to dial that date effect back ion the remaster – but once again, it was a different time, folks. After all these years, Winger holds up as among the best of its kind.

In the Heart of the Young (1990)
It’s unfair to fault an artist who finds itself with a smash debut seeking to make the first album a second time. If it worked once, why not twice? And without a doubt, the record company would have – shall we say – encouraged such and approach. So it should come as no surprise that In the Heart of the Young sounds like Winger II. As it happens, the album is often referred to by that title. The strong massed-vocal harmonies that characterized the debut are here, and Taylor’s precise – note-perfect but almost never showy – is highlighted throughout.

Power ballads had become a key to success for hard-rocking bands, and “Miles away” is as good as any in that style. Taylor’s keyboards dominate, giving the song a vaguely Journey vibe, but the romantic, heartfelt lead vocal feels right for the song. Among the most fascinating moments on the record come on Side Two, with “Baptized by Fire.” It’s intro suggests a guitar-oriented rethink of some of the aural textures on Who’s Next. From there it moves into a more familiar style, but the detour is intriguing.

Pull (1993)
Despite all the chatter about Pull being a very different sort of record, opening cut “Blind Revolution Mad” isn’t likely to alienate listeners who appreciated the first two records. The riffs are a bit more involved — never a bad thing — but the melodic sensibility that sets Winger apart from the pack is still very much in evidence. The group continues its clever gambit of opening many of its songs with something other than a guitar riff: “Down Incognito” starts off sound like Supertramp… at least for a few seconds. That song’s guitar textures are especially tasty, as are those harmonies, which, if anything, are better on this record (produced by Winger himself) than before.

“Spell I’m Under” splits the difference between power ballad and roaring arena rocker, to good effect. The band gets thunderously heavy on tunes like “Junkyard Dog (Tears on Stone).” The record deserved better commercial fate than it found, but times had changed, and grunge was on the rise.

Demo Anthology (1988-1993)
The sonic quality of Pull provided a hint (if one was needed) that Kip Winger knew what he was doing in the studio. And conjectures along those lines are proven spot-on by the appearance of this set of Winger demos. For some artists, demos are a spare affair, simply voice-and-single-instrument recordings to show the rest of the band how things should go. The other approach – favored by Pete Townshend and showcased on his many Scoop releases – is to put together a true demonstration recording, one with most if not all of the aural elements in place.

Winger took the latter approach; the demos for genre classics like “Seventeen” sound a bit more compressed – and a bit less “produced” – than their official counterparts. But other than that, the arrangements are all in place. In fact, some of the then-trendy production choices of the era (you know the ones) are largely absent from these demos. The demo recordings might not replace the well-known versions in most listeners’ playlists, but they have worn well, and illustrate that unlike some bands of the era (not naming manes here) Winger was a largely self-contained unit that knew where it was going musically, and they didn’t let the machinery of the music industry dilute or substantially alter that vision on the road to making official releases.

Note: This “first ever collection of Winger’s Atlantic Records years” (that’s what it says on the hype sticker) is more than a tidy way to acquire Winger’s peak-period music. It’s aso a good value: because the vinyl format was already on its way out by the time Winger started making records, original LP copies of these first three albums are quite expensive; expect to pay upwards of $30 each for “vintage” vinyl pressings of Winger and In the Heart of the Young. And if you can find it at all, an original vinyl pressing of Pull is likely to set you back every bit as much as this new, remastered 180-gram 4LP boxed set. With its bonus disc of demos, Chapter One ticks both the “essential” and budget-friendly” boxes for those who appreciate Winger’s brand of rock.