When I first heard about Mr Big just before the release of their self titled debut album back in 1989, I was totally convinced that they would sell millions and millions of that album without even hearing a note of it. I mean, how could they not? They had Billy Sheehan, fresh out of David Lee Roth’s band (also in Talas) on bass and dammit, they had Paul Gilbert (Racer X) on guitar. They were both awesome so what could go wrong? I didn’t know much about Eric Martin at all and the only thing I knew about Pat Torpey was that he had played drums on an album by a Yngwie Malmsteen-clone called Impellitteri, but that didn’t matter – they had Billy and Paul!!!! That’s how naive the 21-year old me was. The album was fantastic, but didn’t exactly made them an arena band. They came close because of 1991’s follow-up Lean Into It and the smash hit ballad “To Be With You”, but it didn’t take long for their popularity to fade despite a couple of brilliant albums more (Bump Ahead 1993 and Hey Man 1996). Grunge made sure of that. After a few failed attempts to make it with Richie Kotzen (ex Poison) as a replacement to they fleeing Paul Gilbert and some internal fights, the band decided to split in 2001 and that was that. No more Mr Big – or so we thought. For 8 years all attempts to get that band together again had failed – they just didn’t want to play together anymore, but a spontaneous jam when Billy Sheehan, Pat Torpey and Richie Kotzen joined Paul Gilbert on stage in 2008 changed all that. Sheehan, Torpey and Gilbert decided to contact Eric Martin to see if he would fancy a Mr Big reunion tour and in 2009 they were on the road again. But you can only tour so long for nostalgic reasons before you have to make a decision – either split again, be uncreative and be a nostalgia act like Poison or move forward as a band. Luckily for us, the guys decided to do the latter and once that was decided, a new album wasn’t that far off. In 2011 they released What If…, a magnificent record that sounded like Mr Big all the way and with killer songs and a brilliant production signed Kevin Shirley, Mr Big made the best record of their career and Mr Big was back for real – and, hopefully, for good. Even though both Gilbert and Martin has parallel solo careers (Martin was also involved in the latest Avantasia record and tour) and Billy Sheehan is a member of the Winery Dogs (with Kotzen and Mike Portnoy, ex Dream Theater), the band did some extensive touring for their come back album and the fact that they now release their follow up, it sure looks like Mr Big really are here to stay.
“Gotta Love The Ride” initiates the album and I loved the tune immediately. It does sound familiar, like something else and after a couple of listens, I got it. This sounds like The Winery Dogs – but at the same time it’s totally Mr Big – sounding. Makes sense? Well, it will when you hear it. “I Forget To Breathe” is classic progressive Mr Big, just like we love them – a fabulous song! “Fragile” is hard rock pop, a classic Eric Martin / André Pessis composition, really catchy stuff and should do really over the air waves, if it gets any airplay. “Satisfied” is a catchy rocker with an ebullient melody and some over the top backing vocals – boy, these guys can really hold a tune! “The Man Who Had It All” is a decent ballad, but their ballads are usually much better. It’s an ok song, but Paul Gilbert’s guitar solo on it is pure brilliance. “East / West” is an amazing half-ballad that comes with an invigorating groove – I bet you can get your girlfriend / boyfriend off their ass for a dance to this one. “Light Of Day” is just awesome with big influences from the early 70’s, I’m thinking Mr Big meets Fireball (1971) era Deep Purple. Mr Big has always been great with power ballads, they have a way of making cheesy love songs sound powerful – “Had Enough” and “Just Take My Heart” are to great examples of that – and on this album the power ballad is called “Just Let Your Heart Decide” and it is fantastic. If this was 1991, the song would have shipped this CD platinum, make no mistake. A single to be, I’m sure. “It’s Always About That Girl” sounds very much like a Lean Into It song. The songs’ immediate hook and its contagious groove makes this song one of my favourites here and had it been on Lean Into It, it would have been the best song on that album. “Cinderella Smile” is a classic Mr Big track, much like what we’re used to – a great uptempo rocker with a distinct melody, but the title track that closes the record is the opposite of that. It’s heavy and slow with a darker edge, clearly a bit different to what we’re used to. We also get a live version of “Addicted To That Rush” off their debut and even though that isn’t a must, it’s a really good version. But then again, how can it not be?
One problem with Mr Big has always been the production on the albums. Their first four records were produced by Kevin Elson (Journey, Europe, Night Ranger) and he has a tendency to cut off the edges when stuff gets to hard or tough and let’s face it, Kevin Elson is an AOR producer and Mr Big has never been AOR. Melodic Rock, sure, but never AOR. Richie Zito (The Cult, Bad English) did a better job when he was hired, but in my mind, Mr Big has always needed someone to bring out their rougher side, their “live” side, because Mr Big are too good a band with musicians too brilliant to sound light weight. The songs were never written as light weights so why should their sound be? They came really close when they hired Kevin Shirley (Joe Bonamassa, Journey, Europe, Iron Maiden, Black Country Communion) to produce their last album. He likes it more bluesy and has one foot in the 70’s and I think it suited Mr Big really well. But since Shirley wasn’t available for this record, they brought back one Pat Regan (Black N’ Blue, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Blackmore’s Night, Warrant, Shotgun Messiah) who produced their Actual Size (2000) album and I must say that Regan is the perfect guy for the job. On this album he has preserved the heaviness and raw 70’s feel that Shirley brought in, but he has a more “slick” way to produce. That mix is perfect for Mr Big and this album sounds just like it supposed to. They should stick with him in the future. It’s a great album, much in the same vein as the last one, but I think this one’s slightly better. Not much, but still better. Mr Big proves that they are one of the bands that makes better records now than they did in their hey-day, which kinda speaks volumes about how good this record really is. With their new record they consolidate their position as one of the best bands from the late 80’s era. Buy this!
As a note, prior to the release of this album it was revealed that drummer Pat Torpey has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and therefore won’t be able to play drums with the band on the forthcoming tour, a task that will be handled by Matt Starr (ex Ace Frehley), but Torpey managed to finish his drum parts for this album, an album that looks like will be Torpey’s swan song. The band also hope that Torpey will be able to join them on tour to sing back-up vocals and maybe jump in on drums for a song or two. My thoughts are with Pat and his family and that his life will be as comfortable as possible with this horrible disease. Stay strong, Pat.
Jon Wilmenius (8/10)
01. Gotta Love The Ride
02. I Forget To Breathe
05. The Man Who Has Everything
06. The Monster In Me
07. What If We Were New?
09. The Light Of Day
10. Just Let Your Heart Decide
11. It’s Always About That Girl
12. Cinderella Smile
13. The Stories We Could Tell
14. Addicted To That Rush (live; exclusive bonus track)