After thirty-odd years in the music business and five bands (including numerous versions of The Obsessed) Scott “Wino” Weinrich has finally issued a solo album entitled Punctuated Equilibrium, and I for one could not be more pleased. As an ardent Wino fan, the past several years have been frustrating for me. After losing him to the clutches of crystal meth in the mid-nineties, Wino returned to recording in 1999 with his new band Spirit Caravan, the band burned bright, but quick, disbanding in 2002 after two albums and an EP. Wino’s collaboration with longtime friend and fellow doom legend Victor Griffin in Place of Skulls was promising, but even briefer, resulting in only one album, 2004’s With Vision. Unfortunately for me, Wino’s most fruitful musical endeavor of the past decade would be The Hidden Hand, the band he formed with bassist/singer/songwriter Bruce Falkinburg and a rotating cast of drummers. I found The Hidden Hand’s spacey jams a bit dull and lacking in the riff department, and the band’s politically themed lyrics quickly grew tiresome. Although The Hidden Hand was well received by most, I was personally relieved when in 2007, after three albums and an EP, they finally called it quits.
Three seconds into Punctuated Equilibrium’s opening track “Release Me,” it was clear to me that the Wino I was missing had returned: The track with its muscular stomping riffs and bluesy groove rocks with more authority than anything The Hidden Hand ever did. The furiously paced title track rocks even harder with a hardcore intensity that recalls early work of The Obsessed. While the first two tracks will fit like a nice pair of gloves for long time Wino fans, the album has several tracks that veer off into uncharted territory: “Smilin’ Road,” with its laid back southern rock vibe sounds almost cheerful, “Wild Blue Yonder” is a meandering Hendrix-like jam, that finds Wino working over his wah pedal like it owes him money and the brief, ethereal instrumental “Water Crane” provides some musical evidence of Wino’s long professed love for Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Of course, this being a Wino album, there is doom to be had: “Eyes of the Flesh” is an ominous dirge with a haunting, mournful vocal and “Silver Lining” is an equally heavy track, but more aggressive and tuneful, both musically and vocally. The instrumental “Gods, Fraud, Neo-cons and Demagogues” is another creeping slab of doom, overlaid with various sound-bites from President George W. Bush and other politically themed sound bites. This track brings back unpleasant memories of The Hidden Hand for me, and in light of the overwhelming democratic victory in the fall elections, it just seems like old news at this point.
Wino’s rhythm section on Punctuated Equilibrium, consisting of drummer Jean Pal Gaster (Clutch) and Bassist Jon Blank (Rezin) does an excellent job of supporting him through the various styles present on the album. The two musicians inject a sense of vitality and swing into Wino’s music that has been missing since the breakup of Spirit Caravan. I can only hope that if Wino continues to go the solo route in the future, he invites these two along for the trip.
As for the performance of the man himself, if the hard living of Wino’s youth gave his voice it’s gruff, smoky character, the clean living of middle age seems not to have diminished it. Wino’s voice is as strong and soulful as ever. Instrumentally, Wino seems more invigorated than he has in years, his playing powerful, adventurous and ebullient. In addition, this being a solo album, Wino is not shy about taking the spotlight and stretching out for some extended bouts of fiery lead guitar.
If I have Wino’s fan base pegged correctly, I could say that this album sucks out loud and they would still buy it. Hell, I bought everything The Hidden Hand ever did and I did not even like them that much. Such is the reputation for quality Wino has earned during his long and storied career. Fortunately, Punctuated Equilibrium does not suck out loud or even quietly in a corner. Wino’s solo debut is a thoroughly enjoyable album that presents both comfortingly familiar sounds and surprising new dimensions from an artist I am sure many of us view as an old friend.