What If

Mr. Big

Like a lot of their contemporaries, Mr. Big got lumped in with the heavy metal thumpers of the 1980s. And while the band’s muscle was indeed hard and heavy, the four players of Mr. Big transcended the simple constraints of metal with uncanny ability and virtuosity. Reuniting the original lineup in 2009, they’re still a marvel of musicianship and well-crafted songs on What If, their first album of new music in 10 years.

As a unit, singer Eric Martin, guitarist Paul Gilbert, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Pat Torpey, have chops to spare, making most hair bands of the 80s pale in comparison. But a funny thing happened on the way up the charts — their biggest hits were mild-mannered ballads "To Be With You" and "Just Take My Heart" — as far removed from the band’s infamous shred factor as you can get. If you fell in with the group earlier, when songs like “Addicted To That Rush” took you back to the hard rockin’ days of Humble Pie and Free, then some of the tunes on What If are going to rock your world. The one-two punch of “Undertow” and “American Beauty” might very well knock you out cold.

Gilbert’s fingers fly across the fretboard like dancing water, Sheehan still plucks a bass like a guitar, Torpey bangs the tins without breaking much of a sweat, and Martin retains his vocal prowess and range for the breathier parts. Lighter fare like “Stranger In My Life” and “All The Way Up” do little more than slow down the momentum. As much as you can commend Mr. Big for working all fronts (to no avail), it’s hard to get excited about blasé attempts at commercialism when the band is a living, fire-breathing dragon that licks around melodies like circular saws on Benzedrine. In-your-face ditties like “Still Ain’t Enough For Me,” “Once Upon A Time” and “As Far As I Can See” highlight a penchant for framing catchy rock-hard riffs around soothing, melodic hooks that sound simple and complex in a simultaneous wave of minutia. Twistier turns like “I Won’t Get In My Way” and “Around The World” take this concept even further.

Ultimately, the most solid number of them all may well be the bonus track included on the U.S. release, “Unforgiven.” Listening to Gilbert’s alluring guitar lines wrap around Martin’s assured, yet wailing vocal, it’s easy to trace roots back to the best of the 70s guitar slingers. Having capable accompanists merely raised their game. Which makes it all the more intriguing that groups like Deep Purple, UFO, Montrose and Van Halen, taken from a random sampling, have struggled to regain the spark that drove their initial success. Is it age and time? Mr. Big is defying both by playing the type of music they make best, without softening the blows — no ands, ors, or What Ifs about it.

~ Shawn Perry

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