MR. BIG – Ten

Since the late 80s, Mr. Big have been one of the most popular acts on the melodic rock scene. Their superior musicianship and a gift for very melodic hooks has made them a hit with musos, the less demanding radio listener, and a whole world of rock fans in between. The albums have always centred around some superb guitar work, but first and foremost, Mr. Big have come armed with accessible songs and melodies, and in Eric Martin, they’ve always had a gifted and reliable frontman, possessed with one of his generation’s finest voices. In terms of smart, melodic rock, an on form Mr. Big can be the full package.

Despite being best known to the casual observer for their drippy, harmony driven hit ‘To Be With You’, that track was never representative of their best work – or the breadth of their talents. On their nine studio albums (released between 1989 and 2017) they’ve shown a gift for hard rock, blustering riffs, guitar driven pop-rock, pure AOR and, yes, the odd bit of acoustic balladry, but they’ve rarely sounded as bluesy as they do on the bulk of their 2024 offering ‘Ten’.

‘Good Luck Trying’ kicks off the record with a huge blues rock jam that opens with a 70s guitar riff offset by rhythmic stops, casting Mr. Big in a musical mould that’s one part Deep Purple 1972, one part Blue Cheer and three parts Hendrix’s ‘Manic Depression’ played with a bigger oomph. Guitarist Paul Gilbert celebrates this very retro stance by throwing in a huge Hendrix inflected solo peppered with a couple of 80s tinged squeals, and vocalist Eric Martin finds a rougher edge within his vocal to suit. Martin, absolutely nailing a huge performance, could’ve been the track’s highlight. Likely, on another Mr. Big record it would have been, but his thunder is completely stolen by Nick D’Virgilio on the drums – stepping in for the sadly departed Pat Torpey – who attacks everything with a genuine vigour. His playing is never needlessly aggressive: from the opening, he sets up a complex rhythm that peppers a hard rock punch with a jazzy flair, and as you might expect from a prog rhythmatist coming into the Mr. Big fold, he makes the complex performance flow naturally despite the stops and melodic twists. What he’s not doing here is announcing his new role with any kind of tentativeness. Here’s there, playing at full power, and he sounds great. This is a superb opener, certainly; far harder around the edges than the more typical Mr. Big sound, but it sets a great tone for the bulk of what follows.

‘I Am You’ takes on more of a melodic rock vibe, but the steady rhythm and hard edged guitars owe more to the rock sounds found on Martin’s 2004 solo venture ‘Destroy All Monsters’. Not that this is ever a bad thing: it’s chunky approach acts as the perfect set up for a fairly catchy chorus, and between the steady four-four rhythm, bassist Billy Sheehan can be heard dropping in some really fluid melodies that show off his complex playing style with ease. It’s flashy, without ever seeming flashy for the sake of it. The same can be said for Gilbert’s featured solo, which never stretches beyond a little slide guitar. In a complete contrast to the opener, this is accessible, melodic and very much hook-driven, which will certainly appeal a little more to those long-term fans. Gilbert wheels out more slide based antics when he introduces ‘Right Outta Here’ with a broad Eastern melody, before everything drops into a slab of retro hard rock that sounds like Mr. Big circa ‘Get Over It’ crossed with something by Tangier, and a funky groove that would suit Glenn Hughes. There’s more than a touch of the Zeppelins here too, but never overtly; there’s also a 70s vibe that sets up a great duel between some flowery lead guitar work and busy bass, both of which find Gilbert and Sheehan in a comfort zone. It closes a trilogy of superb tunes: each one different, yet with a tone and confidence that makes it very clear that it’s the same musicians cutting loose.

In another of the album’s biggest surprises, ‘As Good As It Gets’ flaunts a power pop jangle via the rhythm guitar and couples it with a very 80s riff, and a few bigger sounds via harmonic lead guitar call back to the 80s brief fascination with guitar-synths. Strangely, the music sounds like a vague twist on one of the punchier tunes from Kiki Dee’s 1981 LP ‘Perfect Timing’, making it far removed from this album’s opener as you could possibly find. To ensure it doesn’t feel completely wrong for Mr. Big, Gilbert and Sheehan increase the volume midway, and Gilbert adds a bluesy solo. It shouldn’t work on this record at all – or possibly within the broader landscape of 2024 – but it’s a great feel good tune, and works even better as a stand-alone listen. With a 70s stomp and a world of chorus vocals, ‘Sunday Morning Kind of Girl’ revisits the melodic rock style of ‘Destroy All Monsters’ once more, but despite feeling familiar from the get go, sounds anything but stale, whilst the hard edged rock ‘n’ roll of ‘What Were You Thinking’ stokes up the fun with a huge retro swagger, and a riff that occasionally falls away to allow Gilbert to drop in some great blues rock fills. Tight, fast, and hard, this is the sound of Mr. Big very obviously working something that grew from an easy jam into retro rock perfection. If you’ve already found a love for the first couple of tracks on this record, you’ll also find plenty to enjoy here. It’s great to hear Mr. Big playing in a way that shows off how much fun they can generate together. This sounds like a band with nothing to prove, hoping that fans will be behind them as they work a great groove.

Better yet, ‘Up On You’s punchy drums and bass coupled with a hard rhythm guitar makes the track’s verses feel very much like an overspill from Thunder’s first two (much loved) albums. It quickly twists itself into more of a melodic rock mood for a chorus, allowing Martin to share a great vocal. In lots of ways, you wouldn’t think of this as classic Mr. Big, as the bulk of it sounds like Mr. Big channelling someone else, but the chorus has a melody and flair that couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. In terms of performance, it really can’t be faulted. Martin’s voice – although a little rougher than his younger days – has a huge presence; Gilbert wields a hefty wah-ed tone for one of the album’s greatest lead breaks when he takes a semi-bluesy style to share something with less of a 70s edge, and Sheehan’s bass comes through with a huge distorted grumble, occasionally sounding like a truck beneath the guitar chords. D’Virgilio, meanwhile, opts for something a little simpler, but the production on this album ensures his snares crack through with an impressive weight.

Almost all the songs here are good to great, but on ‘Who We Are’, particularly, the band really captures a classic sound. Melding melodic rock with a really bluesy twist, the slow number allows Gilbert plenty of room to lay down an atmospheric groove, and his love of Hendrix comes through, again, in massive waves. In fact, the general mood of the track isn’t far removed from the great Jimi ballads like ‘Little Wing’ via a couple of great slow jams from the Whitesnake stable, but, as you’d expect, this is also a style that suits Martin very naturally. It’s more restrained than some of ‘Ten’, but its combination of warmer guitar parts, a few great vocals and one of those melodies which feels completely timeless, it conveys as much power as the record’s harder rockers. Also a little mellower, ‘The Frame’ finally finds the band exploring some acoustic vibes, but as with the bulk of ‘Ten’ it’s a track that comes with a blues-ish flavour. Rather than finding an obvious, traditional groove, the riffs sort of sway; the shift in tone and mood doesn’t faze Martin, obviously. He spends the bulk of the number sharing a semi-soulful sound which sits very naturally, even with a couple of pointed backing vocals and a semi-psychedelic guitar solo ready to steal his thunder. It’s fair to say that this isn’t the album’s best tune overall, but its well played, and winds everything down very effectively.

There were moments on ‘Defying Gravity’ that experimented with more of a retro feel, but this record goes the extra mile in that department. More importantly, this musical shift never feels in any way unnatural. It might not always suit the dyed in the wool AOR head hoping for more tunes akin to slightly more melodic fare akin to ‘Green Tinted 60s Mind’, or ‘How Does It Feel’, but the good here firmly outweighs the bad. For those who enjoyed ‘Defying Gravity’, this is a record that promises twice as much enjoyment: the tunes a lot more confident, and the production – although a little hard around the edges – is much better than its predecessor’s horribly compressed sound. Overall, even though it doesn’t replicate much of their “classic” sound, ‘Ten’ showcases the veteran Mr. Big in genuinely top form, and is a highly recommended listen.

By the CD here.

July 2024

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.