When LA metalheads Racer X released their debut album in the mid-1980s, their teenaged guitar prodigy Paul Gilbert was already gaining legendary status on the local live scene and at the prestigious college where he taught guitar. With blistering speed and a unique picking technique, he came of age alongside Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen as a new generation of super-shredders. While Gilbert has performed on and off with Racer X since then, and also with Mr. Big, which he formed with bass supremo Billy Sheehan in 1988, his main staple has been a succession of solo albums, of which Werewolves Of Portland is the 16th. If the title puts you in mind of Warren Zevon’s quirky single Werewolves Of London, it’s no coincidence – Gilbert admits that Zevon’s song was the inspiration for the title, being a tongue-in-cheek reference to Portland’s relative obscurity, despite being the largest city in the State of Oregon, where he is based. It’s an indicator of his twinkle-eyed humour, which is reflected in many of the track titles on this all-instrumental album.
Having listened to the set a couple of times before reading any of the promo material, it occurred to me more than once that some of the songs seem to be crying out for lyrics. OK, a lot of it is very proggy, with immensely complex key and tempo changes, but when Gilbert settles down to play a tune, it is tasteful and melodic. And as it turns out, this is down to his unusual writing technique which does, in fact, start with a lyric and a tune. He writes a song, which doesn’t need to have all that much of a relation to the real world, because it is simply used as a framework on which to build the piece. Gilbert learns how to play the tune on guitar, stacks it with complicated backings and tweaks, then scraps the original song, a process which often leaves him with a surprisingly lyrical melody line, played with the same emotional content that went into the original vocal delivery. Gilbert claims that it is a remarkably freeing experience, as his guitar can hit notes that he has no hope of reaching himself! For the curious, he has taken this bizarre formula one step further and included the lyrics in the liner notes, so each song becomes a kind of instrumental mix of itself for the benefit of any karaoke kings out there.
Having said that, there is more than enough going on to happily drown out most shower Carusos. Opening number Hello! North Dakota! Begins with a multi-tracked harmony guitar line reminiscent of a Broadway anthem, which morphs suddenly into a complex network of set pieces that showcase his guitar work brilliantly. One of several highlights on the album, this number runs to 6½ minutes, before second track My Goodness starts – and this is the first number against which I wrote in my notes, ‘Someone could write lyrics for this,’ before realising that he had actually done so. Another point that I noted was that there seems to be a fair number of high, sliding, yowling notes spread throughout the album, which I only slowly associated with the werewolves of the title. Yes, they appear on the title track, which is highly reminiscent of Rush-based instrumentals such as YYZ or La Villa Strangiato, but make guest appearances at other times too.
Two tracks, no less, owe their inspiration to 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich: the fusion-based, snappily named Professorship At The Leningrad Conservatory, which also includes some glam-pop melody snippets, and the even more pithily-titled A Thunderous Ovation Shook The Columns. The award for best title though, goes to the slightly more accessible Argument About Pie, which began with an amusingly pointless thought experiment about possible arguments that could be raised against the eating of pie. There is one deliberately understated and tasteful ballad in the acoustic-based Meaningful, but for this reviewer at least, the real highlights occur when Gilbert lets his bluesy side off the leash. This happens twice, firstly in the unashamedly blues-based shuffle I Wanna Cry (Even Though I Ain’t Sad), which is still massively complex with plenty of key and tempo changes, and secondly in the closing number, (You Would Not Be Able To Handle) What I Handle Everyday.
Oh, and there’s one other thing I really should mention – with the Covid crisis making it impossible for Gilbert to meet together with his buddies to rehearse and record, he ended up playing the whole thing himself. In his own words, “I’ve always loved playing drums, and I can play bass and keyboards well enough to get the job done,” but this is not a simple as it sounds. Most of the guitar lines are divided up into short sections and phrases, which must have been a nightmare to jigsaw together, and the bass lines are also loaded with counterpoint and melody, showing him to be an excellent bassist in his own right. I can’t really say I noticed much of a keyboard influence, no whizzy solos at any rate, but the drums are perhaps the biggest surprise of all. As no number goes straight four-to-the-floor for more than a few seconds at a time, the drumming on the album is pretty advanced stuff for someone who claims not to have played for years. Gilbert credits the overall sound to the remarkable production skills of Kevin Hahn, who lent him a drumkit and recorded the whole thing in his small basement studio. But as Clint Eastwood famously said, ‘A man’s gotta know his limitations’, and Gilbert admitted defeat on one tiny point. “It turned out that there was only one thing that I couldn’t play,” he says, “the snare buzz roll at the end of the track ‘Hello! North Dakota!’. That required some tricky drum technique that I have never practised before. So we hired a guy to come in and do an excellent snare buzz roll. Everything else is me!” Well, it’s an astonishing achievement, and he can be rightly proud of it.