What If... is Mr. Big’s first studio album since the super group reformed in 2009 for a ten stop tour of Japan. The band splintered and fell apart in 2002 amid personal and creative tension. Paul Gilbert, arguably the world’s most technically proficient guitarist, had already quit the band in 1997 when he decided to reform his original project Racer X.
Therefore, What If... is not only the first new Mr. Big album for ten years; it’s the first studio album to feature both Billy Sheehan and Paul Gilbert since 1996’s disappointing Hey Man.
Mr. Big’s greatest asset was always their restraint. Gilbert and Sheehan’s mastery lay not in their jaw dropping ability to shred and lay ultra intricate bass grooves, but in their timing and decision making. While other technically skilled artists are content to show off with endless shredding, Gilbert picks and chooses the right moments to unleash the killer solos, ensuring maximum impact by putting the musicality of the piece first and never over staying his welcome.
That talent comes to the fore on tracks like “As Far As I Can See”, “Still Ain’t Enough For Me” and “Stranger In My Life”, the three contrasting solos give you that satisfying fist in the air moment by providing the perfect emotive peaks. Not to be out done, when it’s time to rock Billy Sheenan uncoils a deep, dirty and gravelly rumbling bass line on “Nobody Left To Blame”.
While Gilbert and Sheehan’s talents remain undiminished, it’s clear that they haven’t progressed their sound one iota. What If..., in large part thanks to Eric Martin’s vocal style, remains in the classic late eighties/early nineties pop metal mould; were it not for the crisp contemporary production and the sexism free lyricism you’d never suspect that this album was the product of 2011.
As a comeback album What If... succeeds as a celebration of a beloved band but it is a formula that Mr. Big will have to evolve with future releases if they ever wish to reclaim their place within pop culture and truly prove their artistic relevance.
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