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REVIEW: Helix – Vagabond Bones (2009)

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Welcome back to Canadian Rawk Week!

Scan_20160210HELIX – Vagabond Bones (2009 Universal)

2009 was an exciting time to be a Helix fan.  15-odd years of rotating lineups kept the band alive and in the clubs, but it was hard to grow attached to any band members when they only stayed for a couple years and were off elsewhere.  Helix main man Brian Vollmer had always maintained strong ties with former members, and guys like Brent Doerner often showed up on albums, or in the audience at local Helix shows.  It was still a surprise when Doerner, drummer Greg “Fritz” Hinz, and bassist Daryl Gray all returned to the Helix lineup.  This completed the classic 80’s version of the band, or at least the surviving members thereof.  Paul Hackman was killed in 1993 in a tragic auto accident.  Replacing him in the lineup was Kaleb “Duckman” Duck, who had previously worked with Brent.

Vollmer was working on a new album (originally called It’s Rock Science, NOT Rocket Science!), writing with his partners Sean Kelly and Moe Berg (The Pursuit of Happiness).   The final product entitled Vagabond Bones has a variety of different players on it.  Former Helix members Brent “Ned” Niemi and Rob MacEachern play drums, and guitar maestro Kelly (also briefly a Helix member) contributed to guitar and bass.  Also on the CD is Steve Georgakopoulos who played on a few past Helix albums.  You’d think it would be a case of “too many cooks” in the kitchen.  That’s not the case; Vollmer and Co. brewed a potent mixture of songs, with all the attitude and quality that you have come to expect from this band.

Immediately you’re hit over the head by the slick production work by Vollmer, Kelly and Aaron Murray. “The Animal Inside (Won’t Be Denied)” has the stamps of both Helix and Sean Kelly all over it, from the absurdly catchy chorus to the shredding solos. Vollmer sings powerfully, but his voice has so much depth character from years of training and road work.  Very few singers from the 70’s still sound the same, but Brian Vollmer is damn close!  “Go Hard or Go Home” has another powerful chorus, plus great catchy riff, and fun lyrics.  “Go hard, or go home, take your little whiny candy ass and go.”  Considering all that Helix has been through, Vollmer surely knows only the strong survive.  “No short cuts, no sweet deals,” he sings and he knows it!  The title track “Vagabond Bones” makes it three great songs in a row. It’s an instantly likeable good time hard rock boogie.

Helix really developed a knack for melody as they grew. One of the most pop moments is “Monday Morning Meltdown”, a song that Brian compared to Cheap Trick in terms of style.  You can hear it in the choruses, but it’s just a great pop rock song with another great Sean Kelly riff holding down the fort.  Very different for Helix, and very good.

Onto a fast vintage Van Halen style shuffle, “When The Bitter’s Got The Better Of You” is the fifth straight up great song in a row.  It too is very different for Helix.  It continues a theme of “down on your luck” songs, but always with a message to keep on givin’ ‘er.  That holds true on “Hung Over But Still Hanging In”, a sleeze rock duet with Russ Dwarf of Killer Dwarfs.  If you need a hard rocking party song, then this is what you want. It has the groove, the fun, and the lyrics so just hoist them wobbly-pops and rock on!

My personal favourite song has always been “Best Mistake I Never Made”. It has a classic 70’s rock aura, an acoustic guitar, and if I had to compare it to something else it would be Helix’s excellent 1992 single “That Day Is Gonna Come”.  That’s a trip down memory lane that I don’t mind taking.  “Make ‘Em Dance” is a fast stomper with a beat that strikes me as almost Disco.  It just rages though, I wouldn’t try dancing to it until you want to break your neck!

Ending the album on a funky rock vibe is “Jack it Up”. This is a really interesting song, because I used to hate it. You may have to let it grow on you because, like much of this album, it’s forging new territory for Helix. It’s still great party rock, but just a little laid back.

With sharp production, Vagabond Bones was certainly the best sounding Helix album, and the best overall in many a year. And that’s saying something, because 2007’s The Power Of Rock And Roll was very, very strong.  Hearing this album for the first time, I just smiled.  I had to.  Helix were back and pretty much better than ever.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Helix – Bastard of the Blues (2014)

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HELIX – Bastard of the Blues (2014 Perris)

I’ve been a Helix fan a long time.  They were one of the first bands I’ve ever liked.  I’m pleased to report that their new album, Bastard of the Blues, is their strongest in years and possibly on a par with their best 80’s work.  It is their first album with Chris Julke of Cambridge Ontario on guitar, replacing John Claus (who replaced the Doctor, Brent Doerner).  This new lineup of the band (still featuring Kaleb Duck – guitar, Daryl Gray – bass, and Fritz Hinz – drums) is again working with Sean Kelly and Aaron Murray, producing one hell of a record.  It consists of 8 brand new songs, and 3 slightly older songs that you may have missed the first time.

BASTARD OF THE BLUES_0006The title track “Bastard of the Blues” is a mean, fully loaded soul-metal rock song.  Soul-metal?  Sure, why not?  Check out those backing vocals, and the smoking lead guitars.  Soul-metal!  Songwriting-wise, this is a top drawer.  Production-wise, performance…there is absolutely nothing that sucks about “Bastard of the Blues”.  Although this is a completely modern song, there are aspects of it that take me back to 1978’s Breaking Loose album, such as its experimental nature with different sections and so on.

It takes balls to name a song “Even Jesus (Wasn’t Loved in His Home Town)”. It’s heavier than the title track, and boasts a nasty little guitar riff to hook you.  Once again, Helix raised the bar.  Then they change gears:  “Winning is the Best Revenge” is solid pop rock that in a just world would be on the radio.  This one takes me right back to the mellower sounds on Helix’ 1993 classic It’s a Business Doing Pleasure.  Vollmer’s voice is in top shape.  Lyrically these two songs really seem pointed at those who may or may not have impeded Helix in the past!

“Screaming at the Moon” would be a cool song live, with it’s lyrics about fists pumping in the air.  My favourite song however is the next one, “Metal at Midnight”.  If it wasn’t for the modern production I’d swear this song was from 1984.  What a great hard rock chorus.  I’m absolutely nuts for this song.  What is it about bands like Judas Priest and Helix recently, that they have managed to tap into that vintage vibe?  I think part of the credit must go to co-writer Sean Kelly, who proved his metal credentials last year on his excellent Metal On Ice EP.

BASTARD OF THE BLUES_0007“Hellbound For a Heartbreak” is similar in direction to “Screaming at the Moon”, which is solid hard rock with hooky guitars.  But then, I was taken by surprise: “When All the Love is Gone” is an epic 70’s-sounding ballad with a voice singing that I’m not familiar with.  Turns out, it’s Daryl Gray!  He absolutely nails it.  This song could have been at home on Breaking Loose, alongside “You’re a Woman Now”.  I tend to like albums with multiple lead singers, so I enjoyed the change of pace.

From the compilation CD Best Of 1983-2012 comes “Axe to Grind”, getting a second life here.  Now here’s an interesting observation:  On the Best Of CD it didn’t make a huge impression on me.  Here, I’m enjoying it a lot more, particularly for the scathing lyrics.  Anybody who has read Brian’s Facebook page knows he’s not shy about sharing opinions, and “Axe to Grind” reminds us of that.  Then comes “Skin in the Game” from the EP of the same title.  This being an older song, you can hear the presence of the Doctor!  Also from that EP is “The Bitch is a Bullet”.  It boasts one of those memorable Helix choruses.

Album closer “Sticks and Stones” is another favourite.  It’s a fast-paced bluegrass-y metal shuffle!  Hey, I don’t know how to describe it better.  This is a great song, purely smoking, and showing off the musicianship of these five pros.  Much like “Metal at Midnight”, I just can’t get enough of this song!

As an album, Bastard of the Blues is more cohesive and consistent than some of the recent Helix discs, including The Power of Rock and Roll and Vagabond Bones.  As good as those albums were, Bastard is better.  It feels like a complete album, more so than before.  It holds its own against classics like Back For Another Taste, a high-water mark.

I don’t often get preachy in my reviews here, but I will say this:  Go out and get Bastard of the Blues.  Order it online.  Do what you have to do to purchase this album.  You’ll be supporting a hard working band that have really earned your dollars.  If there was one pleasant surprise of 2014 so far, it is that Helix came out with such an incredibly strong album.  They have raised the bar for themselves again.

5/5 stars

 

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Brian Vollmer of HELIX!

September 7, 2012:  Once again, things are getting exciting on Planet Helix.  If the new single / video “All I Want For Christmas is the Leafs to Win the Cup” wasn’t enough, there’s also the new anthology, Best Of 1983-2012.

Lead vocalist and founding member of Helix, Brian Vollmer talked to us about these releases, some special upcoming dates, and a lot more.

The new single seems to be off to a good start, according to the song’s co-writer, Sean Kelly.  Brian filled us in.

“Sean’s from North Bay [Ontario], and he told me we’re getting airplay up in North Bay on that song.”  The video is also doing well:  “We’re up over 5000 hits now, and we’re hoping that the video goes viral.  It’s early in the season…there might not even be an NHL season this year!”

Oh Brian, don’t get me started on Gary Bettman!

The collector in me was excited about the vinyl release of the single.  It’s also going to be on the anthology CD, but the vinyl is designed for collectors in mind.

“I had initially wanted to do vinyl on the Christmas album [A Heavy Mental Christmas], but when we wrote this song, I thought that we’d do vinyl because it’s a collector’s item.  It’s kind of a novelty type of thing, and I think that it’ll appeal to not only Helix fans but also Toronto Maple Leafs fans.  They might like the vinyl just to have in the rec room up in the bar.  We sell it for $19.99 so it makes a great stocking stuffer for people.

“We did it on green vinyl too, to fit in with the season somewhat, and when we go through that pressing we’ll probably change colours.”  Just FYI Brian:  my wife, Mrs. LeBrain, is really hoping for blue!

“We’ve been trying to write a Leafs song for a couple years,” adds Brian.  “We had the working title of ‘I’m Bleeding Blue & White Tonight’.  And we never quite got the song together.  And then we did a radio session, where we were finishing off [new song]  ‘Axe to Grind’, which is also on the anthology album.”  Brian was then supposed to meet up with Travis Wood, of the band Whosarmy (from the TV show Cover Me Canada, which Brian also guested on incidentally).

“I didn’t want to go too early, and just sit around at the restaraunt.  So we started fooling around and all of a sudden, within a couple of minutes we wrote ‘All I Want For Christmas is the Leafs to Win the Cup’.  The song was recorded within two weeks.”  The hilarious video was done right after that.  I forgot to ask Brian if any Habs fans are offended!


All I Want For Christmas is the Leafs to Win the Cup

You can buy the single on the green vinyl in a bundle with a T-shirt and the new CD, Best Of 1983-2012.  “The Best Of album I just put out has a lot of tracks that you wouldn’t normally hear [on other best of albums] by Helix.  Stuff like ‘Animal Inside’ off the Vagabond Bones  album.  ‘Get Up’ and ‘Fill Your Head With Rock’ from The Power of Rock and Roll album.”

Coinciding with these releases is the forthcoming Heavy Mental Christmas tour.

“Yes, we just added another date in Cornwall.  We have seven dates, mostly through Masonic temples, legions, moose halls, through southern Ontario.  It’s a multi-media show.  We’re taking out screens, so there’s some video segues between songs, other times there’s still pictures with Christmas themes…some of the cameras that are places strategically around stage are broadcasting whatever member might be doing a solo during the song.”

You may want to consider getting your tickets now, as these shows are special indeed, and feature a new lineup.  Not only will you meet the new Helix guitarist, John Claus, but “also Sarah Smith.  Sarah Smith is a great London [Ontario] artist, she’s got two CDs out now under her belt, she’s a great addition to the show.  Just a smiling, very talented person.  She’s on with us instead of Kaleb [“Duckman” Duck, guitars].  Kaleb really didn’t want to do Christmas songs!  Initially, we were going to go with one guitar player, and then I thought of Sarah.”

This turned out to be a good decision, according to Brian:

“I always walk out of our Christmas practices with a big smile on my face.  I love playing the material, and it’s really fun with this group of people, to do these songs.  I wouldn’t want somebody to do any of my projects that wasn’t totally into it.

“It’s a labour of love.  We’ve been working on this show over a year now.”

Really?

“Setting up the website, and the tickets, and the halls, and putting together the show, learning the show, and getting the multi-media involved.”  But it is truly a labour of love, and you can tell by the amount of work that Brian and the band has put in so far.

I mentioned new guitar player John Claus.  As previously reported, longtime axeman Brent Doerner will be leaving Helix at the end of September 2012.  Brian helps shed some light on this lineup change, and what bringing in a new member does for the band.

“We have two more dates with Brent at the end of this month.  One’s at the Rockpile in Toronto, the other’s at the Masonic Temple in Stratford.  That’s a multi-media show as well.  Tickets are going fast for that one, I think a lot of people want to come and see Brent before he goes.

“Brent’s been in the band since about 1975.  No hard feelings with him leaving at all.  He just wants to pursue video production, and in fact, Brent will still be involved on a creative level  with the band, helping us do our videos.

“I tell everyone that Brent, when he initially came back to the fold, he was only going to be here for six months, and he ended up staying three and a half years!  He definitely was better than his word, and stayed for a long time.  So I’m really grateful to him for that.”

On John Claus, who will replace Brent:

“He plays piano and guitar.  He sings, so he’s a great addition to the band.  Nice guy, great personlity.  Whenever we hire new people in the band, we don’t want any ego trips.  So, to get someone who has a nice personality and just a good human being is a nice thing to have.”  John will join the band completed by longtime members Daryl Gray and Greg “Fritz” Hinz, on bass and drums respectively.

The piano aspect will come into play for future shows.  Brian reveals that he and John will probably perform “Dream On”, the Nazareth cover, from Helix’s Wild in the Streets album, as a duo during upcoming Helix concerts.  “And the Christmas shows, we’re doing ‘Hallelujah'” says Brian of another piano-based cover to look forward to!

It’s great to see Helix continue forward through the years.  Brian has worked hard, starting in the 1970’s as an indi artist, and now today continuing down that path.  Once again the band is behind their own music releases, selling it themselves.  Brian has nothing but praise for the team he’s surrounded himself with in recent years.

“I write with Sean [Kelly] nowadays, he’s a great writer, nice person to work with.  Aaron Murray is my producer, he studied from Danny Broadback, who won a Juno for Engineering.  And Danny studied with Jack Richardson, who as you know produced Alice Cooper and the Guess Who, and all sorts of people.”  Brian adds, “Moe Berg [The Pursuit of Happiness] sometimes comes in to write with us, Sean and I.”

Thanks to Brian Vollmer for updating us on all the new happenings on Planet Helix!  Try to get out to see the Heavy Mental Christmas tour, and get tickets while you can!

Upcoming dates:

http://www.planethelix.com/Schedule.htm

Buy the new Helix single, album, and other stuff:

http://www.planethelix.com/Store/StoreMain.htm

Audio of our chat below!

 SOUNDCLOUD