Brent “The Doctor” Doerner

REVIEW: Helix – Rockin’ in My Outer Space (2004)

ontario-bands-weekWelcome back to Ontario Bands Week, presented by BoppinsBlog,  Keeps Me Alive, Stick It In Your Ear, 1001 Albums in 10 Years, and mikeladano.com.  

KITCHENER.

scan_20161215HELIX – Rockin’ in My Outer Space (2004 Dirty Dog)

This album was a long time coming. The last “true” Helix studio album (eg: not live, greatest hits or previously unreleased songs) was the excellent It’s A Business Doing Pleasure, twelve years previous to this one. A lot happened in those twelve years, including member changes, management and record company splits, and even a Brian Vollmer solo album (When Pigs Fly). That Helix came out with an album this good with no warning was a pleasant surprise.

Almost every song here is quality stuff, with only the instrumental opener “Space Junk” and the jokey closer “Sunny Summer Daze” not fitting in with the serious rocking going on here. A couple of these recordings had previously appeared on Vollmer’s solo CD (with Brian Doerner on drums), but this sounds more like a proper Helix album. The title track features a killer chorus (reminded me of “Rock You” a bit) with those recognizable Helix backing vocals. It’s also the most “party” of all the new songs, some of them being a little darker.  Glen “Archie” Gamble (drums) utilizes some interesting cymbal work, a little different from what you usually hear on a Helix record.  His playing gives this version of Helix a different rhythm.

“Six Feet Underground” has some nice acoustic work, and is extremely catchy. “Panic” has some irresistible vocals. “It’s Hard To Feel the Sunshine When Your Heart is Filled With Rain” might have an overly long title, but the song is amazing, as heard live in concert.  A wicked harmonica solo fills the spot with a guitar solo might normally fit.  “The Ballad Of Sam & Mary” is a jokey lyric as Helix have done before, but with some serious kick behind it. (Listen for a cameo by Brian’s wife Lynda Vollmer.)  It’s only when you get to the closer with its Hawiian guitar that you feel like the album just hit a speedbump. The final track’s saving grace is a guest appearance by former member “Doctor” Doerner on guitar.

This album represented a muscular return for Helix, one that kicked off a stream of new Helix records.  The band seemed revitalized even as lineups changed, as they continued to follow through with more quality rock and roll.  Rockin’ in My Outer Space is a pleasure for fans because it’s different. This is not party music. There are audible dark clouds and angry riffs.  The changes in heavy metal over the previous decade are obvious here.  The guitars are chunkier and dirtier, and no song has a party-hardy chorus like the days of old, though the title track comes close.  Helix are known for a certain brand of rock, and it’s nice when they choose to stretch out.

Fear not Helix fans. Brian Vollmer and his gang of little-known but excellent players did not disappoint when they finally decided to release a new album under the Helix Band banner. Aside from the first and last tracks, this is one you’ll be playing all the way through.

And heck, you get used to the the first and last tracks after a while.

4/5 stars

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Bonus:  In 2005, Helix returned to Sweden to play Sweden Rock.  iTunes have one song from their set available for download: “Rock You”  This track features the short-lived but very cool six-piece lineup of Brian Vollmer, Archie Gamble, Jeff Fountain (bass), Jim Lawson (guitar), Rainer Wiechmann (guitar and producer) and Cindy Wiechmann (vocals and other instruments). This is the version of Helix that supported this album, and fortunately it was captured live. Check it out for an idea of what this great lineup sounded like live.

Gallery: HELIX guitar picks

These.  Are.  COOL.

To promote their new album Rock It Science, Helix released this set of five custom guitar picks.  It is available at their site for only $10, and they feature the excellent album art (by Brent Doerner) on the front.  On the back, each pick has a photo of a band member:  Brian Vollmer, Daryl Gray, Greg “Fritz” Hinz, Kaleb “Duckman” Duck and Chris Julke.

Guitar picks are great to collect and here at LeBrain HQ, we can always appreciate a cool set of custom plectrums.  They’re fun, they don’t take up a lot of space (I’ll be storing mine inside the CD case) and they just look cool.  Feast your eyes upon these beauties and if you decide to go for a set, don’t forget to order the Rock It Science CD to go with ’em!

REVIEW: Helix – Rock It Science (2016)

NEW RELEASE


scan_20160930HELIX – Rock It Science (2016 Perris)

Helix just don’t stop!  Never have, never will.  They have been an ongoing property since 1974, steadily releasing albums with only minor gaps between.  They keep playing live, year after year.  They keep recording new music, ensuring there is always fresh product for fans to pick up at one of their unflagging shows.  The latest is a new “greatest hits” CD called Rock It Science, featuring a smattering of tracks from all over their career and one new song.

Bands and record labels are often guilty of exploiting their fans for one or two new tracks and a whole bunch of stuff they already own.  Helix fans generally don’t feel that way.  They want to support the band (“the hardest working band in Canada”), and it’s worth noting that most past Helix “hits” CDs are out of print now, and there is very little overlap in songs.  What overlap exists is usually limited to the “big hits” – songs like “Rock You” and “Heavy Metal Love”.  Incidentally, the hits from the Capitol years included here are the re-recorded versions from Best Of 1983-2012.  Fear not, they are very authentic remakes.  You gotta do what you gotta do to get paid!

Brian Vollmer has been good about including deeper cuts on his compilations.  “Billy Oxygen” and “You’re a Woman Now” from the first album are brilliant.  These are two of their best songs, period, and they commence Rock It Science brilliantly.  Any Helix CD that includes “Billy Oxygen” is better for it.  This jazzy little rocker is one of their more complex arrangements, written and sung by the “Doctor” Brent Doerner.  Speaking of Brent, he designed the artwork for the CD and directed the music video for “(Gene Simmons Says) Rock is Dead“.  That’s the new track on this CD (click the link for a review of the song) and a damn fine one it is.  Brian co-wrote it with his partner in crime, Sean Kelly, a brilliant musician in his own right.

A few other treasures worth mentioning are the lava-hot “Get Up!” from 2006, and the ballad “Good to the Last Drop” from 1990.  This is the single remix version of the song, which tips the scales as the slightly superior (and more rare) mix.  “Shock City Psycho Rock” (1998) is a pleasant surprise.  This is a track written by bassist Mike Uzelac in the early 1980’s but not recorded until the 90’s.  (When they recorded it, Uzelac was actually a missing person.  He has since returned to the land of the living, but I can remember meeting his brother back in the Record Store days and that is when I first heard the story that Mike hadn’t been seen by family or friends in years.)  Mike Uzelac was a talented writer and contributed lots of material to Helix.  “Shock City” is one of the fastest and most destructive tracks in their catalogue.  Finally, “Even Jesus (Wasn’t Loved in His Home Town)” is a favourite, notable for its biting lyrics and brain-searing chorus.

So go ahead and give them an R.  The band is like an institution, a hard working gang of rockers that aim to please each and every time.  Buy the CD direct from the band and you’ll get a signed copy with some great liner notes detailing some rare band history.  Rock It Science would make a fine first Helix album for any collection.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Helix – “(Gene Simmons Says) Rock is Dead” (2016 music video)

HELIX – “(Gene Simmons Says) Rock is Dead” (2016 music video from the forthcoming album Rock It Science)

“I don’t need no god of thunder to tell me what is great.” — Brian Vollmer

Helix are back once more, with a new greatest hits album called Rock It Science.*  You gotta have a new song on a new greatest hits (teased previously as “Mystery Track”), and this new song is timely and sharp.  Gene Simmons does indeed say that rock is dead.  In fact he’s been saying that for over 25 years.  I have a M.E.A.T Magazine interview with Gene from 1990 where he professes that rock is indeed dead.  And he’s still saying it now.  But Brian Vollmer retorts, “Don’t believe it when Gene Simmons says rock is dead!”

Sure, lots has changed, but Helix keeps going.  It’s not the 80’s anymore.  Very few can sell 2,000,000 copies of an album today.  It’s hard to make a living just by selling records.  You have to diversify.  Everything has changed — but like many things, the more they change the more they stay the same.  Rock is not dead.  In many respects, rock is more popular than ever.  Helix are still producing great quality music, and “Gene Simmons Says) Rock is Dead” is one more gem for their rock crown.  Daryl Gray and “Fritz” Hinz are still there on the rhythm section.  Chris Julke and Kaleb Duck handle the axes just fine.  This could have been on an album like Back for Another Taste.

As far as the video goes, Brent Doerner directed this one.  The Gene impersonator is bang-on — I hope Helix don’t get sued for this!  The video celebrates the old school.  It’s performed at Speed City Records in London, Ontario.  (Look for cool posters of bands such as Gob and VoiVod, who Gene slammed in the 1990 M.E.A.T interview.)  I really dig Daryl Gray’s Helix logo bass guitar.  That looks like a bitch to play.  Brent captured the fun side of the band in the video.  It’s not glossy, but I think it does the trick.

There’s no release date yet, but Rock It Science should be available to purchase soon.  Check out the CD cover, also designed by Brent Doerner.

Rock is dead?  Hardly.  Gene’s been wrong before, and he’s wrong again.

4/5 stars

ROCK IT

*The title It’s ROCK Science, Not Rocket Science was a working title for 2009’s Vagabond Bones.

 

 

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 – Wild in the Streets (1987, Rock Candy remaster)

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Canadian Rawk week continues with a double dose of HELIX! Boppin at boppinsblog reviews the same record today. For his review, click here!

HELIX – Wild in the Streets (1987 Capital, 2011 Rock Candy remaster)

Before this handy-dandy 2011 Rock Candy reissue, Wild in the Streets was an exceptionally hard album to find on CD.   By the time I started working at the Record Store in 1994, it was already long deleted.  I had a pretty neat cassette version, with a glow in the dark shell, but the sound was pretty muddy and warbly.  The CD finally fell into my lap thanks to a kind hearted customer named Len, who picked it up for me at a rival store.  The full story of this rare item and the quest to find one was told in Record Store Tales Part 234:  Wild in the Streets.  Since I’ve already told that story, no further background is necessary and we can cut to the chase.

It has been well documented, both in Brian Vollmer’s book Gimme An R and the fine liner notes in this CD, that Wild in the Streets was not an easy album.   This album had to make it, or Helix’s deal with Capital wasn’t going to be renewed.  They had trouble coming up with songs.  They recorded overseas with a disinterested producer (Mike Stone).  The album was mixed and remixed again, until Stone had to demonstrate to the guys that they had lost perspective and couldn’t tell one version from another anymore.  Other stressors added to the pressure, but finally some singles were selected and videos filmed.  Time to rock!

The action-packed video for the title track made quite an impression. The high-flying Helix were (and are) one of the most exciting live bands around. The video perfectly fit the music, an unforgettable rock anthem about turnin’ on the heat and going wild in the streets. It was written by guitarist Paul Hackman and his friend Ray Lyell, a Canadian solo artist gaining success at the time. This kickin’ track represented a high point for Helix; never before had they combined the rock with catchy melody like this. MuchMusic gave it plenty of exposure, but it failed to jump the border and make an impact down south.

To make up for a shortage of originals, Helix recorded some covers. FM’s “Never Gonna Stop the Rock” was a funky dud. According to the liner notes, the band didn’t particularly like the song either. Manager Bill Seip chose it among many submissions, and on the album it went, because nobody had any better ideas. Nazareth’s “Dream On” was a much more natural fit. Helix always had a way with tender ballads; witness their success with “(Make Me Do) Anything You Want”. An inspired choice like “Dream On” works well as a Helix song, in fact up here in the Great White North, I daresay the song is associated more with Helix than Nazareth. It’s hard to say who plays the subtle keyboards and piano, as three players are credited on the album: Sam Reid from Glass Tiger, the legendary Don Airey, and Helix bassist Daryl Gray. Dr. Doerner brought up his huge doubleneck for the video, an image burned in our memories. Doerner had to be the coolest looking guy on the scene, he had the star quality.

“What Ya Bringin’ to the Party” is the question, on another Lyell/Hackman original. The slicker production of Wild in the Streets doesn’t really do it any favours. If it had been on an earlier album like No Rest for the Wicked (and been a teensy bit faster), it could have been a sleezey rock classic. “High Voltage Kicks” is better because it delivers what it promises. This sounds like Helix to me. It’s fast, high-octane, and recommended for head banging. You’ll want a breather afterwards, which is good because it’s time to flip the album over to Side Two.

Scan_20160211 (2)Ready to “Give ‘Em Hell”? Helix are, and this is a good quality album track to do it. It fits that mid-tempo rock niche that Helix often call home. It’s back to hot flashy rock on “Shot Full of Love”, a Vollmer/Doerner co-write with some pure lead guitar smoke. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s his twin brother Brian laying waste on the drums. Brian Doerner is one of four drummers credited, including Mickey Curry, Matt Frenette, and of course Helix skinsman Greg “Fritz” Hinz. “Love Hungry Eyes” is one of the strongest songs in the bunch, and I think if there was to be a third single, it would have been “Love Hungry Eyes”. Brian Vollmer kicks this one right in the ass. I don’t think Helix get enough credit for their background vocals, but all five members sing. Brent Doerner has a unique voice and when the Helix backing vocals kick in on the chorus, you get a whallop of the Doctor right in the ears. That’ll cure what ails ya.

Joe Elliot of Def Leppard contributed “She’s Too Tough”, but then the shit hit the fan. Leppard’s label (Polygram) were terrified of Elliot competing with the soon-to-be released Hysteria album. Even though “She’s Too Tough” never passed the demo stage and was never in consideration for Hysteria, the label was so afraid that they were going to force Helix to remove it from their album. A compromise was reached: Helix could keep the song for their album, but could not release it as a single.  As such, you’ve probably never heard Helix’s version of it.  Leppard eventually recorded a proper version for a single B-side (“Heaven Is“) and it has become the more famous of the two.  That’s too bad, because Helix’s version is far more adrenalized, pardon the pun.

“Kiss It Goodbye” inspired the infamous Helix tour shirt that I would never have been allowed to buy or wear to school!  The song, another Doerner/Vollmer rocker, was unforgettable in concert.  It’s still a barnstormer on CD, certainly one of the most memorable tracks from this era.  The album is over and out in under 40 minutes, but you’ll probably have lost a couple pounds in sweat, if you were rocking out properly during those 40 minutes.

Unfortunately for Helix, despite a great live show featuring their fancy new stage set, the album failed to perform and the writing was on the wall.  Morale took another blow when Brent Doerner told the band that he was leaving.  The guitarist had been there since 1975.  He was integral to every album they made, and he was a charismatic personality on stage.  What were a band to do?  If you’re Helix, you do what you have always done.  You keep on givin’ ‘er.  They responded to this dire time with one of the best albums of their career.

Wild in the Streets was the end of an era.  It was also the last Helix album of the 1980’s.  With the benefit of hindsight, Wild in the Streets capped the decade off properly.  Mushy production aside, it was a strong collection of songs that probably could have been presented better.  Too bad!

3.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Helix – B-Sides (1999)

Scan_20150918 (5)HELIX – B-Sides (1999 Beak Records)

The occasion:  It was Helix’s 25th anniversary.  How about an album, and some classic returning band members, for a good time?

The title B-Sides here is misleading; a B-side is a track that appears on the flipside of a single, and is often not on the album. No tracks on this album appeared on the flipside of any singles, at least not these versions. However, the misleading title does not mar the excellent music contained within.

B-Sides contains songs written and/or demo’d for various Helix albums from 1990 onwards. Some of these have been re-recorded, such as “Love Is A Crazy Game”, which appeared as an acoustic version on the Business Doing Pleasure CD. This version is electric and is much heavier. I could imagine this version fitting right in on an Aerosmith album. “S.E.X. Rated” has also been re-recorded. It’s the only song that actually appeared as a B-side, but it’s not the same version as on that single.

Various versions of the Helix band appear on this album, but most interesting is the lineup on the bonus tracks. “Like Taking Candy From A Baby” and “Thinking It Over” are both from the sessions from Helix’s excellent first album (Breaking Loose), left unreleased until now. “Thinking It Over”, a terrific pop rock song, is a Del Shannon cover.  Helix worked as Shannon’s backing band during an early 70’s Canadian tour. There are also three songs by a reunited “80’s Helix”, and it’s great to hear that version of the band again.

In a way, it’s a shame that this album was given the title and terrible album cover that it has. Brian Vollmer and Co. could have simply put this out as the next Helix album, which may have given it the respect it deserves. From the ballads to the heavy stuff, this Helix CD has a bit of everything you already liked about the band, with a modern edge. Every song kicks, there’s not a weak track in the bunch. By the time you get to the bonus tracks, Helix have already pummelled your eardrums.

Helix fans absolutely need to hear this music; not B-sides but in fact some of Helix’s best stuff. Along the way, there are appearances from pretty much every major Helix member from the indi days to the mid-90’s. You will even hear songs written and performed by Paul Hackman, the late Helix guitarist who was tragically killed in a 1992 auto accident.  The major selling point of the disc was that three songs featured a reunion of the surviving members of the classic 80’s Helix.  With Hackman gone, that consisted of leader singer Brian Vollmer, guitarist Brent “the Doctor” Doerner, bassist Daryl Gray, and drummer Greg “Fritz” Hinz.

Personal faves:

  • “Thinking It Over” which my wife thinks sounds like Sloan.
  • “Devil’s Gate”, hard and hammering.
  • “You Got Me Chained”, with killer horn section.
  • “Take It Or Leave It”, moody and dark but catchy as hell.

Final bonus:  a booklet absolutely chock full of never before seen photos.  A real treat!

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Helix – Over 60 Minutes With… (1989)

Welcome back to GREATEST HITS WEEK! This week we are looking at different, interesting hits albums from various bands. Today…just gimme an R!

Monday:  EXTREME – The Best of Extreme: An Accidental Collication of Atoms? (1997)
Tuesday: JUDAS PRIEST – The Best of Judas Priest (1978/2000 Insight Series)
Wednesday: JUDAS PRIEST – Greatest Hits (2008 Steel Box)


Scan_20150809 (5)HELIX – Over 60 Minutes With… (1989 Capital)

It’s always risky buying a compilation album from a label “series”.  Yesterday, we looked at a Judas Priest compilation from Sony’s Steel Book Series.  Over 60 Minutes With… was a CD-only (no tapes, no records) series by Capital/EMI in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  I remember seeing it over Christmas break in ’89, and trying to decide whether to buy it, or Ace Frehley’s Trouble Walkin’.  (I went with the Ace, and saved the Helix for a month or two later.)  I was confused:  Here was a brand new Helix CD, with Brent “The Doctor” Doerner right there on the front cover.  But hadn’t he left the band?  He had, but that was how I could tell this was a semi-official release, driven by the label.

The difference between Over 60 Minutes With…Helix and all the other label compilations is that this one is really, really good.  In fact to this day, it is still the one of the best Helix compilations assembled (and it was the first!).  Here are some reasons:

1. Rare tracks! Three of them in fact. You get demos for “Give It To You” (a new song re-recorded for the Back For Another Taste CD), “Jaws Of The Tiger” (re-recorded for B-Sides) and “Everybody Pays The Price” (later to be the B-side to “The Storm”).

2. Lots of hits. 21 tracks are contained within, and a good solid six of them were hit singles.

Those two points are enough reason to buy this CD (especially the first).  Let’s keep listening.

3. Rocker-to-ballad ratio is a generous 17 : 4.  Keep me mind, Helix ballads tend to rock anyway.  “Never Wanna Lose You” gets pretty heavy come chorus time!

PIE CHARTThanks to Geoff over at the 1001 Albums in 10 Years for the “Excel”lent inspiration!

4. Loads of tunes from No Rest for the Wicked.  When this CD came out in ’89, that album was unavailable on CD and scarce on cassette.  This CD has seven songs from No Rest!  That album, loaded with rockers heavy and melodic, is still one of their very best today.  Even though there were only three unreleased songs on Over 60 Minutes With…, there were tons that were brand new to me.

That considered, Over 60 Minutes With… has one serious flaw.   The record company only included songs from the first three Capitol Helix albums. Obviously nothing from the independent albums Breaking Loose or White Lace & Black Leather were up for grabs.  Strangely though, 1987’s Capitol Wild In The Streets CD is strangely missed.  The inclusion of one or two tracks from that album would have been appreciated.

Flaw aside, the liner notes are informative and the track listing is still generous. You certainly don’t want to miss album tracks such as the awesome “You Keep Me Rocking”, the raunchy “Dirty Dog” or the slinky “Check Out The Love”.  They are here along with many others. Pick this up, enjoy it, and then explore some of Helix’s proper albums, such as No Rest for the Wicked.  This is great, but it’s only the beginning!  Gimme an R indeed.

4.5/5 R’s

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REVIEW: Helix – It’s a Business Doing Pleasure (1993)

ITS A BUSINESS DOING PLEASURE_0002HELIX – It’s a Business Doing Pleasure (1993 Aquarius)

This is a good album — but it’s utterly ridiculous to see Amazon sellers asking $125 for a CD that I used to sell in store for $8.99.

After the death of guitar player Paul Hackman, killed in a tragic bus accident prior to this, Helix decided to carry on, somehow. Before the crash that prematurely ended the talented guitarist’s life, he and Brian Vollmer had been working on two separate projected discs. Brian had written songs with Marc Ribler, as he did on the previous record Back For Another Taste, which were earmarked for a solo album.  Meanwhile, Hackman was writing music for the next Helix album. When it came time to pick up the pieces and carry on, there wasn’t much written for Helix.  Although he regrets doing it today, Brian Vollmer decided to use the Ribler songs for the Helix record.

Vollmer recorded the album with Ribler, bassist Rob Laidlaw, and former Helix drummer Brian Doerner.  Having spoken to Doerner about this album, I know he felt it was strong and underrated.  I would have to agree.  Vollmer also needed a new Helix band to take the album on tour.  Greg “Fritz” Hinz and Daryl Gray remained on board.  Though they did not play on the album, they are pictured inside.  For the vacant guitar slots, they recruited former Brighton Rock guitar maestro Greg Fraser.  Even more exciting to fans was the return of Brent “the Doctor” Doerner.  This was easily the most exciting band lineup since the 1980’s.

ITS A BUSINESS DOING PLEASURE_0003

The record was a definite change of pace, due to its genesis as a Vollmer solo album.  Starting off, it’s instantly noticeable a Nashville influence .  Almost every song has that terrific old school Fender guitar sound, but with a rock n’ roll edge–a little like Mark Knopfler.  The songs are by and large a lot softer and more radio-ready, but also significantly more melodic and memorable.  “Classy” is a good word to describe the direction.

The first single “That Day Is Gonna Come” is upbeat, a tribute to the life of Paul Hackman. Next to “Billy Oxygen”, I think it’s possibly the best song they’ve ever done.  It received an excellent music video loaded with Brian’s own video-8 footage recorded over the years on the road. Just about every major Helix members appears in the footage.  It’s hard not to get nostalgic. Have you been to any of those towns? This is the best video Helix have made yet.

“Tug Of War” would have made a great hit, but sadly the record company weren’t behind the album enough to push it. Vollmer and Fraser did an acoustic rendition of this ballad live on MuchMusic, a recording I’m glad to have on VHS. The album version is more bombastic but just as good. “Wrong Side of the Bed” and “Can’t Even Afford to Die” are both upbeat acoustic rock tunes with lush backing vocals. Think John Cougar meets Helix. Lyrically, Brian was writing about subjects people could relate to, rather than pining over Joan Jett. Being broke, being hurt, but keepin’ on keeping on. Still upbeat but a little harder is “Misery Loves Company”. There are some dirty guitars and driving piano, but we’re still driving in the country. Even without a heavy rock band behind him, Brian’s voice keeps it in the realm of Helix.

“Look Me Straight in the Heart” was supposed to be a video. This power ballad is a duet with Brian and Canada’s Metal Queen, Lee Aaron. The video funding was pulled when Aaron couldn’t appear in the clip with Vollmer. It’s too bad, because it’s a great song and I love hearing Lee Aaron belt it out. Lee Aaron and Brian Vollmer singing a ballad? How could it not have balls! (Just enough.)

“Trust the Feeling” is largely forgettable balladry, but “Love is a Crazy Game” is haunting and quiet. There is a heavier, electric version on the B-Sides CD, and it’s hard to choose which is best. This one is certainly more unique. Of course, you can’t have too many ballads in a row, and they were pushing it with three, but thankfully “Sleepin’ in the Dog House Again” will wake you from your slumber. Kim Mitchell dropped in to play one of his typical gonzo guitar solos, topping off the only real ass-kicking rocker on the album. The closing song “Mad Mad World” (not the Tom Cochrane tune) is one of the best. Who doesn’t love whistles? Humorous lyrics and a great chorus help to end the album in style.

Some lamented that Helix “softened up” on the album; others admired the growth and maturity. Brian Vollmer called the record “a huge mistake on my part, and I take full credit for the blunder. The really sad thing about it all was that I was really proud of all those songs on the album and they were wasted because they did not fit under the Helix name.”

I’d hate to think of those songs wasted, because here I’ve been enjoying them for over 20 years. Perhaps under another name they could have been hits, perhaps not. In the end, this album helped Helix stay a band. It gave them something of quality to release in the wake of their greatest tragedy. It allowed the band to get out and play supporting it. Ultimately, those who were unhappy about the direction would satisfied by the heavy songs on the next album, 1998’s half-ALIVE.

I’d be happy if this album got a little more recognition, so here’s me doing my part.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Helix – Back For Another Taste (1990)

Epic review time!!


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HELIX – Back For Another Taste (1990 Capitol)

Helix’s Back For Another Taste was easily their best album since No Rest for the Wicked. It was also their last for Capitol. As such it received a neat, very limited vinyl release with a special cover commemorating the last (planned) printing of Capitol vinyl. I wish I had bought it when I had the chance. I recall seeing it at Sam the Record Man (owned by Gil Zurbrigg, brother of original Helix bassist Keith Zurbrigg) in downtown Kitchener. I didn’t have a good way of playing records back then, so it didn’t seem worth it.

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Special release aside, Back For Another Taste will always be associated with some hard times in Helix. Brent “the Doctor” Doerner, with the band since LP #1, decided to move on from rock and roll. Although lead howler Brian Vollmer saw the departure coming, it still hit hard. Doerner stuck around long enough to record some rhythm guitars and solos for the new album. His brother Brian Doerner played drums on three tracks, as he often has on past Helix albums. (Helix mainstay Fritz Hinz played on the rest). The songs were written by Vollmer and guitarist Paul Hackman, with the exception of two. Vollmer took a trip down to the US to work with Marc Ribler who helped him hone his songwriting chops.

Helix presented themselves as a four-piece in promo photos and music videos, for the first time. Doerner would prove hard to replace over the years, with American Denny Balicki taking over for the tour. He was Helix’s first American member. He made notable appearances in a one-hour MuchMusic special called “Waltzing With Helix”, a documentary on Helix’s European tour with Sacred Reich, and opening for Ian Gillan. (Also in that documentary: a kid I grew up with in the neighborhood called Brian Knight. He was a Helix roadie at the time. Brian Vollmer misspelled his name in his book as “Brian McKnight“. Whoops!)

Back For Another Taste was produced by Tony Bongiovi, who gave the band a raw, more kicking sound in the studio.  It was clear from track one “The Storm” that Helix meant business again.  A mean sounding gritty groove-rocker, “The Storm” was unlike anything they’d done before.  It was a completely un-wimpy lead single and a surprising one at that, since it’s not a very commercial.  The new four-piece Helix sound great here, with Hackman able to really dig in and play, while bassist Daryl Gray gets more room to groove.

The really impressive track on the album was “Running Wild in the 21st Century”. When every other band seemed to be softening it up, Helix seemed to go full-on metal. An edgy music video featuring London’s “Snake the Tattooed Man” won Helix some acclaim and recognition. Snake was a friend of the band, and when the idea came up for a music video, Vollmer said “I know the perfect guy for this.” (I myself encountered Snake at the Record Store, in Part 118 of Record Store Tales.)

“Running Wild” is a killer track, pure Helix adrenaline with their trademark smooth backing vocals.  In the lyrics, Brian seems confident of rock and roll’s future survival. Once again Paul Hackman confidently handles the guitars, allowing his personality to really shine.

Right up the alley of old Helix rockers is “That’s Life”, a classic sounding tune that’s great for drinking to.  Just you try not having fun while hoisting a frosty to “That’s Life”!  But Helix are more than just a party band, always have been.  “Breakdown” is the long dramatic slow one.  Vollmer had been going through some rough times: divorce, having to work at a convenience store to pay the rent, getting mugged, and then heave-ho and re-locating to London Ontario.  “Breakdown” must come from those times, because you can hear the desperation and the determination.  This track is the closest Helix ever got to re-capturing the golden sound of their first album, Breaking Loose.  But you gotta end side one on a party rocker, doncha?  So “Heavy Metal Cowboys” is that track and it sounds exactly how you expect.   Hackman throws down some slide guitar for good measure.

The title track is quintessential Helix.  “Back For Another Taste” indeed, this track could have been right at home on Wild in the Streets.  It’s dirty and rocking, just like you like it.  The stretching out a bit, the pop side of Helix emerges on “Rockin’ Rollercoaster”.  I immediately noticed a higher rating on the 10-point Catchiness Factor scale (c), than other songs on this album.  But then it’s even higher on “Midnight Express”, a real singalong!   I really like these two songs, and even the ballad “Good to the Last Drop” really impressed.

Marc Ribler wanted to write a song called “Can’t Eat Just One”, but Vollmer found the title cumbersome, so he suggested “Good to the Last Drop” instead.  What came from this was a hit ballad with heaps of class and all the right ingredients – a solid 9 on the Catchiness Factor scale.  The music video received a swanky remix with extra keyboard overdubs, and that’s the version I go for.  (It’s on many Helix best-of’s, but not this CD.)

 

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“Give It to You” wasn’t exactly a new song. An earlier version (more raw) surfaced on 1989’s Over 20 Minutes With…Helix compilation. I prefer the raw version, but it’s still a great dirty lil’ Helix number. “Pull the trigger of my honey gun.” Oh, Brian. “Special delivery, just for you!”

So Helix stretched out on this album a bit, and went back to their roots while exercising their melodic songwriting muscles. They went heavier, they went softer, they went dramatic, and they revisited some of their pop roots. What’s left? Faster, faster, faster!

“Wheels of Thunder” is probably the fastest, heaviest Helix track of all time and it closes Back For Another Taste on a killer note. Dr. Doerner handles the solo on this one, and Fritz is absolutely thrash metal mad. The only Helix track that might be faster is “Jaws of a Tiger” (also from Over 20 Minutes With…Helix), but we’re splitting hairs. What a ballsy way to end the album.

There were some cool singles available, but most interesting was the cassette single for “Good to the Last Drop”. That had an unreleased B-side, a song called “S.E.X. Rated”. This is a completely different version from the one that later appeared on the album B-Sides. This one has Paul Hackman, and that’s significant.

In July of 1992, Fritz Hinz was injured (slipped disc) and unable to tour, so Brian Doerner returned for a few western Canadian dates.  As a bonus, so did his brother Brent.  After a final date in Vancouver the band headed home.  Paul Hackman elected to travel home in the tour van with bassist Daryl Gray, while the rest of the band booked flights.  Hackman, not wearing a seat belt, went to sleep.  Then, according to reports, the van veered off the road and down an embankment when the driver fell asleep at the wheel.  Three men were thrown from the vehicle, and Hackman was killed.  Daryl Gray suffered minor injuries and flagged down help.  20 cars passed the frantic, bleeding bassist before someone stopped.

Back For Another Taste was Paul’s final recording.

5/5 stars

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