brian doerner

REVIEW(S): Helix – Breaking Loose, White Lace & Black Leather (2019 expanded editions)

HELIX –

  • Breaking Loose – 40th Anniversary Expanded Edition (originally 1979, 2019 Prog AOR)
  • White Lace & Black Leather – Classic Hard Rock Expanded Edition (originally 1981, 2019 Prog AOR)

Helix have really done it this year. They have a new album (Old School) made up of some pretty excellent songs that were never completed before. On top of that, you can also get brand new reissues of their first two indi albums, Breaking Loose and White Lace & Black Leather.  Those two albums have already been reviewed in full, so this time we will focus primarily on the perks of these new CD versions.

Both discs feature lyrics, rare photos, and liner notes by Brian Vollmer.  All essential things for a reissue, so what else?  Unreleased tracks, that’s what else.  Good ones!  The hell, Brian?  Where have you been hiding this stuff?  If anyone assumed thought Helix cleared the vaults with their B-Sides album, they were mistaken.  Maybe Universal should have been storing their tapes at Planet Helix….

Too soon?

Breaking Loose features “Let Me Take You Dancin'” (not the Bryan Adams song), apparently the first song they ever recorded, at the behest of manager William Seip.  You can understand why they didn’t put it out, considering the Disco revolution going around.  It’s too dance-y for what Helix wanted to be:  a rock band.  With 40 years hindsight, it’s bloody brilliant.  Full-on horn section blasting away on a blatantly commercial rock song with just a whif of surf rock.  Nothing wrong with any of that in 2019.  “Sidewalk Sally” is the very first Brent Vollmer/Brian Doerner composition and you can tell by Dr. Doerner’s trademark chunky riff.  This song is strictly outtake quality, but it’s notable for historic reasons (and the pretty advanced drumming by Brian Doerner).

The second album, White Lace & Black Leather, has two interesting bonus cuts as well.  Brent Doerner wrote and sang a killer tune called “When the Fire is Hot”, which is one of the songs submitted to Capitol that got them signed.  It’s never been released.  It’s a very unpolished demo, but with a serious stomp and stunning guitar solo.  The final bonus track is an unreleased early version of “White Lace & Black Leather”, which was re-recorded for their third album No Rest for the Wicked.  See, for the first couple Helix albums, you had to wait until the next record to get the title track!

A brief talk about the albums themselves:  both are chock full of great, unpolished youthful rock.  Helix were just learning how to make records, but they had more than enough original material.  Between the key songwriters (Paul Hackman, Brian Vollmer & Brent Doerner), they had plenty of quality songs.  “Billy Oxygen”, “I Could Never Leave”, “Here I Go Again”, “You’re a Woman Now” and “Wish I Could Be There” from the first album alone are must-haves.  Nobody should be forced to live their life without hearing “Billy Oxygen”.  The second LP was almost as great as the first.  “It’s Too Late”, “Breaking Loose”, “Mainline”, and “It’s What I Wanted” stand with the best material from the first.  Sure, the band were rough around the edges, but they could already sing, play and write.  They were goin’ places!

As for the mastering job, the music is not brickwalled like the versions of some songs on the Rock It Science CD.  These discs are the versions to get; the expanded tracklist making them musts to the collecting fan who already own them all.  Best of all, Planet Helix is offering them and the new Helix album for just 40 bucks.  40 bucks for 3 CDs is a ridiculous deal.  I daresay these two albums have been steady companions to me over the years, and I look forward to re-enjoying them in this new form.

5/5 stars for Breaking Loose

4/5 stars for White Lace & Black Leather

 

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.

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

STRAT

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 – 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.

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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.

BACK FOR ANOTHER

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.)

 

BACK FOR ANOTHER GRAPH

 

“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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REVIEW: Helix – Breaking Loose (1979 H&S)

Part one of a Helix three-fer!

IMG_20150605_184257HELIX – Breaking Loose (1979 H&S)

Long before they gave you an ‘R’, Helix earned a reputation as the hardest working band in Canada, year after year in the cold dirty clubs of the Great White North.  Formed in 1974, Helix had a number of lineup changes before they even recorded their debut.  If you want to get technical about it, even on their first album, Helix only had two remaining original members in singer Brian Vollmer and bassist Keith “Bert” Zurbrigg.  Helix really solidified when they eventually acquired guitarist Paul Hackman, and twin brothers Brent (guitar) and Brian Doerner (drums).

Manager Bill Seip, who eventually guided Helix to a major label deal with Capitol Records in the early 80’s, was an early believer.  Under his leadership, they managed to scrape together enough cash to record an independent album — something very few bands did back then.  They released it on their own “H&S Records”, for Helix & Seip.  What is remarkable about the album they created, Breaking Loose, is how great it still is today.  I know people, very respected in the local rock community, who will tell you this is Helix’s best album.

Breaking Loose isn’t metal, but what it lacks in firepower is made up for in class, ambition and natural talent.  Brian Doerner is one of the most respected drummers around, having acquired an extensive discography over the decades.  As for Brent Doener and Paul Hackman, together they forged a guitar partnership that would take them up to the big leagues.  They are not Downing & Tipton, nor are they Smith & Murray.  Doerner & Hackman (R.I.P.) were in a hard rocking bar band, and Helix were damn good for their demographic.  What they brought to the table was ability, but not flash.  Both were capable of writing songs on their own, as the writing credits on Breaking Loose attest to.

Having toured extensively, Helix worked up a number of originals.  The entire album is written by the trio of Doerner, Hackman and Vollmer, in various permutations.   Even then, Brian Vollmer had a remarkable voice: power with just a tiny bit of grit, but also the ability to sing clean.  The production on the album is flat by today’s standards, but perspective and context are everything.  For a self-financed album in 1979, it sounds incredible!  Though it lacks the oomph of Helix today, it’s perfectly listenable.

Starting with the mid-tempo “I Could Never Leave”, Helix right away hit you right off the bat with one of their catchiest tunes.  You’ll notice the nice backing vocals, Brent being particularly audible.  “Don’t Hide Your Love” has a similar vibe, that being hard rock with an emphasis on catchy melodies.  Maybe Helix were aiming for the radio, but the songs aren’t wimpy by any stretch.

“Down in the City” is a Vollmer ballad, and a pretty good one too.  The lyrics are cringe-worthy, but the music had ambition.  It starts as a pretty, folky acoustic song and eventually builds with more guitars into something different.  Plenty of guitars to go around.  Then like night and day it’s onto “Crazy Women”, written and vocalized by Brent, otherwise known as “The Doctor”.  Doerner has a quirkier writing style, which is a good thing, because it helped Helix stand out a little more from the pack.  “Crazy Women” has plenty of guitars of course, but also has a neat drunken stumble to it.

Brent closed side one, and opened side two with a legendary song that helped them get a following on the west coast: “Billy Oxygen”. It’s still a favourite to this day, a short fast rocker about a guy named Billy Oxygen, captain of a starship called an ES-335, looking to meet some aliens to party with. Out of this world? Wait until you hear the band playing the shit out of it! Brian’s drumming reminds me of a good jazz drummer — fast, accurate, and hard! Keith Zurbrigg throws down a little bass, playing off with Brent and Paul in a three-way solo for the ages.

If you don’t like “Billy Oxygen”, then I’m not sure if we can be friends. The impact this song had on me cannot really be measured, as I played it on repeat ad-nauseum. As I recounted in Record Store Tales Part 2 (!), this tune even inspired me to do some writing of my own:

When I was in University I tried my hand at bad, bad science fiction short stories. Suffice to say, none of it survives today with good reason. However, Helix had a little moment in my fiction: My spaceship was called an ES-335, named after Billy Oxygen’s ship in the song. And only a little while ago did I learn that ES-335 wasn’t the name of a spaceship at all. An ES-335 was a Gibson guitar.

“Here I Go Again” is not the Whitesnake song, but another one of those melodic rock songs that seemed a bit contrived to get some radio play.  That’s just speculation on my part, but I’m glad it was “Billy Oxygen” that did get the airplay.  That’s not to say anything negative about the fine “Here I Go Again”.  There isn’t a weak song on this album, but two other highlights are definitely “You’re A Woman Now”, featuring female backing vocals and a structure that builds into something dramatic, as if it’s Helix’s own “Stairway To Heaven”. “Wish I Could Be There” brings back the outer space theme, and has acoustic and heavy sections, sort of Helix’s foray into prog rock.

I should note that both “Wish I Could Be There” and “Billy Oxygen” made the Sausagefest countdown a few years ago, a lofty achievement indeed.  “Billy” even cracked the top five.  Musical scholar Scotty Geffros holds both songs in high esteem, and voted for them accordingly, as did I.  Our host, Iron Tom Sharpe also voted for “Billy”.

BREAKING LOOSE_0001

This lineup only lasted for one album, both Brian Doerner and Keith Zurbrigg departed shortly after this, leaving Vollmer the sole original member. Their legacy of the lineup is this debut album, something any band would be proud of.  Unfortunately, CDs are hard to find.  Capitol did a bare-bones but fine CD reissue in 1992, with both Breaking Loose and the second album White Lace & Black Leather, on one disc.  That release was called The Early Years, but it went out of print many years ago. Brian Vollmer did a CD reissue of each individually, but both are now sold out.

Now, fair warning:  I have to disclose that I am biased when it comes to this band.  I’ve met them a number of times, and I have the phone numbers of two guys who played on this album. For another perspective, I asked Scotty Geffros, who has a Masters degree in Rockology, about his relationship with Breaking Loose:

After being handed this album, as a youngster of maybe 9 or 10, I remember examining the cover first…and seeing the photos of the band on the back, and wondering why the singer had a Blackhawks jersey on? I was told by my father to listen to “Billy Oxygen” and quickly went to the turntable to give it a spin. Low and behold, instant love. From catchy tunes like “Here I Go Again”, to more epic works like “Wish I Could Be There”, this album grabbed me and holds up today as a really good, albeit under-appreciated record.

[Note: I was wondering the same thing. Brian, why are you wearing a Blackhawks jersey?]

I’d go a step further than Scott and call it really great. Being completely honest though, the only complaint I have about this album would be that some of the lyrics were a little weak.  Young band…first album…I’ll forgive them.  If you can too, then I suggest you hear Breaking Loose at your earliest convenience.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: My Wicked Twin – Decibel Music (2008)

MY WICKED TWIN – Decibel Music (2008 MWT)

Helix fans take note, since My Wicked Twin was 3/4 composed of former members of that band.  Brent Doerner and his twin brother Brian first joined Helix in 1975-76, and both were members of that band more than once.  Brent in particular clocked in a couple decades total in Helix.   Brian spent a few years touring and recorded with Saga as well.  Joining them on bass is Mike Uzelac aka “Uzi”, who played and wrote on their Capitol Records debut No Rest for the Wicked (1983).  None of these guys seemed to have lost anything with the years.

SHANEMy Wicked Twin evolved from Brent’s first solo outfit, Brent Doerner’s Decibel who released an excellent CD in 2006.  From that earlier incarnation comes guitarist/vocalist Shane Schedler, a talented Kitchener-area musician whom I first met back in the 90’s at the old Record Store.  Needless to say I’m a little biased when it comes to reviewing these guys.  Being objective is the goal, so let’s get on with it!

On first listen it’s clear that Brent has raised the bar. This time there’s more music (12 songs), and it’s noticeably heavier.  At the same time it’s also more diverse, and the production is improved.

I need to single out “Maybe Love” as a particularly outstanding track. When I saw them debut it live in ’07 it was obvious what a great song it was going to be. Its evolved into a superior hard rock song with a melodic vocal and a thoughtful lyric.  There are top-tier rock bands who don’t put out material as good as “Maybe Love” on their albums.  This is a song to be proud of, absolutely.  Brent made a pretty cool video for the song too.

Most of the rest of the album is more raw, and more rock. “All The Action”, with its adventurous melodies, is a highlight. “One Big Bad Whoopie” is a lyric in which Brent shows his sly humour, something that comes frequently on this album. “Decibel City Hall” and “Get Your Game On” are fast boogie rockers a-la-Van-Halen-with-Roth. If you’re a hockey fan, you may have heard “Get Your Game On” before the album came out, as the band submitted it to the CBC for their “Write the new Hockey Night In Canada theme song” contest.  (I prefer it to the selection they finally picked, but hey, it may be a tad too rock n’ roll for Hockey Night In Canada.)

Other standouts include “The Sting I Need” and “Love is What I Lean On”. “Alone Again, Face to Face” is a nocturnal, sneering rocker.  “That Kind of a Love” is a guitar haven within a stunning power ballad.  I tend to use the word “epic” a lot, but it does apply here, especially in the middle when it goes all Zeppelin. As one would expect with musicians of this caliber, the playing is more than competent. Brent and Shane weave cool lick after cool lick, while Brian and Mike groove with nuance. While everything is solidly rock n’ roll, the rhythms are not simplistic, and paying attention to the drums will produce many smiles.

Pick up My Wicked Twin’s Decibel Music, if you’re a fan of rock “the way they used to make it”.  But give it time to grow on you.  Some songs have a lot going on, and not many are instant.  Play it a few times.  You’ll be glad you found this band.  Or, in their words:

“So don’t steal our record,
Cause we gotta eat,
So buy our record,
Satisfies, ’cause we love the taste of meat,
We love the taste of meat!”

I’ve seen the juicy ribs Brent eats, so I’m inclined to agree.

4/5 stars

CONCERT REVIEW: Brent Doerner’s Decibel – 3/10/2007, Edelweiss Tavern, Kitchener ON

I keep finding these old concert reviews that I forgot to post here!  Enjoy this one from former HELIX guitarist Brent Doerner.  This was written the day of the show.  Photos from an old crap Motorola phone.

BRENT DOERNER’S DECIBEL – March 10 2007, Edelweiss Tavern, Kitchener ON

It was only an hour ago, but it is already a blur.

Just after 9:30 pm, Brent Doerner’s DECIBEL hit the stage at the Edelweiss with earthshaking volume. The three Gibsons of Shane Schedler, Ralph “Chick” Schumilas, and Brent himself were crystal clear and gelling beautifully. I can’t even remember what song they opened with, but it might have been “Taking The Colour Out Of The Blues”, one of the best tracks from their debut CD. This was only their second “real” show, and the new lineup (featuring bassist Hilliard Walter and Brent’s twin brother Brian Doerner, fresh off a Saga tour) sounded hot. Most importantly, the pressures of playing to a hometown crowd didn’t phase them at all, and they looked like they were having an awesome time.

Brent Doerner has evolved from Helix’s lead gunslinger to a frontman in his own right. I suppose if one is in a band for a decade and a half with a guy like Brian Vollmer, you’re bound to learn something about being a frontman. Yet Brent has his own style. He points to the crowd, he interacts with them, he slings his guitar to the side and sings to them. He hoists his guitar like a shotgun for emphasis, and does it all as if it’s second nature. The guy is a natural, no doubts there.

All the best tunes from the CD were played, in effective order, along with four new ones. And let me tell ya, folks, these weary heavy-metal eardrums of mine rarely hear a song as good as “Maybe Love”. The song has only been played twice, and they band are still working out the kinks, but could you tell? No, this song smoked, as more than one person in the audience noticed. As my fiancée noted on the way out, “that song was the single.” And yes, indeed, if Decibel were to suddenly press up a slab of 7” vinyl, that would be the song to put on the A-side.

Video for “Maybe Love”, after some lineup changes and a name switch to My Wicked Twin

The show was not without technical problems, but the band overcame with lots of comedy courtesy of Brian Doerner, and a wicked impromptu drum solo from the rock god. In the dark. He couldn’t have even seen what he was doing, but did that solo ever smoke. While some bands would view a blackout as a disaster, Decibel turned it into a rare chance to see a drum solo by one of Canada’s most underrated percussionists. And he made sure that lots of people got complimentary sticks, too, which was really cool.

One of the many highlights of the show was Shane Schedler’s vocal turn on “Never Turn Your Back”. Not to be outdone, however, Hills Walter kicked out the jams on his vocal “Dancin’ Frogs” featuring not a dancing frog, but a dancing blonde in a top hat, fishnets and Decibel panties. Sweet!

Such was the reaction from the crowd that Decibel were unexpectedly forced to retake the stage after they had already said goodnight. Having nothing else to play, they played “Taking The Colour” one more time, this time with even more excitement. The crowd ate it up, every last morsel, and left very very satisfied.

You simply must see the band live. If you care about rock and roll, if you care about local artists, then you must see this band live. If you don’t, you are the only one missing out.

Good show boys. See you next time, front row center.

5/5 stars

BOOK REVIEW: Brian Vollmer – Gimme An R! (2005)

BRIAN VOLLMER – Gimme An R!
The story of Brian Vollmer, lead vocalist of Helix
(2005)

Forget all those books by the mega stars like Slash and Sammy Hagar that have come out in recent years. Those books have one thing in common — they were written (or co-written, anyway) by guys who are rock superstars! Megastars! It’s hard for me as a reader to relate to a guy who hasn’t had to hold down a job in 30 years. Not that there’s anything wrong with stardom, it’s just an observation.  I can’t relate to the human beings.   Not so with this book!

Brian Vollmer, lead vocalist of the hardest working band in Canada (that would be Helix), comes across as a pretty regular guy.  (I’ve met him a number of times, and he’s about as regular as anybody you’d know.)  Yes, he’s traveled the world in a rock band and played for thousands of people, but at the end of the day the book is something I can still relate to. Through crappy jobs in crappy convenience stores, crappy apartments, getting mugged, it doesn’t seem like a rock star’s life.  There are parallels in the story similar to other bands such as Anvil (another hard-working Canadian band). While Vollmer always manages to scrape by and continue to Rock Us, nothing comes easy.  Incredibly through it all Brian Vollmer never really stopped being an artist.  He seemed to always keep music, and Helix in his life even after dozens of lineup changes and band members.  (Approximately 35 people have been in Helix since 1974.  The newest member is Cambridge’s Chris Julke, replacing John Claus.)

From humble beginnings in Listowel Ontario to playing in Sweden, England and Trinidad, Vollmer’s tome has plenty of rock and roll stories. As one of the first Canadian bands to release independent albums in the 1970’s, he was a bit of a pioneer. Gimme An R! is loaded with rock star encounters one after the other, from Eddie Van Halen (on stage!) to Gene Simmons.  Vollmer remains himself through it all, even after Helix signed their big deal with Capitol and released “Rock You”.  The tragic death of primary co-writer Paul Hackman nearly derailed the band.  Even after the departures of longtime partners Brent Doerner, Fritz Hinz, and finally Daryl Gray, Brian kept going.  He kept the Helix name alive, finding success on the internet which was a brand new way for him to make contact, and sell albums directly to his fans.  Then, a little TV show called Trailer Park Boys helped expose Helix to a new audience.


Included between the covers are dozens of black and white photos of the band over the years.  From small-town Ontario to meeting superstars like Richard Pryor and Robin Williams, it’s a pretty cool collection of snaps. Unfortunately while reading I found myself distracted by spelling errors — “Atlantis Morissette” for example.  I would like to see a second printing that corrects these mistakes.  (A new chapter on the last decade would be cool too Brian!)

Vollmer’s prose is not frilly or poetic, but it’s conversational and descriptive.  There’s no ghost writer, so the pictures that Brian paints of all those seedy bars in the dead of winter come straight from his memory to the page.  He’s a great storyteller.  The bottom line is that the story of Helix keeps you hooked.  I’ve had friends come over and pick up the book, and they just get entranced. It’s a really different side of the rock and roll tales.  It shows what old fashioned determination and hard work can accomplish.

I have to knock off half a star for the spelling errors. It’s just one of those pet peeves — nothing personal, Brian!  I do highly recommend it Gimme An R! to rock fans world wide who’d like a different, more humble angle on the whole rock star thing.

4.5/5 stars