Canadian rock

REVIEW: Max Webster – The Party (2017 box set)

MAX WEBSTER – The Party (2017 Anthem 8 CD box set)

Normally when we review box sets like this, we prefer to review each album individually.  Three of the eight discs have already been covered here:  Max Webster (their debut), High Class in Borrowed Shoes, and Universal Juveniles (their final album).  The rest of the Max Webster albums will be reviewed in due time, so for now we will take a general look at their brand new CD box set, The Party.

The Max Webster catalogue (and to a lesser extent, the solo Kim Mitchell discography) has been well overdue for a remastering.  The original Anthem CDs are thin and tinny.  Rock Candy did a fantastic remaster of the first album with better sound and a generous booklet, but what about the rest?  I first heard about this project via Uncle Meat this past summer at Sausagefest.  It was one of those “know a guy who knows a guy” stories, but the bottom line was, Max Webster’s catalogue was being remastered.  And now we have The Party in hand as proof!

The contents include all five original Max studio albums, their concert opus Live Magnetic Air, Kim Mitchell’s very rare solo EP, and a bonus disc of rarities called The Bootleg.  Those who buy the forthcoming vinyl version will also receive a booklet with rare photos and other goodies.  The CD version has no booklet, but it does have nice gatefold packaging for each album.  It’s affordably priced, so we forgive the lack of a booklet on the CD edition. Vinyl owners can look at it as a bonus for buying vinyl.

If improved audio is what you are longing for, then you should be very satisfied with The Party.  It’s not overdriven, but it sounds fuller and deep.  They didn’t go for loudness.  This is all very good.  You can safely ditch your old CD versions, rendered obsolete by this box.

The Bootleg will be the main draw for many.  It does not disappoint.  In fact, it intrigues, because it teases that there is more.  Unreleased demos are listed as “Contraband” — reports suggest this refers to a collection of unreleased material still in the vault.

Max Webster apparently recorded their 2007 reunion show, or at least “Let Go the Line”.  It sounds brilliant and makes you pray for a live album of the show.  Terry Watkinson’s classic ballad sounds a little older, a little wiser, but just as brilliant as ever.  Other live stuff from 1979 was recorded in Oshawa.  “Oh War” simply smokes, and was not included on Live Magnetic Air.  Then there’s the crazy jam centred on “Research (At Beach Resorts)”.  These insane live sessions really show why Max Webster is held in such high esteem, almost like a second coming of Frank Zappa himself.

The unreleased demos include some songs that didn’t make Max’s albums.  Fans know “Deep Dive” from Kim Mitchell’s solo live album, I Am A Wild Party.  Max’s original 1982 demo is completely different.  Same melody, same words, but a vastly different arrangement.  It’s like rock and roll bluegrass, fast as possible, and insanely good.  It was likely deemed too different to be on the Universal Juveniles LP, but there’s no doubt it’s awesome and the highlight of this box set.

Another standouts from the batch of demos is a version of “Battle Scar” without Rush; just Max!  It’s a revelation; an interesting work in progress.  There are also two songs you’ve never heard before, “Walden 5” and “Better”, both from 1979.  Let’s just say that the quality of these unreleased Max songs is album level.  “Walden 5” just needed some editing.  A demo version of “In the World of Giants” from 1979 has way more guitar soloing.  Kim fans will love it!  Oh — and stay tuned for a surprise unlisted bonus track.

The box itself is just a cardboard sleeve, but at least an attractively packaged one.  Yes, a booklet would have been appreciated.  In lieu of that, we recommend Martin Popoff’s brilliantly detailed book Live Magnetic Air: The Unlikely Saga of the Superlative Max Webster to accompany this otherwise perfect set.

Oh, one last thing:  The two “new” songs that were included on the hits compilation Diamonds Diamonds are not in this box set.  So, to be a completist, you’d still need to track that one down.  Vinyl is recommended; and then you’d own “Hot Spots” and “Overnight Sensation” to complete the picture.  Just a word to the wise.

4.5/5 stars

 

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REVIEW: Arkells – High Noon (2014)

ARKELLS – High Noon (2014 Universal)

Thank rock and roll for new bands like the Arkells!  I’ve been happily enjoying their singles for years.  I really fell in love when I saw the Hamilton band open the 2017 NHL Awards.  A starstruck Max Kerman (vocals) gleefully fist-bumped with Wayne Gretzky.  I knew I had to get one of their albums.  On vinyl!  I chose their 2014 release High Noon to be my first Arkells, for its unforgettable single “Leather Jacket”.

Kerman managing to keep his shit together on national TV with The Great One

High Noon was a sound choice.  “Leather Jacket” has been an earworm for a long time.  High Noon also has another sterling single, “Come to Light”.  Its basis is similar to Bowie’s “Modern Love”.  While there is no mistaking the year, the Arkells put a slick 80s slant on these songs.  Whether it’s in the beats or the keyboards, there is a love of 1980s rock here on High Noon.

There are numerous highlights and few forgettable ones.  Album opener “Fake Money” has a strong piano riff, a classic U2 vibe, and an anti-corporate attitude.  One of the catchiest, more summer-y fun tracks is ironically “Cynical Bastards”.  Good time upbeat rock with solid beats to shake your butt to!  “11:11” is primed for dancing .  Everyone will pick out their own favourites, because there aren’t any poor songs on this wax.  Check out “Crawling Through the Window” for a slower tune with all the integrity intact, or the strange Disco hop of “Systematic”.

A band can make or break based on the lead singer.  I really like the expressive and sincere singing style of Max Kerman.  He stands out from first listen.  It’s hard to say exactly what makes him stand out, but he certainly does.  A band to watch.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Big Bang Theory (1998)

scan_20170218HAREM SCAREM – Big Bang Theory (1998 Warner)

Never give up, never surrender!  That should be Harem Scarem’s motto.

As big-time success continued to elude them despite some great albums and singles, they evolved for the times.  1998’s Big Bang Theory is the first major step in a more commercial direction.  This meant incorporating popular pop-punk sounds:  short, fast simple melodic songs with minimal soloing.  “Turn Around” is a perfect example of this new direction.  There is a guitar solo, albeit brief.  These qualities don’t have to be a bad thing if they’re done right, and Harem Scarem did them exceptionally well.

“Wasted Time” sounds more like Karma Cleansing material from the last album, which is nice as an anchor.  “So Blind” combines the two worlds.  It has the speedy pop-punk vibe but with a traditional sounding Harem Scarem song.  “So Blind” is the first slam dunk of the CD, its irresistible verses nailing it straight to your head.  Peter Lesperance’s solo is short and to the point, yet still tasty.  Time for a ballad?  Check out “Without You”, a terrific and sweet little number with irresistible “bop bop bop bop” backup harmonies.

The second bonafide home run on Big Bang Theory is “Climb the Gate”. It’s in the same mold as the single “Die Off Hard” from the prior album, but brand new. The stuttery hook in the riff slays it. “Climb the Gate” is an essential song for any Harem Scarem collection. It is one of their catalog gems. It doesn’t get much better than “Climb the Gate” for these guys. If you don’t like this tune, you won’t like this album.

There’s a natural break for a side change here.  “What I Do” brings the focus back to the added 90s-isms.  Programmed percussion sounded modern at the time, mixed in with the real drums.  Decent song, but the next one up “Sometimes I Wish” is notable as being the lead vocal debut of bassist Barry Donaghy.  Its pop-punk chorus keeps it in synch with the album, and if you didn’t know it was someone else singing, you might never have noticed.

“New Religion” is the final power play goal of the album.  Another powerful little riff backs up one of Harry Hess’ strongest choruses.  He’s going to start his own religion, demi-gods, there’ll be none.  This unforgettable number ranks among their catchiest, but Pete Lesperance’s speedy picking gives it an aggression you don’t get otherwise.  But wait!  “Lying” keeps the speedometer in the red, with another power-pop killer.  Like the direction or not, at least Harem Scarem did it well.  It’s also notable that Big Bang Theory has only one ballad, which is the closer “In My State of Mind”.   This gentle track is just Harry Hess and a piano.  Ending an album with a ballad is a gamble, but not when you have the goods.

Big Bang Theory maintained the Harem Scarem momentum.  It delivered three standout must-haves and an album’s worth of good material.  It began to move Harem Scarem into a direction that some fans didn’t quite get.  More changes were ahead, some more drastic.  Big Bang Theory is a grey area between the future and the past, but important to the journey.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Live in Japan (1996)

scan_20170221HAREM SCAREM – Live in Japan (1996 WEA)

Three albums seems to be the industry standard before you can release a live one.  Harem Scarem followed suit and issued Live in Japan right after their third LP, Voice of Reason.  It was their first with new bassist Barry Donaghy, replacing Mike Gionet.

Live in Japan is a safe, fairly compact selection of tunes from the first three.  It could use less Voice of Reason, an album which never boasted the killer tunage from the first two.  In fact if one edited out “Blue”, “Candle”, “Breathing Sand”, and “Paint Thins”, you could make a pretty tight set.  Leave in “Warming a Frozen Rose” though; it was always the best of the Voice of Reason tracks.  You can also leave in the title track as it’s pretty heavy.  Most of the real firepower comes from Mood Swings.  The opening salvo of “Change Comes Around” and “Saviours Never Cry” are a rousing start to the proceedings.

Live, Harem Scarem were tight.  Their harmonies are handled easily by the four guys, all capable singers.  Harry Hess’ roar is not lessened by the road nor jet lag.  He’s as powerful here as he is on record.  This is necessary for amped rockers like “Had Enough” and “Empty Promises” from Mood Swings, both very strong.  There is only one song from the 1991 debut album Harem Scarem. Representing Harem’s early pop rock roots is “Slowly Slipping Away”; call it a power ballad or just call it a song.  It feels like it has too much guitar to be a ballad, so call it what you want: it’s great.  You can clearly hear Barry Donaghy’s contributions on backing vocals, an essential part of the song’s hookiness.  The live set closes on “No Justice”, the best known track from Mood Swings and an obvious crowd favourite.  The vocals are just outstanding from the whole band.

There are two bonus studio tracks on this album, a nice little unexpected treat.  The first, “Pardon My Zinger” is a peppy instrumental the likes of which you expect from guys like Joe Satriani.  Not so much for guitar trickery, just in terms of composition and hooks.  The last track is a new ballad called “More Than You’ll Ever Know”.  It has since been reissued on Japanese compilations such as Ballads and B-Side Collection, but this live album is the easiest place to get a copy.  As far as ballads go, this one’s not bad.

For fans who didn’t get into Voice of Reason the way they did the first two, Live in Japan offers a bumpy ride.   There is little question that the recorded performance is freaking amazing.  It just comes down to the songs and personal taste.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Live and Acoustic (1994 EP)

Part 1 of a Harem Scarem triple play!

live-and-acousticHAREM SCAREM – Live and Acoustic (1994 Warner EP, autographed cover pictured above)

Nothing wrong with releasing an EP in between albums, right?  Certainly not.  In Harem Scarem’s case, they collected some rare stuff and released it as an EP to tide fans over until album #3.  A strong album like Mood Swings deserved a little follow-up, to present some of its material live.  Recorded in Toronto, “No Justice”, “Hard to Love” and the instrumental “Mandy” kick it hard.  Here is the proof that Harem Scarem could pull of their thick harmonies live.  Having four singers in the band didn’t hurt, and Pete Lesperance’s guitar flourishes add the necessary pyrotechnics.  His solo spot on “Mandy” is a nice moment to spotlight a very under appreciated player.  Accompanied by drummer Darren Smith, “Mandy” is transformed live into something a little bigger.  “Hard to Love” is beefier than the version from the band’s first album, thanks in no small part to Smith’s ample backup singing.

The three live tracks and the included single edit of the ballad “If There Was a Time” are all taken from the CD single for that song.  “If There Was a Time” is one of the band’s most complex ballads, so an edit probably made it a bit more digestible to the masses.  For added value, two acoustic versions and one more single edit “Something to Say” from the first album) are also included.  The single for “If There Was a Time” is much rarer, so it was nice of Warner to release these things on something with better distribution, according to the back cover, this seems to have been done in collaboration with Warner Music Japan, which would explain why the it looks like a Japanese import from the side.

The acoustic tracks are fantastic:  “Jealousy” always seemed like it would be great in the fully-acoustic format.  It’s a great little acoustic jam, with Harry Hess showing off his impressive pipes much more so than the album version.  The other acoustic version is “Honestly”, which is cool, because that hit ballad was original arranged for piano and keyboards.  This version is done for acoustic guitars, which makes it less lush but more (pardon the pun) honest.

Looking back to 1994, it was reassuring to see new Harem Scarem product on the shelves at a time when there was no certainty for bands of their ilk.  Live and Acoustic was no exploit EP, as was unfortunately common.  It presented a smattering of rarities collected together in one easy package.  The single edits are not crucial, but it’s a seven song EP so it’s easy to look at these as just an added bonus.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Karma Cleansing (1997)

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.  

Today is Part 2 of a Harem Scarem double-header!

TORONTO.

scan_20161202HAREM SCAREM – Karma Cleansing (1997 Warner)

Against all odds Harem Scarem kept on givin’ er.  They were big in Japan but couldn’t get arrested in Canada anymore.  Their fourth album Believe (following the monumental Mood Swings and the experimental Voice of Reason) saw release in the Land of the Rising Sun, but in Canada the track listing was tweaked and put out as Karma Cleansing.  Original bassist Mike Gionet was out, replaced by Barry Donaghy who was also capable of singing lead.   And while three of the guys now had short hair, drummer Darren Smith stubbornly left his long.  Awesome.

Although their entire discography has highlights and standouts, many fans feel that Karma Cleansing was at once a return to sound of Mood Swings, and also the last Harem Scarem album before they began adding pop-punk elements.  There is nothing wrong with albums like Big Bang Theory and Rubber, and you can’t blame the guys for trying out some changes for greater success.  Fans who have stuck around since the start prefer the more progressive elements of Mood Swings and Karma Cleaning.

One can see parallels between Harem Scarem and bands such as Extreme and Van Hagar.  “Karma Cleansing”, the title track could have been an outtake from Van Halen’s Balance LP.  However, Harry Hess has a unique and powerful voice that is identifiably him.  When the band join him on those thick Harem Scarem harmonies, they hone in on that sound that makes them special.  “Karma Cleaning” kicks it off hard, melodically and with just a touch of exotic progressive influences.

One after another the strong songs roll on:  “Cages” hits the heavy buttons that you wanna hit to get the blood pumping fast.  Then “Hail, Hail” has Queen verses with pompous hard rock choruses.  And while one can hear that Harem Scarem continue to bring new and interesting elements to their songs, you can also identify that the guitar work is simplified.  It’s less busy, less showy.  This was a trend that continued into the next albums.

“Morning Grey” then conspires to bring Beatles sounds into the picture, but like its title, it’s dreary though hugely complex.  The adrenaline starts to flow again on “Die Off Hard”, a brilliant anthem that kicks every ass in the room.  Harem Scarem managed to write a few of these over the years, usually a couple per album.  Songs like “Die Off Hard” are immediate, but never get old.  Interestingly, the bridge to the song (“It’s been a long time coming…”) is ancient.  It appeared on Harem Scarem’s earliest demos before their first album as a part of other songs.  It only took four albums to finally use it!  Fortunately it found a home in “Die Off Hard”, making it one of the most luminous diamonds in the Harem Scarem catalogue.

This sounds like a nice place for a side break.  “Rain” is a light ballad, refreshing and cleansing the palette.  The mood gets darker on “I Won’t Be There”, somewhere between ballad and mournful dirge.  The band’s knack for melody keeps it all above the water: yet another brilliant song.  The beat gets harder on “Victim of Fate”.  Chunky guitars and a groovin’ foundation make this a winning combination.  Unmistakable Harem Scarem harmonies bring the chorus to the top level.  Then comes the Van Halen style boogie of “Believe”, an unexpected twist.  There are no words to describe how much this song kills it.  It also feels like it’s building up to an ending, as the side plays on.  That finale is “The Mirror”, a theatrical ballad which serves to end the album with a musical statement.  Not a ballad in the “radio hit” sense, but that it’s a slow track with light and shade, keyboards and emotional singing.

What an album.  You can see why the fans in Japan got it.  A lot of the rock artists that make it big in Japan are melodic rock bands with incredible musicians.  Harem Scarem fit that bill, and Karma Cleansing is another jewel in their crown.

4.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Mood Swings (1993)

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.  

Today is Part 1 of a Harem Scarem double-header!

TORONTO.

scan_20161201HAREM SCAREM – Mood Swings (1993 Warner)

Most bands have that one benchmark album.  You know the one: the album that all others are compared against.  Every time the band releases a new album, you usually hear, “Best album since blank!”  For Harem Scarem, Mood Swings is that album.  Only two records into their long and prolific career, and they already put out their magnum opus.

Harem Scarem were (and are) better than the average hard rock band.  With Pete Lesperance on guitar, they had a guy who was able to do Nuno-like shreddery.  They had two guys — Harry Hess and Darren Smith — who can sing lead.  They also had two great backing singers, Lesperance and Mike Gionet.  (Darren “DJ” Smith was even the oft-criticized frontman for Jake E. Lee’s solo band Red Dragon Cartel.)  Together though, the four guys were able to create Queen-like harmonies that added depth to the music.  Fact is, Harem Scarem put out a better album in 1993 than many of the top selling rock records of that year.  I saw the band live in early 1992, and they were still doing covers in their set at that time.  They really impressed with two unusual covers that showed off their talents:  “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.  Impressive stuff.  The prospects for the next album were promising.

As if to say “Check THIS shit out,”  Lesperance opens the CD with some pretty impressive licks, before diving head first into the riff to “Saviors Never Cry”.  (I’m sure Negan agrees with that sentiment.)  With the pomp and circumstance of a band trying to expand its horizons, “Saviors Never Cry” provides the thrills & chills.  Slight keyboard accents and tricky licks proved that this was not a band of pretty boys, but a group of musicians taking no prisoners.  When “No Justice” commences with those layered harmony vocals, your ass will be sore from all the kicking.  You can’t find a stronger chorus anywhere, but it’s not wimp rock.  As a first single, it drove home the band’s growth since LP #1. Their trajectory was much in line with their American counterparts, Extreme, who were growing album by album.

Backwards guitar lulls you in for “Stranger Than Love”, a radio ready track with more of the powerful patented Harem Scarem vocals.  Hess looks like a lion with that curly mane of his, and he roars like one too.  While songs such as “Stranger Than Love” are completely accessible to anyone, “Change Comes Around” is full throttle.  With the speedometer in the red, yet harmonies intact, Harem Scarem blazed the tarmac clean.  Unlike their grunge opponents, Harem Scarem focused on the positive in their lyrics.  “When all your faith is gone, don’t let it pull you under.  Change comes around, sail on to higher ground.”  Generic inspirational rock nonsense?  Absolutely.  Great fun to sing along with?  Definitely.

Harem Scarem are a diverse rock band, and “Jealousy” is the first change of pace.  A sparse arrangement allows the instruments to stand out more, which Lesperance uses to lay down bluesy lick after bluesy lick.  It’s not a blues song, but it’s influenced by blues.  It was a brilliant side closer, fading out and making way for the lead vocal debut of Darren Smith.  The drummer nails “Sentimental Blvd.”  He sounds a bit like the late Eric Carr (Kiss) on this pop rocker.  Boppy piano provides even more melodic backbone to an already strong song.

Lesperance is a talented enough player to earn an instrumental solo track, which is the ballad “Mandy”.  A good guitar instrumental should be both melodic and adventurous.  It should be memorable, but hopefully the soloist is pushing their own talents.  “Mandy” succeeds in both technique and songwriting.  It gives way to one of the heaviest album tracks, “Empty Promises”.  Without losing their sound or harmonies, Scarem’s “Empty Promises” manages to crack the concrete with a wrecking ball of heavy rock.

“If There Was a Time” is one of the most impressive ballads on the album, possessing both darkness and light sides.  Once again the harmonies sell it.  The musicianship isn’t busy but it’s eloquent just the same.  At this point the CD really seems to be building towards a conclusion.  The climax is acappella:  “Just Like I Planned” is as splendid as it is ingenious.  That’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” rubbing off on the album, I’ll wager.  How many rock bands outside Queen attempt full-length acappella songs?

You just need to blow off some steam at the end, and all this builds up to “Had Enough”, a bright track that reeks of Van Halen (or Hagar).  It has a great bottom end and some final thrilling chops from Pete Lesperance.  This completes the journey of Mood Swings, which is an apt title given the diversity of the songs.  Not only are the tunes all great numbers, but the album does have a start, middle and ending.  There are sentimental moments, and action packed interludes.  It’s more than the sum of its parts, and that’s one reason why Harem Scarem keep having to live up to it.

So much so, that they even went as far as re-recording Mood Swings.  According to Superdekes, in his review of Mood Swings, “In 2013 Harem wanted to release a 20th anniversary edition of Mood Swings, but their old record company said ‘Nope’. So Harry and Pete said ‘Fuck you’ and re-recorded Mood Swings with three extra new songs.”  That’s why today you can look for the original Mood Swings, or the reasonable facsimile and update, Mood Swings II.  It is so close to the original in sound and even lead vocals that conspiracy theorists believe that Harry Hess has indeed finally solved time travel.

No matter which version you ultimately choose, Mood Swings will continue to reveal new joys every time you play it.  If there is such a thing as a perfect hard rock record (smart, memorable, surprising, exemplary) then Mood Swings is one of them.

5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Honeymoon Suite – The Singles (1989)

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.  

NIAGARA FALLS.

scan_20161110HONEYMOON SUITE – The Singles (1989 Warner)

In the mood for some good old fashioned Canadian AOR rock, but don’t know where to turn?

Easily solved.  Just drive down to Niagara Falls and take a left at Honeymoon Suite.

The Singles compiles all their best tunes from the first three LPs (Honeymoon Suite, The Big Prize, Racing After Midnight).  If you are a native of the Great White North, chances are you have already heard all 12 of these tracks.  Honeymoon Suite have been radio staples ever since their 1984 debut single, “New Girl Now”.  Even when they dropped off the face of the earth for much of the 1990s and 2000s, they got consistent radio play and gigs.  T-Rev and I saw them at Lulu’s in the 1990s when they were supporting a live album.  Even though singer Johnnie Dee seemed a lil’ tipsy they pulled out all the stops for an enjoyable gig.

When Honeymoon Suite kicked it off with “New Girl Now”, they tapped into a rock/new wave hybrid that earned them tons of video play in Canada.  Derry Grehan was (and is) a fine guitarist, certainly one of the most respected in the Great White North.  He gave the band the rock credibility they needed, meanwhile Johnny Dee had the pipes and the heartthrob looks.  The 80s angst of “Burning in Love” landed them another hit, with one foot a little more firmly in the rock arena. Bonus points for the very 80’s chorus echo. “I am still (still! still! still!) a lonely man burning in love,” sings Dee, and you know many ladies swooned.  The sound is not too distant from the Bon Jovi of the same period, burning up the clubs many miles away in New Jersey.


Filmed on location in Niagara Falls Ontario

“Stay in the Light” captures the same vibe, a keyboard-y tension with guitars providing the edge.  A sharp rhythm and indelible chorus keeps “Stay in the Light” burning in your memory long after it ceased playing.  “Wave Babies” is a bit hokey but that hasn’t kept it from airplay 30 years later.

Album #2, The Big Prize, edged their sound further into keyboard pop, which provided more hits but also turned some fans off.  “Feel It Again” maintained the guitars without straying too far, but the ballad anthem “What Does It Take” was a full-on 80s pop ballad.  The band had some serious firepower in the studio control room this time out.  The success of the first album gave them a shot with Bruce Fairbairn, and a young engineer named Bob Rock.  You can hear their impact in the improved sound of the drums, and the sonic clarity overall.  The production values help make “What Does It Take” palatable, but there is too much syrup for some.  “Bad Attitude” has some crunch but it’s overshadowed by those omnipresent keyboards.

Racing After Midnight returned rock to the forefront.  There were a couple lineup changes including on the keyboards.  The captain’s chair was manned this time by veteran Van Halen producer Ted Templeman.  With him they recorded “Lethal Weapon” for the film soundtrack of the same name.  Because it was written by Michael Kamen for a movie, we can forgive Honeymoon Suite for another soft rock ballad.  The guitar laden “Love Changes Everything” was a more proper introduction to the new album.  Derry has a chance to show off his enviable chops at the start, and has a good crunchy sound.  One of Honeymoon Suite’s most memorable choruses made it easy to love.  “Lookin’ Out for Number One” was equally powerful, especially when it comes to Derry Grehan’s impeccable shreddery.

Any good greatest hits album needs new material.  The Singles had two new songs:  big hit “Still Loving You”, and “Long Way”.  For a big anthemic ballad, “Still Loving You” nails it with class.  “Long Way” finishes it with a dark edgy acoustic vibe.  These two tracks do not negate the album title The Singles, because both were released as singles.

Factor in some great liner notes and lots of band photos, and The Singles is a pretty easy purchase to justify.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Kim Mitchell – Aural Fixations (1992)

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.  

SARNIA.

scan_20170128KIM MITCHELL – Aural Fixations (1992 Alert)

Over the course of his solo career, Kim Mitchell kept on givin’ ‘er even though some albums are cloudy in the collective memory today.  Aural Fixations made less of a hullabaloo than Rockland, and many of its tracks are forgotten by the Canuck masses.  Public amnesia does happen to deserving songs sometimes, and there are a few on Aural Fixations that merit dusting off.

Kim really made a niche of good time summer party songs:  “Rock N’ Roll Duty”, “I Am A Wild Party”, “Lager and Ale”.  “World’s Such a Wonder” assumed that duty on Aural Fixations.  His picking is impeccable, but fans in the know noticed something was “off”.  The quirky poetry of Pye Dubois was gone; he and Kim had a falling out during Rockland.  Others such as Moe Berg (The Pursuit of Happiness – review at Boppin’s Blog) and Andy Curran (Coney Hatch – review at Stick It In Your Ear) filled the lyrical void instead.  This meant that one of the qualities that made Kim special, Pye’s unique wording, was gone.  Also departed was bassist/singer Peter Fredette.  Peter still provided backing vocals for this album.  That said, most in the Great White North probably did not notice or care.

“Big Smoke” is a bluesy grind, good stuff for guitar enthusiasts.  A couple upbeat tracks got radio play, such as “Hullabaloo” and “Find the Will”.  Both sound like what we had come to expect from Kim Mitchell:  rock and roll guitars, big hooks, and choruses built for shoutin’ along to.  The most outstanding one of the bunch is “Hullabaloo”, a real Canadian good time summer song.

“There’s a lot weekend doin’ on this hullabaloo,
Honey’s on the beaches, Monday back in old ‘T.O.’,
Showin’ off her sunburn.”

The song is perfect from the ground up. Verses, bridges and choruses all line up for one quintessential Kim Mitchell classic. “Take a walk on that wild guitar, it’s such a wild guitar…”

Aural Fixation also shifted towards lighter sounds, perhaps a bit too far.  “Pure as Gold” is the best of the softies, a quiet, slow smouldering bluesy ballad.  “Some Folks” steers right into the pasture, a keyboardy country ballad that could have been left in the barn.  The twangy “America” isn’t as bad.  It carved out another hit video, following in the footsteps “Easy to Tame” (1986).  Other tracks just simmer without ever really cooking:  “There’s a Story”, “Flames”, “Dreamer”.  The musicianship is above reproach, but the songs don’t all meet expectations.  “Dog and a Bone” has the rock, but the chorus lacks impact.

One of the most interesting tracks is the final one, an instrumental called “Honey Forget Those Blues”. A total of six guitar players are credited on it, creating a massive guitar harmony part. It sounds like a guitar orchestra playing the blues and it’s brilliant. Its cheeky creativity hearkens back to the glory days of Max Webster. It is in fact Kim’s first instrumental song as a solo artist.

Aural Fixations has those sparks of brilliance that makes you wish it consistent throughout.  “Hullabaloo”, “World’s Such a Wonder”, “Find the Will” and “Honey Forget Those Blues” could all be on a hypothetical Kim Mitchell “box set”.  Is that enough to add this album to your collection?

2.5/5 stars

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.