Denny Balicki

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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REVIEW: Helix – half-ALIVE (1998)

“Ain’t no rest for the Helix band!” – Brian Vollmer

HELIX – half-ALIVE (1998 DeRock)

The 90’s weren’t a kind decade to Helix. Longtime guitarist Paul Hackman was killed in a 1992 auto accident. Without any Helix tracks written for a new album, Brian Vollmer chose to reconceive his in-the-works solo album as a Helix one, It’s a Business Doing Pleasure. The largely acoustic leanings of that (excellent) album didn’t fit with the overall Helix sound, and the album was tragically ignored. It would be five years before half-ALIVE finally followed it.

With their original heavy rock sound intact, Helix came roaring back with this mostly live, partly studio recording. With some live gigs recorded, as well as a handful of unreleased and unfinished new songs, half-ALIVE maybe should have been called one-third-ALIVE. Either way, it rocks. If you’ve seen this band live, then you know how much they kick it on stage.

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After the death of Paul Hackman, it seemed like Helix became more a “project” than a band, with rotating members around the nucleus of Brian Vollmer (vocals) and Daryl Gray (bass). On half-ALIVE, you will hear appearances from members such as Greg “Fritz” Hinz (drums), Paul Hackman and Dr. Doerner (guitars), and even a song written by Mike Uzelac, their bass player when they signed to Capitol Records  (who was actually a missing person for a long time). In addition, newer members like drummer Glen “Archie” Gamble and guitarists Denny Balicki, Gary Borden, Rick Mead and Mark Chichkan all contribute. These guys helped keep Helix going as a touring entity in the 90’s.  Gamble in particular, since he was in the band for almost a whole decade.

Could the Helix of the 90’s cut it as much as the classic 80’s band? The five studio tracks roar “yes”! A far cry from the acoustic rock of It’s a Business Doing Pleasure, this is a return to the hard rock/metal sounds of Walkin’ the Razor’s Edge. Best tracks among the studio crop are “Wrecking Ball”, Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” and a ballad called “The Same Room” (the single).  “Big Bang Boom” is the only one I do not care for.  The rest are decent songs, not necessarily career highlights, but solid.  Of course, Vollmer’s voice is in fine form.  It always is.  No matter what Helix do on an album, you can count on Brian’s vocals sounding as they always has.  That’s his Bel Canto training.

Video shoot for the unreleased “The Same Room” clip

From there we go to the live material. Virtually all the hits are present (“Rock You”, “Running Wild In The 21st Century”, “Good To The Last Drop”, “Heavy Metal Love”, “Wild In The Streets”, etc.) There’s also a new acoustic composition called “Smile”, written and performed by Gary Borden. What really sets this live stuff apart from their studio albums is Vollmer’s friendly on-stage banter. As he relates a tale of staying in a hotel in Seaforth Ontario (population at the time: less than 2000), you’ll laugh along, especially if you’ve been there!  Equally good is Brian’s mid-song speech in “No Rest for the Wicked”. (Hits that are missing include “The Kids are all Shakin'”.)

The live songs were taken from various tours, 1992-1997, so there are a variety of material and band members (as noted above). Yet there’s a cohesiveness that similar live albums lack. The songs are mixed together and flow seamlessly, and you really can’t hear the five years passing. The sound is hard, clear, and rocking, and begs the question: “What took them five years to release this stuff?” I guess it was circumstance.  It had nothing to do with quality, that’s for sure.  The performances are raw though, and it doesn’t sound like much in terms of overdubs was done to the recordings.

My only real complaint about this otherwise competent live album is the cheesy cover art. Up close, it kind of looks cheap and crappy. And Brian’s haircut…I’m sorry man! I’ve met Brian and he was so cool and kind, so I hate to say bad things, but yeah…I’m glad you grew your hair back man!

4/5 stars

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HELIX HA_0004Below:  Promo CD single for “The Same Room”.