greg fraser

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

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

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

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

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

ITS A BUSINESS DOING PLEASURE_0003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/5 stars

Advertisements

REVIEW: Brighton Rock – Take a Deep Breath (1988)

BR TADB_0001BRIGHTON ROCK – Take A Deep Breath (1988 WEA)

Legend has it that Brighton Rock hated this album. Singer Gerald McGhee was on record saying that record company pressure forced his band to soften up the songs and his singing style. Yet, Take A Deep Breath is actually an excellent 80’s rock album, with unusual quality. Everything you loved about 80’s rock is here.

Brighton Rock’s sound was different from the crop of hair bands at the time. They always had a classier feel in their commercial rock. Witness, from the first LP, “We Came to Rock”. The synth strings made it different, a little more refined. Johnny Roger’s tasteful keyboard parts have always provided an interesting background texture to their vocal and guitar melodies. Gerald McGhee’s vocals were emotional and he had a powerful range. On this album, he doesn’t scream (that record company pressure), but that’s OK. It works out fine with these songs. His voice is strong enough, he didn’t need to show off how high he could go.

Strong songs:

  • “Can’t Stop The Earth From Shaking” (poppy, catchy and upbeat rocker)
  • “Outlaw” (dark and moody, great keyboards providing background texture)
  • “Rebels With A Cause” (guitars upfront, a good groove)
  • “Power Overload” (another guitar rocker with a great shout-chorus)
  • “Who’s Foolin’ Who” (best song on the album, sounds like we have some fretless bass here, a moody dark rocker)
  • “Love Slips Away” (dark and moody ballad, second best track here)
  • “Unleash The Rage” (the dark, metallic song that sounds more like the rockers on the first album)

Drivel:

  • “One More Try” (the unfortunate first single, a ballad…look at those doe eyes!)
  • “Ride the Rainbow” (the pop song Gerald says he wished he never wrote)

As you can tell, dark moods dominate Take A Deep Breath. You could probably tell that by the cover. Hugh Syme (best known for his work with Rush, although he’s also done Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Queensryche, and dozens more) did the picture of the little boy with the gasmask in the post-nuclear landscape. Because of this dark feel, Take A Deep Breath is unlike most of the pop rock records out at the time. Its darkness allows it to stand up to scrutiny today. When Brighton Rock ditched keyboardist Johnny Rogers so they could “heavy it up” for their next album Love Machine, it didn’t work. They lost that special quality and became just another band trying to sound like it was from LA.

Don’t listen to Gerald McGhee: Take A Deep Breath was an album for him to be proud of, not embarrassed by. It was the high point of this band’s discography.  Heck, Jack Richardson produced it — the same guy who recorded Universal Juveniles and the better Guess Who albums.   There is a level of quality here underneath the keyboards that is audible, even today.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Brighton Rock – Brighton Rock (EP)

BRIGHTON ROCK – Brighton Rock (1985 Flying Fist EP)

I first turned onto this band in the 10th grade.  MuchMusic kept playing the video for “We Came to Rock”.  It had a pop rock vibe to it, but the singer erased any accusations of being pop.  The screams!  The unholy screams!  Yeah!  That was definitely hard rock territory!

The singer’s name is Gerald McGhee and the band is Brighton Rock.  There’s a connection to the Record Store Tales, which is that later on McGhee started a music distribution company called Isotope Records and we used them as a supplier once in a while.  My boss told me that Gerry still had the hair.  (According to M.E.A.T Magazine he was also one of two Canadian singers to audition for Motley Crue in 1992, the other being Sebastian Bach.)

The selling feature of this band for me was the incredible voice of McGhee.  I’d never heard screaming like this before!  I remember my highschool classmates couldn’t handle it, the screams were too much for them.  But it’s not gratuitous; McGhee throws in screams strategically at key points to blow you to the wall.

Not that McGhee is the only talent in Brighton Rock.  Also notable is guitarist Greg Fraser, who ended up in Helix in 1993, and today fronts the Frase Gang with Brighton Rock bassist Stevie Skreebs.

BRIGHTON 5Before they released their excellent debut album Young, Wild and Free, Brighton Rock completed a four song EP, which is what we’re talking about today.  It’s no Young, Wild and Free, but we’ll be talking about that album (and Take A Deep Breath) in the weeks to come.   The EP Brighton Rock is a less-honed taster, but something I’d sought to own for a long time.  It’s never been released on CD, and contains one song (“The Fools Waltz”) that isn’t on any Brighton Rock album.  Bob had this on cassette when we were kids, but I finally recently picked up a sealed vinyl on eBay for dirt cheap.

Brighton Rock and their debut album contain the same opening song:  “Young, Wild and Free”.  This early version is musically identical but lacks the oomph.  Michael Wagener produced the album, and no doubt helped by his incredible work with Accept, got way more intense screams out of McGhee.  The EP however is produced by somebody named Steve Vaughan (with one track by Jack Richardson).

The second track is “Assault Attack”, which as the title implies is a combat zone of hooky guitars and thunderous toms.  Miles away from the ballady stuff like “One More Try” that the band would later become known for.  Song three is “Barricade”, which has a really cool and tricky sounding guitar solo by Greg Fraser.  It’s a heavy rocker., but the closing song “The Fools Waltz” eases up on the pace a tad.  It would be a stretch to call it a ballad.  It’s more like a Canadian radio rock song.

Of note:  the Brighton Rock EP is the only release with original keyboardist Martin Victor.

3/5 stars

Part 118: Famous Persons

RECORD STORE TALES PART 118:  Famous Persons

People sometimes ask me, “LeBrain, did you ever meet anybody famous through your store?”  I wish that happened more often.  As it stands my list is pretty meager.  I met Dave McDonald, the local weather man.  He wanted in the store early one day.

My meager list:

1. London, Ontario’s “Snake the Tattoo Man”, whose biggest claim to fame was appearing on Phil Donahue, and in a Helix video (“Running Wild in the 21st Century”).  He thought he deserved a discount on CD’s because, as per his words:  “I’m the Tattoo Man”.

2. Country singer Beverley Mahood, a little bit after the initial fame.  She’d worked with David Foster in the past.  She was a regular.  One time she came in and held up her CD.  “That’s me!” she said.  I felt like saying, “Yup…and that’s you in the bargain bin at $4.99, too!”

3. Grammy Award winning Polka King Walter Ostenek, who I’m told is a bit of a pompous ass.  I talked about him in a previous installment.

4. Former Helix and Saga drummer Brian Doerner, who was a super nice guy that didn’t buy anything on that visit.  However I got some drum sticks and autographs out of him later on!

5. The dad of ex-Helix and Brighton Rock guitarist Greg “Shredder” Fraser.  Nice, chatty guy.  Very proud of his son.

6. Blue Rodeo slide guitarist Bob Egan, who never said much of anything.  Just looked around.  I wasn’t sure it was him until I heard that he lived in town, and sure enough, it was Bob Egan.  I believe today he occassionally collaborates with one of our store managers.

That’s about it.  This isn’t exactly a booming metropolis, and we attracted the bare minimum of people with any sort of fame.  During my 20’s, I used to fantasize that singer songwriter Dayna Manning who lived in Stratford would pop in, and we’d meet.  That never happened.

Instead, I had Snake the Tattoo Man coming in.  Good ol’ T-Rev ran into him first.  He said to Snake, “If you wanna talk to a huge Helix fan, talk to Mike.”  So he made a trip specifically to talk to me.  What Trevor failed to get through Snake’s head is that I was a huge Helix fan, not a huge Snake the Tattoo Man fan.  So Snake walked in trying to sell me Snake merch!  I disappointed him by not buying one of his autographed glossy photos.

“Do you want to buy a picture of me with Phil Donahue?  I signed it for you.  $10.  Me and Donahue.  I also have me and Helix.  I’ll give you a deal if you buy five.”

Thanks Trev.  That was such a wonderful experience!