HELIX – 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.
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.