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HELIX – Vagabond Bones (2009 Universal)
2009 was an exciting time to be a Helix fan. 15-odd years of rotating lineups kept the band alive and in the clubs, but it was hard to grow attached to any band members when they only stayed for a couple years and were off elsewhere. Helix main man Brian Vollmer had always maintained strong ties with former members, and guys like Brent Doerner often showed up on albums, or in the audience at local Helix shows. It was still a surprise when Doerner, drummer Greg “Fritz” Hinz, and bassist Daryl Gray all returned to the Helix lineup. This completed the classic 80’s version of the band, or at least the surviving members thereof. Paul Hackman was killed in 1993 in a tragic auto accident. Replacing him in the lineup was Kaleb “Duckman” Duck, who had previously worked with Brent.
Vollmer was working on a new album (originally called It’s Rock Science, NOT Rocket Science!), writing with his partners Sean Kelly and Moe Berg (The Pursuit of Happiness). The final product entitled Vagabond Bones has a variety of different players on it. Former Helix members Brent “Ned” Niemi and Rob MacEachern play drums, and guitar maestro Kelly (also briefly a Helix member) contributed to guitar and bass. Also on the CD is Steve Georgakopoulos who played on a few past Helix albums. You’d think it would be a case of “too many cooks” in the kitchen. That’s not the case; Vollmer and Co. brewed a potent mixture of songs, with all the attitude and quality that you have come to expect from this band.
Immediately you’re hit over the head by the slick production work by Vollmer, Kelly and Aaron Murray. “The Animal Inside (Won’t Be Denied)” has the stamps of both Helix and Sean Kelly all over it, from the absurdly catchy chorus to the shredding solos. Vollmer sings powerfully, but his voice has so much depth character from years of training and road work. Very few singers from the 70’s still sound the same, but Brian Vollmer is damn close! “Go Hard or Go Home” has another powerful chorus, plus great catchy riff, and fun lyrics. “Go hard, or go home, take your little whiny candy ass and go.” Considering all that Helix has been through, Vollmer surely knows only the strong survive. “No short cuts, no sweet deals,” he sings and he knows it! The title track “Vagabond Bones” makes it three great songs in a row. It’s an instantly likeable good time hard rock boogie.
Helix really developed a knack for melody as they grew. One of the most pop moments is “Monday Morning Meltdown”, a song that Brian compared to Cheap Trick in terms of style. You can hear it in the choruses, but it’s just a great pop rock song with another great Sean Kelly riff holding down the fort. Very different for Helix, and very good.
Onto a fast vintage Van Halen style shuffle, “When The Bitter’s Got The Better Of You” is the fifth straight up great song in a row. It too is very different for Helix. It continues a theme of “down on your luck” songs, but always with a message to keep on givin’ ‘er. That holds true on “Hung Over But Still Hanging In”, a sleeze rock duet with Russ Dwarf of Killer Dwarfs. If you need a hard rocking party song, then this is what you want. It has the groove, the fun, and the lyrics so just hoist them wobbly-pops and rock on!
My personal favourite song has always been “Best Mistake I Never Made”. It has a classic 70’s rock aura, an acoustic guitar, and if I had to compare it to something else it would be Helix’s excellent 1992 single “That Day Is Gonna Come”. That’s a trip down memory lane that I don’t mind taking. “Make ‘Em Dance” is a fast stomper with a beat that strikes me as almost Disco. It just rages though, I wouldn’t try dancing to it until you want to break your neck!
Ending the album on a funky rock vibe is “Jack it Up”. This is a really interesting song, because I used to hate it. You may have to let it grow on you because, like much of this album, it’s forging new territory for Helix. It’s still great party rock, but just a little laid back.
With sharp production, Vagabond Bones was certainly the best sounding Helix album, and the best overall in many a year. And that’s saying something, because 2007’s The Power Of Rock And Roll was very, very strong. Hearing this album for the first time, I just smiled. I had to. Helix were back and pretty much better than ever.