The Early Years

Best of 2020 Part 5: Nigel Tufnel Top Ten Albums and More of 2020

2020 may have sucked, but the music didn’t.  This year I bought and reviewed more new releases than ever before, which I narrowed down to the Nigel Tufnel Top Ten studio albums of 2020 listed below.

I would like to dedicate this list to my good pal Uncle Meat who originated the concept of a “Nigen Tufnel Top Ten” earlier this year.  It has become our thing.

BEST ALBUMS OF 2020

11. Now or Never – III

10. Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo

9. Sven Gali – 3 (EP)

8. Kim Mitchel – The Big Fantasize

7. Corey Taylor – CMFT

6. Stryper – Even the Devil Believes

5. Harem Scarem – Change the World

4. Dennis DeYoung – 26 East Vol 1

3. AC/DC – Power Up

2. Deep Purple – Whoosh!

1. Storm Force – Age of Fear

 

Storm Force’s debut album goes straight to #1 on their very first appearance!  No surprise here.  I’ve been raving about this disc since February and I owe it to Superdekes for putting these guys on my radar in the first place.  This is a well-deserved #1.  Age of Fear is an uplifting album with depth.  It’s a thoughtful, heart-pounding blast of classic hard rock.

Deep Purple’s Whoosh! and AC/DC’s PWRUP prove two things:  old dogs that both learn and don’t learn new tricks can all be champions.  (I call this theory “Schrödinger’s Dog”.) Deep Purple’s growth continues while AC/DC managed to tap into the vein of success that always worked for them.  Both records deserve their spots in the Top 3.

It was a thrill for me to learn that Dennis DeYoung both read and enjoyed my review of his newest album 26 East Vol 1.  It’s a terrific, Styx-like conceptual work that will please the old fans.  As will the new albums by Harem Scarem and Stryper, who didn’t stray far from their successful classic hard rock formulas.  Kim Mitchell and Sven Gali on the other hand dared to be different.  Kim went laid back and acoustic, while Sven Gali went with their heaviest uninhibited inclinations.  As for Mr. Bungle, it has been 21 years since their last album California.  All four Bungle studio albums are completely different from one another — four different genres.  For The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny, they teamed up with Scott Ian and Dave Lombardo to re-record their first thrash metal demo tape.  And it could be their best album since the self-titled debut in 1991.  Not bad for a bunch of songs they wrote in highschool.

Corey “Mother Fuckin'” Taylor makes his debut on any list of mine with his solo album CMFT.  It’s a surprising collection of commercial hard rockin’ tunes.  Also appearing for the first time is Now Or Never (NoN) with their third album called III, featuring singer Steph Honde.  It’s an excellent, dramatic metal album with light and shade.


BONUS LISTS

Most disappointing:  Ozzy Osbourne – Ordinary Man

Song of the year:  LeBrain Train by T-Bone Erickson

Single of the Year:  Mammoth WVH – “Distance”

Ultimately whether or not you liked the new Ozzy, its success or failure falls at the feet of producer/guitarist Andrew Watt.  He is already working on the next Ozzy album, so….

Huge thanks to T-Bone Erickson for the “LeBrain Train” theme song, which amazingly and unexpectedly became the song of the year in 2020!  Weird how that happened.  No bias here I assure you.

Finally, Wolfgang Van Halen finally released his first solo music under the name Mammoth WVH.  The non-album single “Distance” is dedicated to his late father Eddie.  Though musically it’s a modern power ballad, the lyrics and especially the music video evoke serious emotion.  Well done Wolfgang.  Can’t wait to check out his album in 2021.


TOP FIVE LIVE OR COMPILATION ALBUMS IN 2020

5. Metallica – S&M2

4. Thin Lizzy – Rock Legends

3. Sloan – B Sides Win Vol. 1 1992-1997

2. Def Leppard – The Early Years 78-81

1. Iron Maiden – Nights of the Dead – Legacy of the Beast

There were a lot of cool rock releases in 2020, so we need more lists!  Of course the brilliant new live Maiden deserved some loving attention.  Meanwhile, Sloan, Def Leppard and Thin Lizzy have continued to put out quality collections of rarities & unreleased material, well worth the time and money you’ll spend on them.  The Sloan collection is a vinyl exclusive and the first in a series of LPs re-releasing some of their B-sides and non-album and bonus tracks.  Finally, Metallica delivered the goods even without Michael Kamen on S&M2, a very different live set than the first S&M.  That’s the way to do it!


BEST LOCKDOWN SINGLE

5. Queen + Adam Lambert – “You Are the Champions”

4. Scorpions – “Sign of Hope”

3. Marillion – “Made Again 2020”

2. Marillion – “Easter 2020”

1. Alice Cooper – “Don’t Give Up”


 

A LOOK AHEAD AT 2021

It’s naive to assume that major touring and concerts will return in 2021.  This appears highly optimistic at present, with Covid still ravaging the landscape and vaccinations only just beginning.  Instead of looking ahead at things like the resuming Kiss tour, or the Motley Crue reunion, we should continue to put our faith in new music.

Accept have a new album due January 15 intriguingly titled Too Mean to Die.  It is their first without bassist Peter Baltes.  Steven Wilson has a new record out at the end of that month.  In February we get new Foo Fighters, The Pretty Reckless, Willie Nelson and Alice Cooper.  Greta Van Fleet, Weezer, Rob Zombie, Ringo Starr, and Thunder will be back soon too.  Many other bands are writing and recording without an announced due date.  Ghost, Marillion, Scorpions, Megadeth and even Ratt are hard at work to make next year suck a little less.  Support the bands by buying the music.

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Helix – White Lace & Black Leather (1981 H&S)

Part two of a Helix three-fer!

HELIX – White Lace & Black Leather (1981 H&S)

Having already done it once themselves, why not do it again?  Once again Helix with manager Bill Seip raised the funds to record an independent album.  Drummer Brian Doerner was gone, replaced by Leo Niebudek.  On bass, Keith “Bert” Zurbrigg hung around long enough to record one new song (“It’s Too Late”).  He was replaced by the young, talented and troubled Mike Uzelac.  He was only 17 when he first joined Helix.  He told them he was 19.

Sticking to the same formula as Breaking Loose, there is really no deviation in sound.  Some members have changed but little else.  The band still managed to come up with enough good material to fill an album to follow the first.  I don’t know if the track “Breaking Loose” was a leftover from the first album or not, but quality-wise there is nothing “leftover” about it.  I would call it a typical Helix party rocker: a fast one, often used back in the day to open their sets.  The lyrics are the kind of thing that Helix were about:  the weekend!

“4 O’clock Friday afternoon,
Punch that time clock, now you’ll be home soon,
Your week’s all done, now it’s time to roll,
You’re like a time bomb about to explode.”

Vollmer reminds us “You only got two days, so make it last,” a philosophy I heartily agree with.  Brent Doerner and Paul Hackman lay down a pair of ripping guitar solos for the icing on the cake.  Then “It’s Too Late” is the kind of melodic mid-tempo rocker that their first album was loaded with.  Surely something like “It’s Too Late” could have worked on the radio, and I think that was the intent.  That takes away nothing from the song, which is classy with quality.

“Long Distance Heartbreak” at almost seven minutes is Helix’s longest song ever.  In the early days they tended to experiment with their songwriting, coming up with the odd mini-epic.  Like many Helix classics, this one reads as a road song.  Thin Lizzy they were not, but Vollmer captures the heartbreak in their lyrics while Doerner and Hackman take care of the guitar drama.

Helix get even more serious for a moment with “Time For a Change”, and “Hangman’s Tree” also brings a few issues to the table.  “Time For a Change” is sadly even more valid today.

“Everyday there’s a new headline,
Another war and another lie,
When will we learn to stop this killing while we can?”

It’s interesting that Helix didn’t seem to know their direction yet, but still infused every song with their bare honesty.  They were riding a line between a party band and a more serious, more experimental rock band.  In the end they chose the route that they were intended for, but that takes nothing away from these early songs.  “Time For a Change” and “Hangman’s Tree” are unexpectedly ambitious for a young bar band from Canada.  In each case, it is the guitar work that elevates the songs.

WHITE LACE

“It’s What I Wanted” lightens the mood, a mid-tempo rocker with a great melody. I don’t know why it is, but these melodic rock songs really sound like home to me. They conjure images of a more innocent time, when the world seemed smaller to me. They capture and bring back hazy, happy pictures of Kitchener in the late 70’s.

Brent Doener comes back with his only lead vocal on the track “Mainline”. Sounds like Brent was having no trouble getting satisfaction back then. “She keeps me happy, what can I say?” he sings, lamenting that his lady keeps him up all night and late for work in the morning! “Pick up my cheque at the end of the day, I find I’m down a couple hours’ pay.” So in essence, “Mainline” is about choices. You can either have tons and tons of sex at all hours of the day, or get to work on time. It’s your choice, people!

“Women, Whiskey & Sin” is pretty simple in its message. This smoking track is more like Helix would evolve on later albums like No Rest For the Wicked. “Ain’t no laws to hold us back on a Saturday night,” sings Brian Vollmer. (Hate to tell ya Brian, there actually are laws about some of the things you boys were doing back in the day!) Then “Thoughts That Bleed” is a proggy, slow closer with lots of dynamics, similar to how Helix ended the first album with “Wish I Could Be There”.

Ultimately there is no question that Helix made the right move to drop some of these softer, more progressive moments and focus on the heavy metal side of their sound. It got them signed to Capitol Records and secured their biggest hits. That leaves these first two albums as evidence of an earlier, more naive Helix willing to stretch out a bit more.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Helix – Breaking Loose (1979 H&S)

Part one of a Helix three-fer!

IMG_20150605_184257HELIX – Breaking Loose (1979 H&S)

Long before they gave you an ‘R’, Helix earned a reputation as the hardest working band in Canada, year after year in the cold dirty clubs of the Great White North.  Formed in 1974, Helix had a number of lineup changes before they even recorded their debut.  If you want to get technical about it, even on their first album, Helix only had two remaining original members in singer Brian Vollmer and bassist Keith “Bert” Zurbrigg.  Helix really solidified when they eventually acquired guitarist Paul Hackman, and twin brothers Brent (guitar) and Brian Doerner (drums).

Manager Bill Seip, who eventually guided Helix to a major label deal with Capitol Records in the early 80’s, was an early believer.  Under his leadership, they managed to scrape together enough cash to record an independent album — something very few bands did back then.  They released it on their own “H&S Records”, for Helix & Seip.  What is remarkable about the album they created, Breaking Loose, is how great it still is today.  I know people, very respected in the local rock community, who will tell you this is Helix’s best album.

Breaking Loose isn’t metal, but what it lacks in firepower is made up for in class, ambition and natural talent.  Brian Doerner is one of the most respected drummers around, having acquired an extensive discography over the decades.  As for Brent Doener and Paul Hackman, together they forged a guitar partnership that would take them up to the big leagues.  They are not Downing & Tipton, nor are they Smith & Murray.  Doerner & Hackman (R.I.P.) were in a hard rocking bar band, and Helix were damn good for their demographic.  What they brought to the table was ability, but not flash.  Both were capable of writing songs on their own, as the writing credits on Breaking Loose attest to.

Having toured extensively, Helix worked up a number of originals.  The entire album is written by the trio of Doerner, Hackman and Vollmer, in various permutations.   Even then, Brian Vollmer had a remarkable voice: power with just a tiny bit of grit, but also the ability to sing clean.  The production on the album is flat by today’s standards, but perspective and context are everything.  For a self-financed album in 1979, it sounds incredible!  Though it lacks the oomph of Helix today, it’s perfectly listenable.

Starting with the mid-tempo “I Could Never Leave”, Helix right away hit you right off the bat with one of their catchiest tunes.  You’ll notice the nice backing vocals, Brent being particularly audible.  “Don’t Hide Your Love” has a similar vibe, that being hard rock with an emphasis on catchy melodies.  Maybe Helix were aiming for the radio, but the songs aren’t wimpy by any stretch.

“Down in the City” is a Vollmer ballad, and a pretty good one too.  The lyrics are cringe-worthy, but the music had ambition.  It starts as a pretty, folky acoustic song and eventually builds with more guitars into something different.  Plenty of guitars to go around.  Then like night and day it’s onto “Crazy Women”, written and vocalized by Brent, otherwise known as “The Doctor”.  Doerner has a quirkier writing style, which is a good thing, because it helped Helix stand out a little more from the pack.  “Crazy Women” has plenty of guitars of course, but also has a neat drunken stumble to it.

Brent closed side one, and opened side two with a legendary song that helped them get a following on the west coast: “Billy Oxygen”. It’s still a favourite to this day, a short fast rocker about a guy named Billy Oxygen, captain of a starship called an ES-335, looking to meet some aliens to party with. Out of this world? Wait until you hear the band playing the shit out of it! Brian’s drumming reminds me of a good jazz drummer — fast, accurate, and hard! Keith Zurbrigg throws down a little bass, playing off with Brent and Paul in a three-way solo for the ages.

If you don’t like “Billy Oxygen”, then I’m not sure if we can be friends. The impact this song had on me cannot really be measured, as I played it on repeat ad-nauseum. As I recounted in Record Store Tales Part 2 (!), this tune even inspired me to do some writing of my own:

When I was in University I tried my hand at bad, bad science fiction short stories. Suffice to say, none of it survives today with good reason. However, Helix had a little moment in my fiction: My spaceship was called an ES-335, named after Billy Oxygen’s ship in the song. And only a little while ago did I learn that ES-335 wasn’t the name of a spaceship at all. An ES-335 was a Gibson guitar.

“Here I Go Again” is not the Whitesnake song, but another one of those melodic rock songs that seemed a bit contrived to get some radio play.  That’s just speculation on my part, but I’m glad it was “Billy Oxygen” that did get the airplay.  That’s not to say anything negative about the fine “Here I Go Again”.  There isn’t a weak song on this album, but two other highlights are definitely “You’re A Woman Now”, featuring female backing vocals and a structure that builds into something dramatic, as if it’s Helix’s own “Stairway To Heaven”. “Wish I Could Be There” brings back the outer space theme, and has acoustic and heavy sections, sort of Helix’s foray into prog rock.

I should note that both “Wish I Could Be There” and “Billy Oxygen” made the Sausagefest countdown a few years ago, a lofty achievement indeed.  “Billy” even cracked the top five.  Musical scholar Scotty Geffros holds both songs in high esteem, and voted for them accordingly, as did I.  Our host, Iron Tom Sharpe also voted for “Billy”.

BREAKING LOOSE_0001

This lineup only lasted for one album, both Brian Doerner and Keith Zurbrigg departed shortly after this, leaving Vollmer the sole original member. Their legacy of the lineup is this debut album, something any band would be proud of.  Unfortunately, CDs are hard to find.  Capitol did a bare-bones but fine CD reissue in 1992, with both Breaking Loose and the second album White Lace & Black Leather, on one disc.  That release was called The Early Years, but it went out of print many years ago. Brian Vollmer did a CD reissue of each individually, but both are now sold out.

Now, fair warning:  I have to disclose that I am biased when it comes to this band.  I’ve met them a number of times, and I have the phone numbers of two guys who played on this album. For another perspective, I asked Scotty Geffros, who has a Masters degree in Rockology, about his relationship with Breaking Loose:

After being handed this album, as a youngster of maybe 9 or 10, I remember examining the cover first…and seeing the photos of the band on the back, and wondering why the singer had a Blackhawks jersey on? I was told by my father to listen to “Billy Oxygen” and quickly went to the turntable to give it a spin. Low and behold, instant love. From catchy tunes like “Here I Go Again”, to more epic works like “Wish I Could Be There”, this album grabbed me and holds up today as a really good, albeit under-appreciated record.

[Note: I was wondering the same thing. Brian, why are you wearing a Blackhawks jersey?]

I’d go a step further than Scott and call it really great. Being completely honest though, the only complaint I have about this album would be that some of the lyrics were a little weak.  Young band…first album…I’ll forgive them.  If you can too, then I suggest you hear Breaking Loose at your earliest convenience.

5/5 stars