By Avinash Mittur
It’s a Friday night in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. On 17th and Wisconsin, there lies a little bar and grill called Thee Parkside; if you’re not careful, you might drive right past without even knowing it. I’ve ventured to Thee Parkside just for this night, one that I have been waiting for since the age of fifteen. About one hundred metalheads and I have gathered to see one of the best bands in the world, Brocas Helm. I enter the minute the doors open, and I’m immediately greeted by friends and many of the Bay Area’s most dedicated metal lifers- this is the band’s first local show in nearly four years and before the night ends, the dive finds itself packed with Brocas Helm’s most rabid fans.
After three strong openers, the legendary act finally takes the stage at half past midnight and my excitement is boiling over. Standing tall at 6’4”, frontman and guitarist Bob Wright introduces the first song of the night as one that showcases his two bandmates, drummer Jack Hays and bassist Jim “The Wizard” Schumacher; the song is ‘Time of the Dark,’ Brocas Helm’s masterpiece and the high point of their thirty year career. Thirty years is a long time for any band to be around for, and Brocas Helm has come out of it with all three of its original members onstage. How did they reach this point though? How does a band exist for three decades, release only three studio albums, hardly ever play hometown shows and still end up with a fanatical, cult-like following? How does a band that breaks every other rule in the heavy metal handbook end up being one of the best on planet Earth?
The answer to those questions begins over forty years ago. As we chat over the phone, Bob Wright doesn’t merely recount his past to me; he relives it. His boundless enthusiasm and energy brings life and imagery to his endless stories and anecdotes, the first of which takes place at a Deep Purple concert at the Winterland Ballroom in June 1972. Wright offers primary credit to the Man in Black for musical inspiration. “The guy that got me was Ritchie Blackmore. I got to see him with my hand on the stage! I went to see them at Winterland and we were right in the front row. To see Blackmore play… that was like, enlightening. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do. This is cool!’” The heavier rock that Deep Purple was pioneering stood in sharp contrast to the hippie movement that Wright saw first-hand as a small child in San Francisco. “When I was a little kid, it was the summer of love, the hippie thing and all that. People say how great it was- it was terrible! There was some good music that came out of it, there was some good art that came out of it, but as far as that hippie thing goes, it was just a terrible, terrible time.” Wright sounds increasingly distressed as he re-experiences the horrors of the summer of 1967. “Everyone makes it sound like it was such a great time, but they weren’t there or they were stoned. I was a kid- I hadn’t taken drugs yet so I saw it with my own eyes. It was horrible man! It was the worst, I hated everything that had to do with that kind of music. So I got into the hard rock/metal thing.”
Though Wright idolized Blackmore, at the time he couldn’t match the dizzying speed and virtuosity that the legend was known for. One guy that young Bob Wright could imitate however, was KISS guitarist Ace Frehley. Wright offers an honest appraisal of his first hard rock group, a KISS cover band. “We had a KISS band with all the stuff, though we could barely play. I had the Ace Frehley outfit and everything. We’d play at UCSF and places like that. We were shitty, but at least we were trying. We had our own lights and flash pods and stuff. We could have blown stuff up but we couldn’t play that good. Ace Frehley was not a very good player at the time- I could copy his playing note for note even though I could barely play because it was so simple. He was doing the simplest blues progressions you could do at the beginning.” The cover band didn’t last long however- as Wright’s skill on the guitar grew, so did his desire to play original material. “That KISS band turned into the band Prisoner, which was my high school band. Basically they had these bands at my high school and I thought, ‘Man, these guys are shit! I can make a band better than this.’ So I did.”
When I speak with Jim Schumacher in the outside patio of Thee Parkside, I find myself initially perplexed. Schumacher is a far more reserved and relaxed individual than I could have ever expected, but he perks up when I ask about how he met Wright. Hidden behind his circular shades, Schumacher’s eyes expand and his voice rises just a little bit. “Jesus Christ, that was a long time ago! I came up to San Francisco and I was looking for bands to join. I was auditioning for a bunch of them, and I saw a flyer with their name on it- that was Prisoner back then.” Schumacher, a slightly more seasoned musician than the members of Prisoner, found himself impressed by Wright and joined the band. “I went up there and I still have my notes from the audition: ‘They’re kind of young, but the guitar player’s pretty good.’” Schumacher’s claw-hammer technique—a picking style still primarily used by banjo players and classical guitarists—is something that was wholly unique back then, and gave a personality and presence to his playing that none have been able to recreate since.
Now armed with a lethal new bassist, Prisoner found itself ably prepared for an evolving musical landscape. Wright tells me a story that could have been a deleted scene from This is Spinal Tap, a story that shows that the Bay Area was finally developing a taste for hard rock and heavy metal. “Jim joined the Prisoner band and we’d do these gigs at people’s homes or at a pizza joint, gigs like that… That was a cover band that did originals. We played at a military base once. We got 200 bucks to play. We played The Cars, Beatles, Cheap Trick, Eddie Money, whatever. Whatever it took for girls to come. When girls came, the guys came and you’d get money. We’re at a military base with the marines in Alameda, and it’s exactly like The Blues Brothers when they were the good old boys in that country bar, except we had no chicken wire. We’re playing and about thirty or forty of these newly recruited marines come up to the stage and say, ‘Listen you bastard, you’re going to play what we want to hear!’ It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re going to get killed! We’re going to die tonight onstage.’ So they say, ‘We want to hear ‘Rock Bottom’ by UFO!’ and we actually knew it! So we went from playing the ‘mommy’s alright’ song by Cheap Trick to playing Michael Schenker and man, they loved it! It worked out- we got out alive.” This is the kind of anecdote that I could never imagine a young band recreating in today’s world, and I’m uncontrollably smiling from ear to ear as Wright weaves the tale.
The high school band didn’t last, but the partnership between Schumacher and Wright did. “I started playing with [Prisoner] and eventually we decided that we wanted to play harder stuff, so we changed the band format. Then we cleared house and looked for a new drummer. Our new stuff was a lot harder than the stuff we were doing before,” is what Schumacher remembers. Prisoner was a fine adolescent rock group, but what the two needed now was a killer metal band. Schumacher and Wright went in search of a drummer, a vocalist and an additional guitar player for the new project. For the second guitarist, Wright had to look no further than down the street from his house.
Thanks to the power of Facebook, I manage to track down Brocas Helm’s original second guitarist John Grey and we go back to his short, but very important stint in Brocas Helm. “Bob and Jim were trying to get a metal band together. I just heard that they were looking for a guitar player. My dad had bought me a Goldtop Les Paul on my fifteenth birthday, so I had already been fooling around on it for a couple of years, just starting to get into the harder rock and stuff. When Bob told me about the band, I was just like, ‘Sounds good to me, let’s jam.’” Though Grey’s time in Brocas Helm was short, it’s an essential part of their history; some of their most legendary shows featured Grey on stage left, and Grey stuck around just long enough to place his stamp on the band’s early material. “Things went pretty good, matter of fact I think Bobbie was working on ‘Into Battle‘ and I remember him saying, ‘Hey, why not do a back and forth lead?’ That’s how we came up with that, the trade-off lead in that song.” Grey also remembers how Wright came to man the microphone out of sheer necessity. “One thing that we were really trying to find in the beginning was a vocalist, and we could just never do it. Bobbie could never find anybody that kind of had it all together and was able to sing too… He would sing the songs himself while we looked. It really had to be the right person. You can totally ruin a band without the right frontman. In hindsight, it was Bob that was the right person all along.”
What the new band needed next was a drummer. From what Grey remembers, the search was anything but easy. “I just remember that back then, they didn’t have too many drummers that could do much with the double-kick. Bobbie knew what he wanted, but this was before they had all that quick kick pedal stuff, you know? He had a lot of trouble finding someone that could actually use the bass drums the way he wanted.” Wright himself doesn’t place much emphasis on the skill of the drummers he tried out, but rather their oddball personalities. “We put these big ads for drummers all around. Some of the guys who tried out were okay, but others were just weirdos! Guys that thought they could just play for a week or two and become millionaires. Dude, it don’t work that way! I said, ‘Let’s try something different.’ I took a matchbook cover, wrote down my phone number and the words ‘Hard Rock/Heavy Metal’ and stuck it on a wall at Guitar Center. That’s how we met Jack, the drummer.”
Back at Thee Parkside, I sit down with Jack Hays and I can’t help but make a mental note of his warm and pleasant demeanor. He is always sporting a small and cheery smile, whether he is reminiscing about the past or checking out the opening bands. Mentally reassembling the days of his youth as he speaks, Hays transports us to when he performed heavy metal music for the first time. “I moved in San Francisco in 1982 and I went to Guitar Center- at that time it was on Van Ness St. and it was a whole different place than they have now. I was just looking for somebody to play with. They had a bulletin board there and there was a lot of ads for people for drummers and other musicians. For whatever reason, I picked the one that was the smallest little note and it had Jim’s phone number on it. I just called them and it was just going to be something to do to keep busy as a musician. When I went there to meet them on that first day, we played and it just sort of clicked. It was fun, they were not like other bands that I’d heard. There were a lot of generic bands around and these guys were sort of unique. It just kind of clicked.”
Hays’ drumming was just as unique as the band he joined, bringing jazz to heavy metal in a way that no one has come anywhere near replicating. It’s something that came naturally to Hays as he recalls. “Before I came here I was in college as a music major. Whatever happened at the college… my professor there decided he had to go someplace else so I ended up having to move. I chose to move here, and jazz was what I did before I did that. Besides that, I grew up in a period where progressive rock was pretty big, and that’s what I listened to. It was a combination of listening to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and all this stuff. A lot of other underground progressive bands too… playing metal was a departure from what I was doing and I actually didn’t think I was very good at it for a long time. I feel a lot more comfortable at it now.“
The last thing the four-piece needed was a name. What the hell is a “Brocas Helm” anyway? Wright answers my question in the perfect way. “Well, there’s a whole story about that.” I’m grinning again- it’s time for another tale from Wright. “I was looking in a book and I wanted a medieval sounding name. It was the whole medieval metal thing, knights in shining armor, jousting and all that crap. In that book I see this one helm—the Brocas Helm—and it was this jousting helm. It was named after Barnard Brocas, who was a knight. Supposedly we were on drugs or something and the wall spoke and said, “Brocas Helm. That is the name.” There really was a guy named Barnard Brocas and I think the actual Brocas Helm is in the Tower of London or something like that. I have an email from Chris Brocas, or some guy like that. He’s related to Barnard Brocas and he wrote me an email saying that their family was honored that we used their name for the band. I’m like, ‘Wow!’ That’s cool man. Totally cool.”
It was during this early era that Brocas Helm played some of the most infamous shows of their career. Grey remembers that the band found themselves charter members of the Bay Area’s growing thrash metal scene. “We played all the clubs in the city at the time, the Mabuhay Gardens, the Stone, the Keystone Berkeley, the On Broadway, the Old Waldorf… it was fun man! We shared the stage with a few bands that are still around like Death Angel, Anvil Chorus, Stone Vengeance, Megadeth and Exodus. It was just right at that time when everything was happening. The thrash scene and everything.” Brocas Helm was a perfect fit for the Bay Area metal scene’s formative years- the time before thrash reached the level of aggression and technical perfection that it would later be known for. When it came to eye-catching crowds, Wright excitedly remembers the time as a golden era for Brocas Helm’s live shows. “We would play back at the Old Waldorf and that was back when the girls would put on heels and dresses and dress up really hot and killer!” It was also during this early era that Schumacher was dubbed “The Wizard,” and began donning his signature stage outfit of a cape, captain’s hat and pilot’s goggles. So why “The Wizard” of all nicknames? Schumacher answers the question matter-of-factly, hinting at vast and otherworldly knowledge- “I know stuff that other people don’t know.”
With a name set and a badass live show at the ready, Brocas Helm knocked out a five-song demo called ‘Into Battle’- it’s a raw and unfiltered representation of the band’s earliest era. From what Grey tells me, the recording for the demo might have been the most efficient session Brocas Helm ever did. “I just remember being at this studio where AT&T ballpark is right now. I think it was called Sound on Stage. It was just an 8-track studio and we had a certain amount of time. We practiced like hell and knocked it out in one night. I think Bobbie came back the next day and finished up the vocals.” The songs on the demo certainly stand tall on their own, but really aren’t too far removed from what the likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Saxon were already doing in England- these tracks aren’t the ones that would define the zany and raucous sound that Brocas Helm would claim as their own on later albums.
Though the ‘Into Battle’ demo was released at the height of Brocas Helm’s hometown popularity, John Grey bowed out from the band. Grey explains that Wright was writing riffs that simply became too difficult for him to keep up with. “The stuff that Bobbie writes is just so technical; it would really take a lot for me to learn his songs. He would give me a song- “Here it is, do it, practice it, learn it,” and he’d expect me to come back the next time and nail it when really I’d only have maybe 75% of it. I’d be playing a couple of chords in place of a riff and he’d be shaking his head.” Grey chuckles, and acknowledges that his life simply wasn’t that of a full-time axe-slinger. “That’s kind of what our relationship was, we were friends and everything and there were no bad feelings, but I think they got frustrated with me. If I had just spent a little more time practicing, maybe I would have lasted a little longer! I still jam to their songs when I’m just fooling around in my garage.”
Grey’s departure was followed by the band’s full-length debut, also titled Into Battle. Now a trio, the band shopped their demo to local shops and labels. For the first and only time, Wright managed to land a bite; he found an East Bay store that doubled as a record label. “We took [the demo] to a little label in Walnut Creek called First Strike. I said, ‘Hey can you sell some of these?’ and he says, ‘Well, everyone wants us to sell their records.’ He gives it a listen about ten minutes later and says, ‘Okay, give me a couple hundred of them!’ It built from that and they were putting together a deal to do the first record, which was recorded in Concord.” These days, Into Battle is held in high regard by fans of traditional heavy metal- the album can even be seen as an early forefather of the power metal genre. Wright’s wild and fiery soloing throughout the title track, Hays’ frantic jazz-metal rage on ‘Here to Rock’ and the Wizard’s unbelievably rad solo on ‘Night Siege’ help cement the tracks as killer slabs of rocking, sing-a-long heavy metal.
Wright notes that Into Battle wasn’t without its flaws however. “We had arguments about the mixing and arguments about the cover. It wasn’t the cover that we wanted and we had a good mix, but over the weekend the producer went in and changed this and that.” In the end, the release of Into Battle simply wasn’t what the band wanted it to be. Schumacher notes that it’s the one time that Brocas Helm ever yielded to the man in the tie. “The only time we ever let the record company do anything was on that album. The bass sounded bad to begin with, and they made it worse just before they pressed them. So yeah, the bass sounds pretty crappy. There’s probably nothing on that album that I would have personally chosen when it comes to the bass tracks and the bass sound.“ Wright also remembers the disappointment that came with the album’s release, rather than the celebration that he and the band wanted. “Right when it came out, it just wasn’t a big party like it should have been. It was just like, ‘Damn it, they changed the EQ on the bass, what happened to the cover?!’ It went from this great thing to, ‘Hold on, this wasn’t our idea, we were trying to do this instead!’ On one of the reissues, we used the original cover, which is like a knight in a castle. [Into Battle] was good but when it came out it was like, ‘Aw, they fucked it up!’”
Though they couldn’t address John Grey’s departure by the time the Into Battle sessions were underway, Brocas Helm was eager to find another second guitarist. They found one in Tom “T-Bone” Behney. Still a friend of the band after all these years, Grey manages to put me in touch with Behney, now a resident of Reno, Nevada. Behney and I talk on the phone on a Saturday morning, and he turns the clock back to 1984. “My sister was dating this guy and he knew of the band- he knew that John Grey had just left and that they were looking for another guitar player. They were in the middle of cutting the Into Battle record and while they were cutting the record, they were giving me copies of the songs. Then we started clubbing, doing gigs and whatnot.”
While the release of Into Battle marked the beginning of Behney’s tenure with the band, Wright remembers that it also kicked off somewhat of a decline for Brocas Helm, as thrash became the flavor of the month for the Bay Area. “When the thrash thing started we lost a lot of fans. We’d play with these totally killer thrash bands, but we weren’t thrash! People would tell me, ‘Bob, write these thrash songs!’ and I could write ten in a row, but there’s no chicks coming!” For thrash fans, the Bay Area in the mid to late ‘80s was a paradise but for bands like Brocas Helm and lovers of swinging classic heavy metal, that utopian perspective is one seen through rose-colored glasses. “There wasn’t that many people going out to the clubs,” Wright claims. I raise an eyebrow when I hear those words- I had always envisioned the Bay Area clubs as being packed wall-to-wall night after night in those days. “You’d go to a Metallica show and that would sell out, but there was nobody there for us. We’d still play at The Stone and On Broadway and we played private parties and stuff, but there was no big thing going. There was the thrash end, but those were only a few shows. You had to buy tickets if you wanted to play, so I said, ‘Fuck that shit.’ If we aren’t selling thousands of records and making a lot of money every time we play, it’s hard to do it. We still did it, but we just didn’t make no money.” Behney remembers this era more positively, while still noting that Brocas Helm was the odd man out in the Bay Area thrash scene. “Yeah, thrash was huge but we kind of went our own way. There was still a pretty good attendance because metal was still huge.”
From ’84 to ’88, the Bay Area’s thrash scene was filled with high school kids and young adults in their early twenties that could spend their lives on music while staying at home with Mom and Dad. For the members of Brocas Helm, only a handful of years older than their peers in the thrash scene, spending their lives touring just wasn’t an option according to Wright. “There was always a chance, but life happened. It’s hard to leave for two or three weeks because A) someone will fire you from your job, B) you don’t get no money. If you can’t make money, you’ve got to work to eat.” Playing and recording music was now much more of a personal sacrifice than ever before, but Brocas Helm refused to relent and spent those four years writing and tracking material for their second album, Black Death. As one who prefers to knock out albums quick and easy, Schumacher especially found the struggle frustrating. “That [time] was spent recording… we took forever. I hate that shit! We had the album written, it just took forever to record it and get it done. The music scene wasn’t good back then- it died out a bit. The thrash picked up, but heavy metal wasn’t so good.”
For Wright, the lack of funding was a huge hurdle to overcome when it came to the making of Black Death. “I had studio time booked to record at the place where Joe Satriani did his first few records, but no one had any money! I just couldn’t get a financer, so I bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and used that to record Black Death. We built a little studio in my mom and dad’s basement, that’s where we made Black Death. We had almost nothing, but we still made the record.” The studio, a place known as the Caverns of Thunder, was a cheap and flexible solution to the band’s problems. Hays notes that it was perfect for the members of Brocas Helm, who now all had full-time jobs to stay on top of. “We built a studio in Bob’s basement and recorded a bunch of stuff, and that ended up being what’s on Black Death. I think some things were recorded pretty early, most of it was re-done later… We ended up just pursuing Black Death ourselves- in the evenings, after work. It’s hard, it takes time. We all had jobs and had to go to work.” Hays also recalls a legal struggle with their former label that ate up even more of the band’s time. “We had a contract with First Strike Records, who did Into Battle. They basically owned our next record. We couldn’t do anything without them signing off on it, so we were kind of stuck. They didn’t really want to do anything with us anymore and we didn’t want to do anything with them, but we were in this place where we had a contract with them. We couldn’t do anything… We recorded a bunch of songs and gave this demo back to First Strike Records. ‘Here’s our new stuff, do you want it?’ ‘Okay, no we don’t want it. You’re off the hook.’”
In a music world ruled by tight spandex and massive hair, Wright had trouble finding a home for Brocas Helm’s second album. “I probably personally sent out twenty-five to fifty Black Death demos and giant promotional kits, and we just couldn’t get nothing,” Wright laments. Hays attempts to offer an explanation for the lack of bites. “We shopped demos around trying to find a record company that would take us, but it was a difficult time. I think record companies wanted hit bands, and we were definitely not that.” The band knew that the demand for their music was out there however, and Hays recalls that they decided to take matters into their own hands. “People were offering money to press the demos that we made onto vinyl. We’d ask, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ ‘We’re going to sell them in underground record shops around the world.’ We could do that ourselves, why should we give them all of the rights and all that stuff? A lot of record companies want to own all the recording rights, songwriting and publishing, all that stuff. Unless they had something they could really do for you, why would we do that?” Schumacher shared similar thoughts back then. “We’d rather do it ourselves and do it better on our own than any low-end company. Unless it was a big company like Warner Bros. with the money to really push the record or gives us a tour or something really valuable, we could just do it better ourselves.”
And so they did. Brocas Helm self-released Black Death in 1988 and though the record failed to make a big splash in the metal world, the band’s fans knew that the album was something truly special. Black Death was the first record to accurately capture Brocas Helm’s over the top live energy. For album number two, Wright’s vocals possess a whole new level of command and power; his hearty and menacing laughter kicks off the title track, a song that showcases a tour-de-force performance from Hays and plenty of screaming solos from Wright and Behney. The guitar team would trade off dueling licks in ‘Prepare for Battle,’ and Schumacher would get the chance to show off his bass wizardry in the song as well. Behney penned the thrashy ass-kicker ‘Satan’s Prophets,’ but he admits that Wright took the reigns on the fan-favorite of Black Death, the galloping anthem ‘Fly High.’ “Bob did everything on ‘Fly High.’ To me, that song was like his signature on the Black Death record.” Brocas Hem’s second album is the aural manifestation of chaos, and it’s perhaps the best sonic representation of the band live. It’s brash, in your face and pretty damn ugly- an outrageous record by any measure, and a far more crazed listen than Into Battle ever attempted to be.
Black Death was also the first album that Hays mixed for the band- a task that he admits was a struggle. “It was hard. You want everybody to be louder than everybody else, right? That’s always a challenge. We’re sort of a democratic band, especially back in those days. You mix it, one guy’s not happy, you mix it again to make someone else louder, and then somebody else isn’t happy. Being the drummer, trying to make my stuff louder than everybody else, the other guys weren’t happy when I did that. It was constant shifting things around. I think it was a big learning experience…. It was a lot of things: it was hard, it was also really fun, and it was nice to be able to play in a studio where we weren’t being charged by the hour. We spent hundreds, thousands of hours in the studio playing with sound effects and things like that. Now I listen to the record and I think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have put that part in there.’” As Hays mentions the sound effects, my brain races back to Black Death. I hear the breaking glass during ‘Hell’s Whip,’ the noise collage at the beginning of the title track and the medieval keys that grace ‘The Chemist.’ In my mind, I can’t help but disagree with Hays- I wouldn’t have Black Death any other way.
Many bands tend to forget the friends and family that helped them out in the early days, but the members of Brocas Helm readily acknowledge the help they received from outside the band. Behney credits Bob Wright’s brother Guy for helping the band through the recording sessions for Black Death. “We were recording in the studio with Bob and his brother Guy, who was a very, very important part of Brocas Helm actually. He was the one who was behind the scenes with a lot of the engineering while the four of us were playing. He was running the board with a tape recorder and everything. He was just as important as Bob, Jim or Jack or I. He’s smart—he’d sync stuff, come up with stuff and all kinds of things.” Behney even remembers the Wright family’s neighbors that acted as roadies for the band in those days. “There’s some stuff on YouTube, I think there’s a ‘Black Death’ video. You see guys that hung around and helped us out when we played, like Rob Goulding, James Bracco and they lived down the street from Bob and Guy, and they had the studio in the house. Everything was kind of centered around there, on Alta Vista in Daly City.” Even John Grey, a keen observer in the years since he left Brocas Helm, acknowledges Mr. and Mrs. Wright as the cool parents in the neighborhood. “The most important people behind the scenes were probably Bob’s mom and dad. They gave Bob and Guy a lot of leeway to say the least. The Caverns of Thunder were right beneath them and they were always so nice. Especially his mom. She was definitely one of my favorite moms on the block.”
The most obvious outside contributor that fans can hear is Jean Schumacher- the Wizard’s wife and according to liner notes, the Queen of the Realm. Her lyrics can be found on every Brocas Helm release, and Wright notes that her writing was a true asset for the band. “Jean Schumacher is a good writer and after she submitted some complete lyrics—which I thought were very good—we used them on our records. I wanted more. I spent years trying to get her to write lyrics. I would explain what one of my songs was about and every once in a while she would come up with something… Some of her lyrics I would use straight off the paper and others we would do the Elton John/Bernie Taupin method where I would arrange, change or repeat what she had to fit the music. Some songs have both our lyrics combined on them and some I wrote myself and some Jean wrote herself.” Friends and family helped Brocas Helm get through the rest of the decade, though nothing could have ever prepared them for the dark age of heavy metal- the 1990s.
After recording another demo called ‘Helm’s Deep’ with the band, T-Bone Behney was relieved of his duties. “Jack just called me on the phone and said I was out of the band. That was that. It was a surprise to everybody and I just went on,” Behney explains. He holds no grudges though and like John Grey, he remains a part of the Brocas Helm family. “It was good times and if they asked me, I would play again with them. I still like all those guys, I still think they’re cool. Ninety percent of the time, we had a lot of fun. Whenever we went and did shows, it was always a party.” Behney was let go in 1989; the hair metal bubble was just two short years away from popping. For nearly ten years, Brocas Helm had to fight tooth and nail to maintain a pulse. Schumacher offers a blunt assessment- “Those were really bad years. We thought it was pretty much over.” The band persevered however, and though Hays remembers the adversity they faced during the decade, he manages to view the era with a glass half-full mentality. “It was discouraging I’d say. There weren’t a lot of metal shows and Nirvana and all those bands came up. At the same time, there was less pressure to go out and play shows. We’re trying to record and play shows at the same time… when you play a show, you go in there and break down all your equipment in the studio, you go play the show, then it takes two weeks to set back up to do recording again. In some ways, it made it easier to do the songs that were on the ‘Ghost Story’ demo. There was less pressure to do everything all at once. We were pretty much just in the home studio. There was some benefit to that I guess, but it was still hard. I think the other guys particularly like to play live rather than record.”
As Wright remembers, he and the band retreated to the Caverns of Thunder, where they wrote and recorded a handful of their all-time best songs. “The ‘90s was when Nirvana came- which is fine, I’ve got nothing against Nirvana. No metal- it was just dried up unless it was Metallica at the Cow Palace or something. In the ‘90s we still wrote more songs, and we tried again. We made demo tapes and we even wrote comedy songs like ‘Drink and Drive.’” Wright never stopped hunting for a record label either, and refused to give up on Brocas Helm. “We made what we called the ‘Ghost Story’ demo, which was a little book that we used to try and get a record deal. We just couldn’t get a deal for several reasons: not good looking enough, not catchy enough, not good enough, but whatever! You don’t quit, you just keep playing.” Hidden away in the middle of the ‘Ghost Story’ demo is a song called ‘Time of the Dark,’ Brocas Helm’s masterpiece. Leading off with a tension-packed bass solo from the Wizard, the track showcases Wright’s greatest performance on record. His vocals soar, yet they’re filled with genuine grit and frustration- one can take a guess as to who the “werewolves in high places” and “the nineteen-nineties ghouls” are. Driven by a main riff that would have made Phil Lynott emerald-green with envy, ‘Time of the Dark’ is topped off with an incredible solo from Wright that practically begs to be accompanied by an air-guitar. The track is their greatest achievement, and one can imagine how elated I was to hear the band open their set with it at Thee Parkside in 2013.
Near the end of the nineties, Brocas Helm’s patience and tenacity finally began to pay off. Schumacher credits the world-wide web with immortalizing their legend, and Greece for reminding them of how beloved they were. “The reason we came back was all due to the internet. One day the Greek promoter Greg Varsamis and the Eat Metal Records gang said, ‘Hey, if we send you money, will you come play?’ We said, ‘Fuck yeah, we’ll come play!’ Our first show back was in Athens, Greece. The Greeks are huge fans, they’ll follow us around. It’s like a heavy metal Grateful Dead.” While America was busy appreciating bands that “kept it real,” Schumacher found that Europe still knew how to have a good time. “The European audience is not jaded like the American audiences, they still have fun over there. They’re not too cool to run around and act like maniacs.“ For Wright, Greece was the place that truly made the band feel like rock stars. “The first time we went to Greece, we showed up at the airport at one or two o’clock in the morning. We find this guy that’s supposed to drive us and instead there’s like 150 people with Brocas Helm banners and stuff! It’s like, ‘Okay, this is pretty good!’” Wright laughs at the silliness of the situation. “I was like, ‘Finally, someone appreciates this shit!’ It was really cool.”
Back in America, there was one old-school metal nerd that managed to get Brocas Helm to return to the stage in the late ‘90s. That nerd was John Cobbett, a busy member of the Bay Area’s returning heavy metal scene. Cobbett put on a series of concerts called Lucifer’s Hammer at the Covered Wagon Saloon in San Francisco. A few of those shows featured Brocas Helm playing alongside another band that shared their unrelenting no-fucks-given spirit, The Lord Weird Slough Feg. Wright found a fan and friend in Slough Feg frontman Mike Scalzi, who drew inspiration from Wright’s Earth-shattering personality and unwavering dedication to music. Scalzi would even pen a rather rad tribute to Wright years later. Wright remembers the Lucifer’s Hammer shows as the band’s best since the Bay Area’s ‘80s heyday- “At the end, it started coming back, I was dusting off old guitars and we were playing Lucifer’s Hammer. Little by little, the metal thing built back up… We’d actually have shows where a lot of people would come, it was cool!” As for Hays, the Lucifer’s Hammer shows were proof that Brocas Helm’s music was appreciated at home, though he notes that they nearly gave up on the idea of their hard work gaining recognition. “We thought Black Death was going to be a sleeper album, or the ‘Ghost Story’ stuff. We’re thinking that it would come out and seven years later people would like it. We sort of gave up on that, we thought it was delusional. All of a sudden though, the music got around the world, people started buying it, bootlegging it and sending it all around. The bootlegging was actually good for us I think in the long run. Toward the end of the ‘90s and the beginning of the 2000s, it became about us having fun playing. We’re lucky enough that we’re able to go play for people that want to hear us. It’s pretty cool, I cannot complain at all.”
Rejuvenated by the renewed interest, the trio set about completing their long awaited third record. According to Wright, the sessions did not begin auspiciously however. “We went to a real recording studio run by some guys we knew, so we went down there and Jim pretty much quit after the first day or two. My brother was an engineer on the project and he quit too because we were fixing these guys’ equipment a lot. It was just nuts man. I would practice these perfect and beautiful leads, go in to record and they’d say, ‘Oh we can’t do that song, we’ve got a problem.’ It would be like, ‘Well dude, I just spent a week writing this thing, now we’re doing something where I don’t even know what I’m doing!’” Hays, who once again served as the mixing engineer, also acknowledges the headaches that the band ran into with the third record. “We started recording for Defender of the Crown on tape. I used to help people build studios, so I helped these guys build the place where first started recording the album. They ended up losing the studio while we were recording there, so we took the analog tapes and dumped them into our digital machine. I took it and did the rest of the work at home, mostly on a computer.”
After taking those tapes home, Wright spent the next few years chipping away at what he could. He remembers spending nights in solitude after work, slowly recording bits and pieces of the songs that would make up Defender of the Crown. “We went back to the Caverns of Thunder and recorded the album slowly, song-by-song. I did a lot of that stuff myself- recording the guitars and the singing stuff. I did that stuff alone with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a bag of weed and a pack of cigarettes. That’s how that was done and then Jack would mix it.“ Hays had to contend with the transition from analog tape to digital, and he places some of the blame on digital technology’s boundless freedom for delaying the release of Defender of the Crown. “I like the analog- there’s no latency, everything was sort of real-time, you mix it manually by hand. It’s sort of like playing an instrument while you’re doing it. When you go to digital, I can get the volume to change exactly when I want it and all these things, but you end up spending a lot of time trying to get everything exactly right and perfect. That probably contributed to the length of time that it took to put it out.”
Defender of the Crown was finally released in June of 2004. Metal fans have a pattern that they’re used to when it comes to new albums by veteran bands: embarrassing at worst, and mildly respectable at best. One can picture the shock on everyone’s faces after listening to Brocas Helm’s third record- over twenty years into their career, the band made their finest album. From the monolithic showcase for the Wizard, ‘Cry of the Banshee,’ to the cranium-cracking ‘Skullfucker,’ Defender of the Crown is nothing short of an incredible record. It successfully marries the NWOBHM wallop featured on Into Battle with the blazing pandemonium of Black Death, and the result is an album that truly defines the sound of Brocas Helm: fifteen tracks of no-holds-barred battering ram heavy metal. The album even features the ‘Ghost Story’ demo in its entirety, which only strengthens the already phenomenal full-length. Ever since its release, most Brocas Helm live sets have been primarily made up of material from Defender of the Crown and for good reason- traditional heavy metal doesn’t get much better than this record.
Brocas Helm’s legacy continues to grow as the years pass; in 2008, the Defender of the Crown tracks ‘Cry of the Banshee’ and ‘Drink the Blood of the Priest’ were featured in the million-selling videogame Brütal Legend. The game exposed the band to new fans all over the world. The members of Brocas Helm also finally recognize what they need in order to co-exist with each other- three guys spending decades locked in a basement studio together are practically guaranteed to get on each others’ nerves (“After thirty years, it’s like being married!” Wright jokes). These days Wright is perfectly aware of just how wacky he and his bandmates can be. “I’m kind of a weird guy, but those guys are pretty weird too. I’m usually the middle-man, but that’s why I quit pursuing the next Brocas Helm record because it was too much bullshit.” When it comes to another Brocas Helm record, it’s guaranteed that it won’t be produced at the Caverns of Thunder. “The only way we’ll make another record is if we can get together and practice, get into a proper studio and do it quick. I’m not going to do the two hours a week in my little studio thing again. We go in, record for a few days, then I go in and record for a couple days on my own- I can’t work with those guys unless we do it that way. I just can’t do the home studio thing with Jack and Jim again. I’m not criticizing either of them, but it just takes too long. You know when you get into a groove in the studio, you just want to keep that train rolling for a week or two. I can’t take this one year, two years spent making a record stuff anymore. I don’t want to record something, listen, record it again the next week and listen again. And another week goes by, and another week goes by…”
Nowadays, the members of Brocas Helm are just happy to play the occasional show. That brings us full-circle to when the band takes over Thee Parkside in San Francisco. The three haven’t rehearsed a note before they hit the stage, and Wright has lost the set list that he scribbled together hours beforehand. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Wrong. Brocas Helm proceeds to eviscerate the hundred-strong crowd with a sixty-five minute set made up of nothing but fan requests. The show isn’t perfect by any means; duff notes are hit and the occasional cue is missed. What the band succeeds in doing however, is putting a wide smile on the faces of everyone in attendance. The audience is a diverse lot- some were headbanging in the front row at the Mabuhay Gardens in 1985, others watched them make their return at Lucifer’s Hammer, and then there are the kids who are spending their Friday night going out to see a cool vintage metal band. Throughout the show Wright plants his feet, shakes his fist in the air as he sings and looks at everyone with madness in his eyes. His stories are hilarious and off-the-cuff, and his solos burn with scalding heat. Jim Schumacher hangs back and the commanding presence known as the Wizard takes over in his stead. The bassist enforces his station with confidence and power, skips back and forth across the small stage and locks in with Hays without turning an eye towards him. The drummer enters some kind of alternate reality; his mouth remains open, his arms flail about and his feet are always on the move. Hays quite frankly looks possessed. The small but loyal crowd is witnessing the best band in the world do what they do better than anyone else—not merely play, but perform—rollicking, fist-pounding classic heavy metal.
The three storm through a dozen of their finest tracks, nearly every one of them picked by the die-hards in the crowd. A large selection of tracks from Defender of the Crown are chosen, and a pair of songs each from Into Battle and Black Death manage to make the cut. Brocas Helm intentionally saves one tune in particular for last; a single bass note is all we need to know that ‘Cry of the Banshee’ is about to kick our asses. Hays adds a new level of speed and chaos to the track, and Wright and Schumacher are in near-perfect synchronicity as they tap the main riff. Sure, they flub a line or two, but we don’t care. The crazy folks who have stuck around until 1:35 AM are too busy tearing their lungs to shreds singing along. The show ends, and I’m in disbelief. I have finally seen Brocas Helm live, and they were incredible—truly and indisputably incredible.
Now here is where I convince you that Brocas Helm is the greatest heavy metal band on planet Earth. Their three studio albums range from very good to nearly flawless, their live shows are wildly unpredictable and the members of the band can’t even be in the same room together unless they’re onstage. No, what helps makes Brocas Helm special is just how indispensable these three men are to the music. There isn’t a metal drummer alive with the jazzoid chops and freewheeling attack of Jack Hays. The Wizard has no equal when it comes to aggressive, bouncing and dynamic bass playing (even Lemmy uses a pick; the Wizard is armed with a steel thumb). As for Bob Wright, there isn’t anyone around with his immense charisma, ear for melody and vocal power all rolled into a 6’4” package. Perhaps a former member can describe it best. “As far as I am concerned, Bobbie is a fricken musical genius. The songs he puts together are a trip. And then you add Jim’s bass magic and Jack’s unique playing style and that’s it… Brocas Helm,” is what John Grey has to say. There is beauty in imperfection; Brocas Helm’s songs induce so much happiness in people, and they bring so much passion and vigor to their craft that fans are able to look past the flaws and fall in love with the music and the performance anyway. Bob Wright sums it up rather simply: “We’re not the greatest looking people or the greatest players, but some people seem to like us!” A band whose music and live show bring so much joy to others that their flaws are rendered utterly meaningless: if that isn’t the greatest band in the world, I will never know what is.
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