Join me, boys and girls, for a little history lesson slash tragedy. It was the early 80s in the United States, with thrash metal on the verge of taking over the metal scene completely, particularly in the infamous Bay area. Traditional heavy metal bands in the US were far and few between. Manilla Road’s star was rising, but from San Francisco came the sounds of a wildly creative band, sprung up from the ashes of a band called Prisoner. This band was Brocas Helm, and for a little while after their 1984 debut Into Battle, they seemed poised to be at the forefront of US traditional metal, be it with their own idiosyncratic take on the sound. Alas, label troubles prevented the band from capitalizing on their initial momentum, and as their output slowed they faded into obscurity.
Yet in the underground, they simmered on, and in 2004, 16 years(!) after their sophomore album, they released what is arguably their greatest record, Defender of the Crown, slapped together from both new songs and singles and demos from the decade and a half preceding it. With the band nearly forgotten, save for a small but devoted cult following, the release went largely unnoticed, but it found its way into increasing amounts of hands by word of mouth across the Internet. Whether a fourth album will ever appear is doubtful; though Brocas Helm still perform on occasion, no trickle of new material has been reported. But in the meantime, Defender of the Crown is a perfect capstone to the band’s illustrious career.
But what can you actually expect listening to it? An absolute roller coaster, but not the kind you find at a large scale theme park. This is the sort of ramshackle temporary roller coaster constructed at a fair, where you feel the rails shake underneath you and the employee at the station casually picks up bolts and screws that came off during the day. Their contemporary equivalent are Slough Feg (Helm devotees and personal friends of the band), but with zaniness and recklessness turned up to 11. Defender of the Crown is a glorious mess of crazy riffs, idiotic solos, bizarre lyrics, rambling bass lines, addictive hooks, and Bobbie Wright’s incomparable sardonic vocals. If you like polish, you’re out of luck: Brocas Helm waste no energy on the merest spit-shine when they can use it to pump out another insane solo or a riff where the wheels come off halfway through.
Yet because of its indomitable energy, inventive and addictive riffs, and self-aware tongue-in-cheek demeanor, the rickety pile of ideas actually works. The exhilarating thing about Defender of the Crown is that the majority of the time, at least one instrument is going completely mental, be it the bass (“Cry of the Banshee”), guitars (“Defender of the Crown”), vocals (“Skullfucker”), or everything at the same time (“Drink and Drive”). The most restrained and polished track is “Never Kissed Goodbye,” but even that starts off with a solid minute of soloing and benefits from Wright’s vocals, which sound paradoxically both earnest and sneering simultaneously. Despite this chaos, Defender is absolutely full of hooks that grab you immediately, particularly in moments like the explosive chorus to “Ghost Story,” the occult rock anthem “Drink the Blood of the Priest,” and the addictive main riff of the title track.
Of course, there’s dips in quality across the record; with such a rough, stapled together production, some are bound to crop up. “Prelude” is an unnecessary intermission, and instrumental “Persian Gulf” doesn’t convince either. There’s some variation in production quality, predominantly on “War Toons” and “Juggernaut” with their weird vocal effects. But these are small stains that get lost in the patchwork of insanity that works against all odds. Even at its worst, the production is marked by a sound that’s timeless, with the excellent bass sound as its most noteworthy feature, and though it may be a little muddled and chaotic, this more than suits the songwriting and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Defender of the Crown is a statement of what could have been. How different might American heavy metal have looked these days if Brocas Helm had followed up on their promising start? With Slough Feg as the only significant band directly influenced by them, their impact remained minimal, yet I can see an alternative history, where speed, lunacy and humor would reign metal in the States, and people would not take themselves so goddamn seriously. That timeline is filled with ludicrous solos and wildly creative riffs, experimental vocal effects and rock ‘n roll attitudes. Alas, that timeline is not ours. But we’ll always have the Helm’s finest work to date to fall back upon when the day seems dark, as a testament to their relentless dedication to make heavy metal fun again.