Welcome to The Lazarus Pit, a biweekly look at should-be classic metal records that don't get nearly enough love, stuff that's essential listening for students of extreme metal that you've probably never heard of. Stuff that we’re too lazy to track down the band members to do a Hall Of Fame for. This week, we are going south of several borders to the verdant plains of Argentina for wizards, swords, roses, and Rata Blanca's Magos, Espadas y Rosas (Polydor). Rata Blanca (White Rat, in case you were wondering) really could have become popular with power metal enthusiasts if they didn't stick to their native language. They were at least popular enough in their home country to sign with a major label, and according to their biography on All Music, this album, their second, sold over 1 million copies (which isn't out of the question with a population of 40 million, but maybe they just meant that it went platinum in Argentina, which is a different number in each country, but anyway). Still, when this came out in 1991, there was pretty much no chance of them crossing over to the states. Not just because of the language barrier, but because of the musical barrier as well.
See, Rata Blanca are one of those bands that find their way into this column frequently, a group that were concurrently well behind their time and well ahead of it. After all, it had been 10-20 years since Rainbow, Deep Purple, and Yngwie J. Malmsteen's Rising Force had been relevant/popular/good, but it would be a couple years before Sonata Arctica, Rhapsody of Fire, and Stratovarius really hit. Obviously there was a lot of great European power metal during the 80s, but these guys don't appear to have taken much influence from Helloween and the like. Because of that, Magos, Espadas y Rosas makes for a good case study, acting as a bridge between 70s virtuoso hard rock and neoclassical modern power metal – and showing that the two styles aren't actually that far apart.
On the surface, what we have here is six (count them) dudes with unfortunate haircuts and impressively frilly shirts unleashing the fury on their respective instruments. "La Leyenda del Hada y el Mago" alone indicates that they probably had Trilogy (Rising Force, not ELP, although that's also a possibility) playing on multiple turntable at once in their apartments. Operatic vocals, choral keyboards, guitar solos for band and orchestra, if it ain't Baroque, don't fugue it; that sort of thing. None of the boring doubletime drumming that has since become de rigueur for power metal, thankfully. And yeah, this thing reeks of the 1980s, production-wise. Still, there is a certain metallic quality underlying the pomp and circumstance. It isn't AOR, and it isn't classic rock. Although it isn't obvious, these songs have a layer of muscle under them, one that Judas Priest had started to develop and would later be carried through into the burliness of Hammerfall. This is especially obvious on "El Beso de la Bruja" and the Dio-esque epic "El Camino del Sol." Elsewhere, they show their sensitive side on "Mujer Amante" and indulge in some very deep purple on "Dias Duros," then cap things off with an ornate instrumental (three ornate instrumentals on the 2004 reissue). So, no doubt that they were intent on being the men on the Silver Mountain, but their street of dreams pointed the way to the future.
Unfortunately, they never really evolved beyond this style. A bunch of band members came and went, they broke up and reformed, put out a bunch of records. They're still touring, most recently with post-prime Rainbow vocalist Doogie White. But they never topped Magos, Espadas y Rosas. Ironically enough, it came at the perfect time, a time of transition for the power metal genre, and once the genre moved on, they were left behind. Even so, it's worth seeking out, whether you're a fan of classic metal, power metal, or South American rock. In fact, the translation problem may be what they have going for them most these days – lyrics about fairies and witches are much more palatable when you can't understand them!