Saratoga - VII 3.5/5

Reviewed: 6-12-09


1. El vuelo del halcon
2. Dueno del aire
3. Sigues estando (En mi vida)
4. Gran mago
5. Siete pecados
6. Entre las llamas
7. En tu cuerpo
8. Bailando con el diablo
9. Huracan
10. La maldicion
11. Semillas de odio
12. El guardian

Somewhere around the turn of the millennium, there was a veritable explosion of high-quality power metal emanating from Spain. What made this movement so exhilarating was that it combined the muscle and anthemic majesty of the German scene with the melodic sensibilities of the Italian style, resulting in a hybrid sound that was a breath of fresh air. The reliance of most of these bands on Spanish lyrics might have turned some listeners away, but for me it enhanced the appeal since Spanish is such a beautiful, lyrical language. Although the "big 3" of Tierra Santa, Avalanch, and Mago de Oz managed to seize much of the spotlight, Saratoga emerged as a cult favorite, on the strength of their very fine 'Vientos de guerra' opus in 1999 and its masterpiece follow-up, 'Agotaras' from 2002. Sadly, after 'Agotaras', I lost track of Saratoga. Sure, they were still releasing CDs, but it was virtually impossible to find them in the United States, at least without sacrificing one's firstborn child or surrendering various bodily appendages. As a result, I'm a bit late to the party on 'VII', which was released back in 2007 in a double digipak edition with a bonus DVD including audio bonus tracks, a videoclip, and one of those tedious "making of" documentaries that seem to be all the rage these days.

I had some trepidation about 'VII', given the unwelcome mellowing of the Spanish genre leaders in recent years, with Tierra Santa and particularly Avalanch watering down their art to render it largely unpalatable to the metal faithful that made them what they are. My anxiety reached a fever pitch when I learned that bassist Niko del Hierro is the sole remaining member from the 'Agotaras' line-up. Del Hierro was not the principal songwriter back in the 'Agotaras' days, so I questioned whether Saratoga could withstand the loss of such integral members as guitarist/writer Jeronimo Ramiro and charismatic singer Leo "La Bestia".

Repeated spins of 'VII' verify that any concerns of possible betrayal of the metal faith are unwarranted. Saratoga remain at the core a traditional heavy metal band, and they have definitely resisted the incursion of AOR and rock'n'roll elements that has victimized some of their more well-known countrymen. That's not to say, however, that 'VII' picks up where 'Vientos de guerra' and 'Agotaras' leave off. To be sure, there are several fine melodic traditional metal tunes on display, especially closer "El guardian" with its infectious guitar melodies and strong chorus. "Dueno del aire" is an exciting uptempo track that ranks among Saratoga's best work ever, dancing in my head for hours after I hear it and sure to put a smile on the faces of longtime fans. By contrast, opener "El vuelo del halcon" sets the tone with a chunkier, less classic metal vibe, but it's also a winner thanks to a strong hook and a convincing performance from new vocalist Tete Novoa, who proves a worthy successor to "La Bestia". There are also a number of tracks, particularly in the middle of the CD, where the proceedings take on a slightly more groove-laden, brooding and modern approach than the band's glory days. Overall, 'VII' unquestionably features less speed, fewer Maiden-type guitar passages, and more heaviness and chunkiness than the old stuff. For that reason, listeners expecting 'Vientos'/'Agotaras' part II may court disappointment.

Rather than setting oneself up for a letdown with inflated expectations, it's probably best to view 'VII' as a fresh start, a CD from a new Spanish band, which it basically is given the overwhelming turnover in personnel. Viewed in that light, this CD definitely holds its ground. The songwriting and performances are largely enjoyable, although the 56-minute playing time is perhaps a bit excessive. The chunkier style rarely interferes with the melodies, and fans of the Spanish metal genre will find much to their liking here. I hope Del Hierro carries on with this incarnation of Saratoga because they definitely have something to offer to the decaying Spanish scene.




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