The 2016 Peace Agreement in Colombia marked a watershed moment, one which gave hope to a nation that had been engaged in a protracted war with the Communist Guerrilla forces FARC and ELN. While there have been high and lows in the conflict, the 1980s marked a particular low point for the Colombian state. During this decade, the Colombian government was caught in warfare not only with left-wing guerrilla movements, but also had to contend with the growing power of the Medellin and Cali drug cartels. Both in cities and in the countryside, armed militias/paramilitaries financed by business interests and trained by foreign mercenaries carried out vast murders against anything vaguely resembling a left wing sympathies. Bombings, indiscriminate killings and crime were a daily affair.
Colombia, as most Latin American countries, is heavily stratified in a socio-economic manner where the rich and the poor live parallel lives, rarely engaging with one another. While the wealthy could shield themselves better against these hardships, those in poorer neighbourhoods were at the mercy of all these groups. Among these were Metalheads, who were mostly from working class neighbourhoods. Despised by left wing guerrillas for being products of degenerate bourgeois culture and equally hated by state forces and right-wing paramilitaries who saw them as Satanic drug peddlers – many who sported long hair and a black band shirt were subject to arrests, beatings and even “Social cleansing”.
Living in this environment, it’s not hard to see why so many had a depressed and miserable view of life, one in which they had been assigned a bad lot and had to do whatever it took to survive. The emergence of Kraken was in some ways a reaction towards this, and arguably came at the right time. Kraken was founded in Medellin, arguably the epicenter of Metal of Colombia at the time and the birthplace of Ultra Metal – a loose coalition of bands playing a chaotic form of early extreme metal which included acts like Parabellum, Reencarnacion, Mierda and others. This desolate environment is well depicted in the first Colombian film presented at the Cannes film festival, Rodrigo D: No Futuro, a film about an adolescent punk fan who only wishes to be a drummer. The soundtrack contains many of the emblematic punk/metal bands of the era.
Kraken was formed sometime in 1984 and had gained some notice in the underground circuit by playing gigs in the communes/shanty towns of Medellin and had managed to record two singles prior to their full length which would later make their way to the debut. They managed to record their first album after winning a battle of the bands contest held in 1985, one in which they didn’t even play (it’s a long story, see Author’s note at the end).
Kraken I was recorded and released in 1987 and immediately made a splash in the Colombian scene. Like many of the early Latin American metal bands of the period, Kraken were an amalgamation of different styles of Anglo-Saxon bands – there are remnants of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Judas Priest sprinkled all across the record. Yet the biggest influence is undoubtedly Iron Maiden. One of the albums defining traits is the ample use of dual guitar harmonies lifted straight out of the Murray and Smith playbook, playing a heavy role in the whole album. The songs steer from slower paced, almost ballad like tracks like “Soy Real” to veering into epic territory with the triumphant sounding “Escudo y Espada” – a track which fully displays the aforementioned twin guitar attack at its finest.
Yet the biggest trace of Maiden’s presence remains in the vocal homage presented by the vocalist, Elkin Ramirez AKA El Titan (The Titan). There is a reason why he was dubbed the Colombian Bruce Dickinson as his singing style is eerily reminiscent of him in many occasions, particularly when he attempts to hit high notes and having an almost theatrical quality to it. Like Bruce, Elkin had excellent diction which shines through in spite of the thin production job.
While musically competent, what makes Kraken I such a special album is the optimism it communicates. As with their other Latin American peers, Kraken’s lyrics were not the standard escapist fantasy themes that were commonplace in heavy metal but rather ones that dealt with society and self-reflection. Rather than just angrily rail against the system in place, Elkin’s lyrics were of a more poetic nature. They dealt with the need to persevere in spite of the challenges present and the rotten state of society. Elkin himself was a person from a middle class background and was privy to the daily conditions of most metalheads in the country, often coming from the slums or deprived neighbourhoods of Medellin. The opening track, “Todo Hombre Es Una Historia”, is the story of a metalhead who is treated as an ordinario (something along the lines of a hoodlum) but who rebuffs all criticism against him and decides to follow his own path – a classic Colombian metal hymn. Other songs like the aforementioned “Escudo y Espada” use battle imagery to invoke the need for individuals to fight against societal repression. “Nada ha Cambiado Aún” deals with the desperation of daily working life and the hope for a better tomorrow. Perhaps Kraken’s most famous song, “Muere Libre”, is an energetic and spirited anthem that calls for people to fight for their dreams, or as Elkin states:
No vivas para ser por temor (Don’t live in fear and to be)
La presa de otros sueños (the prey of other dreams)
Se vive una vez para ser (You only live once to be)
Eternamente libre…!! (Eternally Free!!)
The biggest drawback one could mention about Kraken I is the production job, a likely consequence of the low budget Kraken were afforded to record this album plus the lack of experience the producer of this album must have had. This is something to be expected as Rock and Metal do not have the same degree of popularity in Colombia compared to the more tropical sounds prevalent in this region (salsa, cumbia, merengue, etc). The production really takes away some of the punch from the guitar work, which sounds raw and unpolished. While I personally do not mind the production so much, it’s more suited for a demo than a full length.
After this release of this album, Kraken exploded in popularity and had a very successful career up until the untimely passing of Elkin in 2017. The legacy of Kraken continues to this day, not just because they were the Heavy Metal band that achieved the most commercial success in Colombian history – but also for the hope instilled by their music and lyrics. Elkin was such a revered figure in his hometown of Medellin that after his passing, his family received a letter from then President Juan Manuel Santos thanking him for his musical contributions. The city also carried out a funeral procession for him.
For any fans of Spanish speaking Heavy Metal, Kraken’s debut is a must listen. Not just because of its great musical qualities, but also how it represented a shining light in the darkest hours for Colombia. RIP Elkin Ramirez, one of the greats of Colombian metal.
Author’s note: if you want a more detailed context about the state of Colombia in the 1980s and the importance of Elkin Ramirez for the national music scene – I recommend this excellent in-depth article on Vice.
Album rating: 90/100
Favourite track: “Escudo y Espada”