As heavy metal grew in Spain during the 1980s, metal bands appeared in all regions of the country. In the midst of this explosion, on the 14th of August 1988, a new act by the name of Su Ta Gar played their first concert in the small village of Ondarru. Unlike their regional peers, they sung completely in Euskera (Basque). While this might not seem like a big deal, heavy metal there had always been delivered in Spanish to achieve the widest appeal possible. Euskera was reserved for the punk-influenced acts of the Basque radical rock scene. They were received with thunderous support and this was the spark that would push them forward, not knowing the legacy they were about to create.
Su Ta Gar played more and more shows over the coming years, before finally releasing their debut Jaiotze Besatia in 1991 after winning a local battle of the bands contest in Bilbao to great acclaim. Their debut was not just significant for their use of Euskera, but their popurri of influences stretching from foreign sounds that had only just begun appearing more prominently in the Spanish scene. You have the obvious odes to the British gods Judas Priest and Di’Anno-era Iron Maiden. There are several moments when this tribute even falls into outright plagiarism, such as the bass intro to “Sistematik Ihes” which is practically lifted from “Wrathchild”, only to be followed by a riff that could easily be confused for a cover of “Prowler”. In fact most of Asier’s bass playing appears straight from the Steve Harris playbook, but it provides a great rhythmic support throughout the whole album.
The two biggest additions that give Jaiotze Besatia an edge over early Spanish albums are the incorporation of Speed and Power Metal elements from the German scene (Blind Guardian, Helloween) and the harsher sounds of Bay Area Thrash ala Metallica or Testament. The Helloween influence is most felt in two ways: one through the soaring and melodic solos re-occurring across the record, with guitarists Aitor and Xabi not being shy about displaying their penchant for shredding their guitars like no tomorrow – particularly on the album instrumental, “Jaiotze Basatia”. The other is through a potent dose of double bass, delivered courtesy of drummer Borxa who is extremely adept at the drum kit. The thrashier influence rears its heads in several situations, giving the record a coarse sharpness that would make Kirk and James proud, seen in songs such as “David and Goliath” or “Oinazearen Indarra”.
These elements in unison, with the strong songwriting abilities of all the members are what make this record feel so special. While are the members are talented and veering into complex territories, Jaoitze Basatia opts for a straightforward songwriting approach that emphasizes catchy hooks and memorable choruses. Aitor, also on vocal duties, is not going to win an award for best vocalist. Yet his grave tone and emphatic delivery keeps the listener hooked the whole time. It’s very difficult to listen to songs like “Begira”, “David Eta Goliath”, “Zure Atziak” or “Etsi Gabe” and not try to sing along fruitlessly in spite of not speaking Basque.
One tune that highlights all the aforementioned features is “Jo Ta Ke”, one of the last songs on the album. The whole track is a whirlwind of emotions, beginning with an commanding vocal delivery by Aitor before plunging into a whirlwind of melodic, yet frantic riffing and emotional solos that keep you at the edge of your seat. This track has become an anthem for many in the Basque country, particularly among those involved in the Basque independence movement. It would imprudent to talk about Su Ta Gar without mentioning the strong social and political commentary buried within the lyrics in Euskera. Su Ta Gar are proud Basque separatists of a left-wing persuasion – often referred to as izquierda Abertzale in Spain (literally “patriotic left”). While many outside of Spain are only familiar with Basque nationalism through the terrorist group ETA, it’s important to note there is a legitimate and non-violent independence movement. While many had to endure the horrors of ETA’s campaign of terror, many peaceful political reformers in the region were subject to violence from the opposing side – either through harassment, arrests, kidnappings or even death at the hands of state-sponsored paramilitary groups like GAL. Many of Su Ta Gar’s lyrics deal with these struggles or with other issues relevant at the time (heroin addiction, unemployment, etc). The album even ends with an interesting cover of “Haika Mutil”, a song originally by Mikel Laboa – one of the founding fathers of modern Basque music.
Even if you’re not interested in the social and political environment that birthed Su Ta Gar, you can’t go wrong with Jaoitze Basatia. It’s a great album for any speed metal fanatic who like a bit of Thrash in the mix. For those who are intrigued, it not only offers a strong musical output, but a glimpse into the troubling times that faced the Basque country in the late 80s/early 90s.
Album rating: 90/100
Favorite track: Jo Ta Ke