Introduction and Context
To say the 20th Century was difficult for Spain may be an understatement. Once a dominant European power, it had been reduced to a fringe nation mired by poverty and class divisions which eventually culminated in a bloody civil war in 1936. From 1939 until Franco’s death in 1975, Spain remained somewhat of a pariah on the international stage – an ally the West reluctantly accepted in the Cold War versus the Soviet Union.
With the signing of the Constitution in 1978, Spain looked to leave its past behind and to settle in again as a respected West European nation. Throughout the course of the 1980s, the country did just that – first by being classified as a high income nation by the World Bank in 1982 and joining the European Union in 1986. This was a watershed moment for Spaniards, long treated as second class citizens in the continent and one which brought optimism for what the future would bring. Of course, things are never so simple – particularly with a country that had such a sordid past. “La transición” as it’s often referred to, left many wounds open; the victims of the Civil War and the post-war years, the impunity many of Franco’s ex-ministers gained and regional tensions to name a few. All of these are still ever-present issues in Spanish society.
Franco’s passing did not just transform Spain politically, but also socially. The abolishment of religious censorship brought about a new wave of artistic freedom, resulting in what is known as “La Movida”. La Movida was a countercultural movement largely concentrated in Madrid which consisted of new artists bringing in popular foreign sounds of the time – pop, new wave, post-punk, etc. The movida was undoubtedly a repudiation of the old social conservative values that had governed Spain, but was also a movement primarily for the Spanish middle class; who enjoyed these new artists with a good dose of drug consumption and open sexual attitudes.
Parallel to the movida, a new movement was also emerging in the working class neighbourhoods – one with more a metallic and rougher sound.
The Spanish Rock Scene
While Spain under Franco was certainly repressive, it doesn’t mean it was shut off from the world. The Beatles and Rolling Stones were just as big as anywhere else and Spain actually developed a number of musical movements prior to the emergence of metal in the country. Two of the biggest ones were Rock Urbano Español and the Andalucian progressive scene. The former comprised bands like Asfalto, Topo and Leño to name a few. Rock Urbano’s sound was characterized by an adherence to 70s hard rock but lacking the bluesy elements, which gave it a much harsher and “street” sound. The latter was a variant of prog rock, strongly influenced by the region’s penchant for flamenco and with symphonic touches. Bands in this sphere included Medina Azahara, Triana, Mezquita and Alameda.
Up North, trouble was also brewing with the Basques. The region, always a stronghold for Spanish industry and manufacturing was undergoing the same problems the UK and US were with deindustrialization – leaving many unemployed in its wake. Drug abuse exploded (mainly heroin) and the Basque terrorist group ETA became more active, killing 93 people in 1980 alone. This environment is what gave birth to Rock Radical Vasco (Basque Radical Rock) – a loose coalition of punk, hard rock and even some metal bands. Popular names included La Polla Records, Hertzainak or Eskorbuto.
With the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) being all the rage in the European continent, these sounds made their way over to Spain which inspired a new generation of bands to take up the mantle of heavy metal. Spanish metal was proudly working class in its demeanor. Lyrical content was monothematic; songs revolved around the hardships of day to day life and love for rock/drinking/women. Yet metal of the time also dealt with the political climate of the time. Like their rock urbano peers, working class metalheads had no reservations about expressing their frustration at the state of la transición.
Spanish heavy metal had two important epicentres: one was in Vallecas, a traditionally poor neighbourhood in Madrid. The other was Chapa Discos, a label set up by Vicente Ramón “Mariscal”, a journalist and producer that established it in the late 70s to release albums by the likes of Topo or Asfalto. Many Spanish metal releases were published by this label.
In the context of the larger metal scene, Spanish metal never caught on in a significant manner. There are many reasons for this, starting with the fact nearly all the bands sang in Spanish to the fact many bands lacked the musical infrastructure to gain wide distribution and tour internationally – unlike the UK, Germany or Sweden. There was also a sense of self-deprecation, with many “heavys” disliking their national scene and opting to just listen to bands from abroad. But to metal diehards, Spain’s 80s scene is still worth checking out. Whatever the scene may have lacked in originality, it made up for it in charm and passion in the face of zero commercial support. With that in mind, let’s dive in.
No discussion of Spanish heavy metal can omit Barón Rojo. Possibly the most famous of the bunch, with their first three records Larga Vida al Rock N Roll, Volúmen Brutal and Metalmorfosis being staples of what Spanish heavy metal was about: riffs and a carpe diem attitude about life. Sonically, Barón Rojo were an amalgamation of different sounds – from 70s hard rock like Thin Lizzy and AC/DC to the more metallic Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and 70s Judas Priest sound. By Volúmen Brutal, it was obvious Barón Rojo were paying attention to across the ocean as the faster rhythms of the NWOBHM began to become more noticeable in the tempo and directions of the songs. The album even included nods to other influential bands, like the saxophone in “Son Como Hormigas” – which was actually performed by the Saxophonist from King Crimson and Camel.
The band were the closest to achieving international fame with their signing of Mausoleum Records, a label which re-edited their first three albums and the first two were re-recorded with lyrics in English to draw in a wider audience. Sadly this never happened, with Barón Rojo remaining a staple band only in their country as well as Latin America. Regardless of whether Barón Rojo never achieved the same musical fame as big acts in the UK or Germany, their songs mark an important epoch of Spanish history. One in which the nascent democracy was trying to shed its ghosts of the past and one in which people where free to express themselves how they saw fit.
Essential listening: Larga Vida al Rock and Rock, Volumen Brutal, Metalmorfosis
Obús emerged as the counterpoint to Barón Rojo and with a more mid-tempo take on heavy metal – once again sounding like a mix of what you expected bands from back then to sound like (Sabbath, Deep Purple, AC/DC). Not surprising considering Obús were not only from the same city (Madrid), but also Vallecas – an important epicenter for the Spanish metal scene.
Obús’s debut Preparate presents a grittier and less polished sound than Barón Rojo, but one that ultimately does what it should do: produce fun, riff-laden tracks that deal with the day to day problems of a bunch of working class guys. Like Barón Rojo, they were not afraid to dwell into more serious territory as evidenced by tracks like “Petrodolares” or “Pesadilla Nuclear”.
Yet if there was one thing to single out from Obús, it would be the videoclip they made for their song “Preparate”. Even if you don’t like metal, this videoclip offers a good glimpse into what Madrid looked like at the onset of the 80s – grimey and grubby.
Essential listening: Prepárate
In a scene dominated in major part by men, Santa were a standout. Arguably the most famous woman in Spanish metal, Azucena’s vocals were noticeable in that they were raspy, but capable of hitting high notes when necessary. While their catalogue spanned through several albums, their debut, Reencarnación, is far and away their best. Even without their charismatic singer, Santa were a standout in the scene for being one of the first examples of Spanish Speed Metal. Reencarnación alternates between the conventional, more mid-paced heavy metal stylings that Obús and Barón Rojo were writing early on to more rapid numbers such as the title track – a powerful speed metal anthem.
Santa’s band history was one plagued by constant infighting which eventually led to her departure before their final album, Templario. By this time, like many other Spanish bands, the allure of commercial success meant a change of sound was done to ensure remaining relevant in the eyes of the mainstream. This last album adopted a more hard rock/AOR sound which failed to captivate their audience or the general public, leading to Santa’s break up.
While many old heavy metal bands have seen newfound popularity in the new millennium, this never happened to Santa due to the tragic passing of Azucena in 2005. Nonetheless, the legacy of Santa persists and Azucena’s contributions to women in metal continue.
Recommended listening: Reencarnación
While many of the aforementioned bands consist of individuals who began their famous musical careers with those bands, that was not the case of Banzai. The founder, Salvador Domínguez, was already an established musician who had played with Miguel Rios (famous Spanish rock star) for many years. In 1981, he assembled some musicians to try his hand at heavy metal. After a decent debut, Banzai defied the sophomore slump to release Duro y Potente. Dominguez’s years as a pop/rock musician certainly left a mark, because this album’s greatest strengths lie in its catchiness. Dominguez was extremely good at writing catchy, anthemic choruses with fantastic guitar leads. To increase international attention, they enlisted the help of UFO’s former keyboardist Danny Peyronel and produced the album with Judas Priest’s former drummer, Dave Holland.
Banzai broke up not long after this album, with Dominguez moving on to form another band named Tarzen which he hoped would bring him more commercial success as they sung in English. While Banzai were short lived, their legacy endures. Their one and only reunion concert in 2012 attracted over 20 thousand attendants.
Recommended listening: Duro y Potente
Santa may have flirted with speed metal on their debut, but Muro were the undisputed kings of Spanish Speed Metal. After a bunch of demos and a live album, their debut Telon de Acero burst onto the scene – sounding like no other band (in Spain anyway) at the time.
Telon de Acero was a mix of every classic speed act of the time – 80s Priest, Accept, Exciter but with a Spanish flair. Right from the title track, you are treated to a non-stop barrage of riff after riff. Accompanying this constant onslaught is the voice of Silver, a man with the capability of any high note imaginable. Around the time Telon de Acero came out, thrash was beginning to gain traction in Spain. There are many instances in the album when it becomes apparent the Muro lads had been inspired by Kill Em All, whether in the aforementioned title track or in other fast bangers like “No Aguanto Más”.
Muro continued to produce decent output until their rupture in the early 90s. Muro reunited in the 00s and have published a few records since then. However, none really come close to the magic of the debut.
Recommended listening: Telón de Acero
Ángeles del Infierno
While most Spanish metal was coming from Madrid, the North sought to make a mark as well. Coming from the capital of Vizcaya, Bilbao, Ángeles del Infierno were purveyors of the most blue collar metal imaginable. Their first full length, Pacto con el Diablo is a mid-paced heavy metal heaven which was obviously influenced by the output of early 80s Priest. Right from the first track, “Maldito Sea tu Nombre”, you are treated to Juan Gallardo’s powerful vocals and desire to be the Spanish equivalent of Rob Halford. While the themes of Angeles’s songs were largely the same as other bands of the era (sex, drugs, women), some of the songs deal with the more somber reality of their working class upbringing – such as “Sangre” and “Condenados a Vivir”.
Recommended listening: Un Pacto con el Diablo
Other National Stalwarts
Ñu are an emblematic band of Spanish rock, debuting in 1978 with Cuentos de Ayer y de Hoy. While the album is largely a folk prog rock affair ala Jethro Tull, there are moments in the album which recall early Sabbath and Priest. For this reason there has always been a debate in certain (nerdy) circles as to whether Ñu is just a hard rock/prog rock band or are they metal enough. Regardless, the growing popularity of heavy metal in Spain during the early 80s was not lost on them – as their records become more and more metalized.
This culminated in the release of Fuego, an album that for all intents and purposes can be considered heavy metal. What made Fuego so unique was that Ñu never lost their prog rock edge. At moments this sounds like a heavier Jethro Tull/King Crimson/Yes. More importantly, there is a strong presence of folk in the album – nearly 10 years before Skyclad began doing so.
Recommended listening: Fuego
The common traits many bands mentioned here share in common is the phenomenon of fizzling out creatively after a short while. In Spanish metal, there is definitely a feeling that either the first or the second album of the bands mentioned here tend to be the best. Panzer are an exception to the rule, gradually changing their sound and becoming more interesting musically as time went on.
At the time of their first album, Al Pie del Cañon, this band in Madrid proved to be musically competent but not interesting enough to stand out in an increasingly crowded field which included acts like Barón Rojo, Obús and Mazo to name a few. The album was not bad by any means, sounding like synthy late 70s HM record ala Rainbow/Scorpions/Priest. With the NWOBHM sounds creeping further into the Spanish musical panorama, they needed more to stay relevant. The following year, Panzer followed up with Sálvese quien Pueda, a record that was a definite step up musically and borrowed heavily on Maiden’s guitar chops.
Yet the real revelation came with 1985’s Toca Madera, recorded in the same studio as Defenders of the Faith and featuring the iconic Abuela del Rock – an old lady from Vallecas who was in a mainstay in metal concerts throughout the course of the 80s. From the get go, everything about this album feels tighter. The sound is rougher and more metallic, the solos more precise and the vocals more mean than before. The tempo is considerably faster, the bass is very audible and the songs are catchier than ever before. This was the album Panzer really needed to catapult themselves into the top tier of Spanish metal.
Panzer released one more album after this (Caballeros de Sangre) which followed the same route as Toca Madera, but failed to up their musical game even further. Shortly after, Panzer broke up.
Recommended listening: Sálvese Quien Pueda, Toca Madera
80s Spanish metal’s entrenched relationship with working class culture has always been evident, which is why Crom were an anomaly for two reasons. For one, they were university educated and secondly, sang in English. As inane as this may sound nowadays, it did attract negative attention back in the day from certain personalities in the scene – such as the famous metal radio personality Juan Pablo “El Pirata” Ordoñez. Being able to speak English at the time was (and to be honest is still some extent) a way to denote you had access to a more privileged education.
Crom were not just different because of their social background, musically they were also very disparate from their Iberian peers. While Spanish metal always looked towards the UK for musical inspiration, Crom’s first album was an attempt to craft early epic metal – taking cues from Manowar and leads not too dissimilar to Mercyful Fate. Rather than dealing with the gritty nature of daily life, the lyrics were influenced by fantasy themes (their band name should be a hint).
The result is mixed to be frank. Steel for an Age makes for a frustrating listening experience, as there as many flashes of brilliance in the guitarwork but is let down by an atrocious production job, sloppy out of tune drumming and vocals that leave something to be desired. On their follow-up, Wasteland, Crom began to incorporate a mixture of their original sound with some thrash. Sadly, they split up not long after and never releasing their third album.
Crom may not be in the same league as their influences, but their importance to the national scene is evident. Failing to conform to the standard sounds of the time; instead forging their own unique take on metal and demonstrating heavy metal is something that can be enjoyed across all social stratas.
Recommended listening: Steel for an Age
Éxodo were the only other band in Spain apart from Crom (to my knowledge) who sang in English. Their grasp on the language was not exactly fluent, evidenced both by Iñaki’s vocals and the lyrics (read “Heart in Flames” if you want a chuckle). Whatever lack of prowess Éxodo had linguistically was more than made up with their fast tempo riffing and catchy guitarwork. In spite of its defects, The New Babylon remains an important Spanish release, blurring the line between traditional heavy and speed metal.
Recommended listening: The New Babylon
Spanish heavy metal may have gravitated towards the capital, Madrid, but this did not stop the Catalan band Tigres from making an impression on the scene. Going through a slew of names before settling on Tigres, the band released their first full length in 1984 with the title Listos Para el Asalto. Musically, like with the rest of Spanish bands, there was a strong adoration for UK metal – with riffs lifted anywhere from Iron Maiden, Saxon, Judas Priest among any others. In fact, one of the curiosities on the album is the lone English track “London Woman” which could easily be mistaken for an obscure NWOBHM single. In spite of whatever originality Tigres may have lacked, they were talented songwriters that emphasised catchy guitar hooks and big sing-a-long choruses. Like many others, Tigres embarked on a more commercial route that failed to take off and resulted in their break up.
Recommended listening: Listos para el Asalto
Goliath were a short lived project from Madrid who only managed to release one full length before morphing into a more popular, AOR sounding band by the name of Jupiter. What they left in their wake was a fun hard rock/heavy metal album with songs about love, rock and alcohol. Nothing mindblowing by any means, but a fun listen.
Recommended listening: Goliath
A Basque band that appeared towards the tail end of the Spanish golden era for heavy metal, Thor tried to stand out by playing a meld of different styles in their first album. While heavy metal at its core, there are many touches of speed and thrash thrown in to give a good variety to their sound. They went on to release another album a year later that failed to have much of an impact. A good listen for completionists.
Recommended listening: La Ley de la Fuerza
Zeus were a Catalan band that debuted with what is possibly the best single here. “Dama de Hierro/Buscando Acción” is pure frenetic heavy metal adrenaline, invoking the fast and punkish sounds of NWOBHM acts like Jaguar or Virtue. Sadly, by the time of their debut, Zeus had softened quite a bit and adopted a more commercial sound that lacked the raw attitude of their single. A couple of good tracks here and there, but nothing compared to what the single hinted at.
Recommended listening: Dama de Hierro/Buscando Acción
Sobredosis may not always be mentioned when reminiscing about old Spanish metal, arguably because they were a bit of latecomers to the scene with their first effort dropping in 1984. Nonetheless, Caliente como un Volcán is a fun, no thrills record that deserves at least a mention. What can feel about tiring about this release is the songs largely revolved around the same tropes we all know by now – rock, love and drugs. Musically, Sobredosis were a lot more mid-tempo than some of their other peers, sounding closer to 70s hard rock like Scorpions/UFO with some touches of early NWOBHM. This sound persisted in their follow up, Sangre Joven (with the inclusion of an awful ballad and a cover of Doctor Doctor), after which they broke up until the late 00s when they released a reunion album.
Recommended listening: Caliente como un Volcán
Another Catalan band that achieved a brief commercial spell at the time of their inception, getting label support from Odeon and EMI throughout the initial course of their career. Animal de Ciudad adds nothing new to the game, but is a consistent heavy metal album that will satisfy most die hards of the genre.
Recommended listening: Animal de Ciudad
Zarpa followed a similar trajectory to Ñu. They were one of the leading figures of Rock Urbano Español in the late 70s, considered legends in their native Valencia. Around the early 80s, they took on a more metallic sound on ¿Angeles o Demonios?. But Zarpa really achieved their peak (metalwise) with Herederos de un Imperio. Herederos is one of those Spanish metal albums that never goes the full way, in the sense the album is still chokeful of Rock Urbano and prog rock influence from their early days – the most distinguishable feature being the abundant (but tasteful) use of synths.
Recommended listening: Herederos de un Imperio
Leize are more known for their Hard Rock/Rock Urbano albums, but their first entry is well embedded in a metallic sound reminiscent of the NWOBHM pioneers (a common occurrence by now as you might be aware). Devorando las Calles alludes well to the themes of the album, largely revolving around the social problems consuming the Basque country during this period (drug abuse, destitution, unemployment). The music is rough around the edges, embracing an unpolished sound which is especially present during their roaring solos. A good relic of the era.
Recommended listening: Devorando las Calles
Smaller (Regional) Players
Subterraneo were a short lived act whose only full length was a private pressing (and an unreleased LP from 92). Listening to Toledo, as rough and amateurish as it is, you definitely feel the passion that went behind the scenes recording this. If a highlight has to be mentioned, it is without a doubt the title track, an ode to the historically important city that features an endless display of melodic riffs and a chorus that will be stuck in your head for days.
Recommended listening: Toledo
Andalucia was one of the most important regions for Spanish rock in the 70s, but somehow that did not translate into a thriving metal scene. Acracia were one of the few bands from that era and while they failed to achieve much popularity, La Otra Sevilla has very memorable moments. Spanish heavy metal has never shied away from political themes, but Acracia made their debut as politically charged as possible (the name even refers to a strain of Anarcho-Syndicalist thought). Song after song, Acracia’s Rock Urbano laced Heavy Metal lashes out against sexism, worker oppression, American imperialism and marginalization. It’s an enjoyable slab of uncompromising lefty metal.
Recommended listening: La Otra Sevilla
Possibly the rarest band here (not even listed on MA); Hades were a short lived project of Niko Del Hierro, who went on to achieve great fame with Saratoga in the 90s. Their only recorded material was very limited (anywhere between 50 to 100 copies). The highlight of this short EP is definitely the title track which forges a very epic atmosphere around it, partly thanks to the great vocal work of Gerardo.
Recommended listening: Entre el Fuego y la Cruz
Valencian band that only produced a two song demo, featuring some of the most high pitched vocals in Spanish metal history that would make Halford blush. The sound is very Motorhead-ish, with a gritty production job to complement it.
Recommended listening: Atila
More than their musical output, Mazo are remembered as being a springboard for the musical careers of drummer Manolo Caño (Obús and Triton) and bassist Julio Díaz (Santa). They released one album and subsequently vanished, a decision stemming from the poor sales of it. Mazo may not be a Barón Rojo or Santa, but their self-titled release is a good “meat and potatoes” experience where you know what you’re getting. What sets Mazo apart is their slightly punkier vibe, bringing flashes of Overkill/Ace of Spades but with more melodic singing. José, the lead singer and composer of this album does a good job of crafting short and catchy tunes that itch the needs of any heavy metal aficionado.
Recommended listening: Mazo
A little known band from San Sebastian that came as quickly as the vanished, leaving behind one album titled Juego Sucio in 1986. By this point, Shock were too late as they had nothing original to contribute. Just some good old fashioned metal, straddling the line between Rock Urbano with some metallic flashes.
Recommended listening: Juego Sucio
Caid Deceit may have only issued one demo to their name, but two of their songs ended up on the cult compilation Descarga Norte. This split is legendary in Spanish metal circles as it was an exhibit of the Northern Spanish talents of the time, including the well-known (at least nationally) thrash act Estigia. Beyond this fact, Caid Deceit were quite different from other acts at the time, sounding like a thrashier version of early Helloween/Blind Guardian and some of the material is even reminiscent of USPM like Vicious Rumors/Queensryche. Sadly, Caid Deceit was laid to rest shortly after and Dyssit was formed in their wake.
Recommended listening: Rock Libre
Honorary Mention: Su Ta Gar
Su Ta Gar’s first effort falls out of the time period talked about in this article (1980-1989), but given the high quality of said album and the fact quite a few of the songs were written in the 80s, it would almost be a crime not to include them. Unlike all their other metal peers, Su Ta Gar made a conscious decision to sing in their native Basque – something generally unheard of in the region’s scene.
Jaiotze Basatia might be the crowning jewel of Basque metal, an album that alternates between so many moods because of its amalgamation of influences. On the one hand, like any good Iberian metal record, there is healthy dose of Maiden-isms in the abundant presence of twin guitar melodies. Yet many of the riffs are also inspired by Bay Area thrash like Metallica or Testament. The tempo is relentless, sounding like a more frantic Walls of Jericho, Follow the Blind or even Skeptics Apocalypse.
Most importantly, this album has a raw and visceral attitude many of the aforementioned bands lacked. One should remember Su Ta Gar grew up with Basque Radical Rock and lived through some of the hardest moments in the history of the region. While are there are many choice cuts to pick from, the closer “Jo Ta Ke” is far and away their best song and a cry against what Su Ta Gar was the Spanish state’s repression against the Basques. While the term “underrated gem” is almost a comical phrase nowadays, Su Ta Gar’s debut fully deserves that endorsement and a serious listen for all fans of Heavy/Speed Metal with a thrash edge.
Recommended listening: Jaoitze Basatia