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This band is all over the place! - 70%

failsafeman, February 9th, 2008

Disclaimer #1: Don’t let the score of this album put you off giving it a try; this is another one of those albums that’s worth hearing for the good songs, even if you skip the bad ones.

Disclaimer #2: It is very helpful to me, and will be for you as well, to think of this album not as a Swedish heavy metal band with some progressive rock tendencies, but rather as the other way around. Trust me, keep that in mind and you will avoid the headaches that I had to endure when first getting into this album without the benefit of any introduction.

Before I jump into the meat of the album, which is confusing as all hell, I’ll just describe the sound a bit first. The musicians are all top-notch, and when I say they’re the best the Swedish scene of the time had to offer, it’s with full knowledge of the boys in Silver Mountain. In terms of sheer technical ability, that’s a bit more debatable, but in my book having all those chops and then exercising restraint counts for more than wanking all over the place (I’m looking at you, Yngwie). In any case, I’d say at its best, the songwriting in Biscaya is stronger than in Silver Mountain, but the latter were certainly much more consistent with what they wanted to write. Biscaya could’ve benefited from a bit of that focus. The keyboard work is a highlight; at times right up front, at times strategically understated, it reminds me of a cross between Jon Lord of Deep Purple and Keith Emerson from ELP. Mads Clausen’s vocals are also very good, very professional, and he’s got a nice, warm tone. He sings in a high tenor, but never breaks into falsetto; his style reminds me of Freddie Mercury’s without as much edge, though of course he lacks the same level of charisma. The production is pretty much dead-on, and I can’t really find anything to complain about, except maybe that the guitar tone is a bit weak, and a tad too far back in the mix; however, if we remember disclaimer #2, we see that the guitar tone is instead rather mean and up-front for prog rock.

As for song construction, well, I’ll say that this album is perhaps the most blatantly prog and neoclassical of any metal albums released by 1983; though it’s certainly not metal for many of the tracks, the first one is indisputably so. And man, what an opening track! “Howl in the Sky” is fast, mean, and aggressive, and though the keyboards come in strong in certain places (to great effect), I applaud the band for knowing to pull them way into the background for most of the song. The verses and chorus are just great. SOMEONE MUST DIE! The riffs are a bit simple, but definitely a step above Glory Bell’s Band in terms of complexity. There’s also a bit of speed metal going on in there, and it’s glorious. The next section comes, with the guitar and keyboard trading off solos, after which they join together for the neoclassical bit, and it’s great! Silver Mountain wishes they could write stuff like this. After that the verse comes back in and it’s triumphant as all hell, with just the perfect amount of vocal multi-tracking for each “howl in the sky” in the chorus…crap, what a great song. This song alone justifies that awesome barbarian with a harpoon riding a fish through the waves on the cover. Unfortunately, this is one of those “good news, bad news” times. The good news is that song is fucking great, and metal as hell. The bad news is…yea, it’s by far the most metal song on the album. There’s no “Howl in the Sky Pt. 2”. And this really pisses me off, not because the rest of the songs are garbage (the 70% I gave the album isn’t based on this song alone, after all); no, I’m pissed because I just know they could’ve easily written a whole album of songs that good, but for whatever reason, they chose not to. As I’ve said before, the early 80’s was a time of soul-searching for many bands as they tried to find a solid identity (check Manowar’s first album, for yet another example); well, “a fucking awesome Swedish heavy metal band” is one of the identities Biscaya tried on and decided they didn’t want. But enough moaning and groaning, on to the rest of the album.

“Fools” is a quirky little semi-prog rock song, which I quite like. Even on my imaginary all-metal Biscaya album, I wouldn’t have minded this one in the #2 spot, as a bit of a breather after the fast and furious opener. After that, we have “Summerlove”, which is a ballad; but thankfully, even though it’s definitely not a metal ballad, it’s actually a pretty good one. Reminds me a bit of something mid-period King Crimson would’ve turned out. The vocal performance is quite sincere and heartfelt; the vocal multi-tracking is a bit much, but luckily they don’t use it too often.

And then comes “Weekend”, and what the fuck? It’s a silly rocker, like we had on Glory Bell’s Band’s Dressed in Black! It’s pretty damn entertaining, but as I listen to it I can feel the awesome metal of the first track slipping further and further away. Well, after that “WTF moment”, here comes another: the title track. It’s a keyboard-only piece, over four minutes long…and it’s great. What? Yes, it sounds like one of Virgin Steele’s better interludes, or for a comparison a bit further afield, it reminds me of part of a soundtrack to a good old RPG. You know, the kind that had good soundtracks, like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6, or Lufia 2. It’s quite majestic, and goes through a fair number of mood shifts; throughout the album, ideas that sound really dumb on paper like this one are saved by the band’s great songwriting abilities.

“Singing in Harmony”…well, this is another silly rocker, but unfortunately it’s substantially worse than “Weekend”. What the hell was it with early Swedish heavy metal and silly rockers? This is probably the worst song on the album, and I can barely stand it. Luckily, they follow it up with one of the best; “Sunrise” is a great prog rock song, with a tinge of metal. It’s got a cool, otherworldly atmosphere to it as well, and I really dig the quirky melodies and riffs. I honestly do not understand how a band can go from writing a silly piece of crap like the previous song, to something totally serious and great like this one. After that, we have another ballad, but “Walls” is more metal than “Summerlove”; it’s got a good main riff to it, and the only thing that’s wrong with it is the keyboards that for some reason jump way up front for the chorus, and especially at the end. Woo boy does that repetitive chord progression get annoying.

That brings us to “WTF moment” number three; I guess since the keyboardist had his track, the guitarist gets his (reminds me of that Yes album where each member got his own track). And this one’s pretty good too, with an acoustic classical guitar piece that segues into a bit of flamenco. I’m not familiar with either of those styles, so don’t expect any specific comparisons beyond that; I do however enjoy “Divine Lady of Warmth”, and it’s only a bit over two minutes long, so it doesn’t have a chance to get boring. But what’s that weird splashing at the end of the track? Did the divine lady fall down a well or something? I probably don’t want to know. Lastly, there’s “Rockin’ Vehicles", which is another goddamn silly rocker. It’s better than “Singing in Harmony”, but even though it’s less silly than “Weekend”, it’s not quite as entertaining.

It really pains me to give this album a low score, since there’s definitely some quality here; but unlike Dressed in Black, the good is definitely outweighed by the bad. Again like Glory Bell’s Band, Biscaya forsook their better elements for their second release; the EP On 45 is nothing but silly rockers, and practically valueless (though “Space Bop” is pretty damn entertaining, for what it is). As I said in disclaimer #1, though, don’t dismiss this album; the good songs, “Howl in the Sky”, “Sunrise”, and the title track especially, make this album worth hearing at least once. Just don’t be fooled by the opener into thinking the rest of the album will be the same, or you’ll be hugely disappointed.