What does it take to breathe new life into a genre that is seemingly resistant to change? In the surprisingly ever-elitist world of metal, it’s no easy feat to introduce something different without meeting the standard aversion to new ingredients being added to the formula. Even harder, is to do so without being branded with the dread epithet, “sell out.” That’s not to say that it can’t be done. Ankla’s debut album, Steep Trails, skillfully blends traditional thrash metal with Latin rhythms, which makes for astonishing results.
Spanish for “anchor”, Ankla is itself anchored down by former Puya guitarist, Ramón Ortíz. Fed up with the nü-metal limitations of his old band, Ortiz formed Ankla as an outlet to create something fresh. But it’s never as simple as “heavy” in the overly-compartmentalized world of metal. While bands such as Ill Niño and Puya have incorporated a small dose of Latin flavor and guitar-stylings into the sphere of nü-metal, the unflinchingly rap-rock vocals contain them strictly within their own category. Similarly, Brazil’s Sepultura stood as North America’s first real class in South American Metal 101. Their merger of groove metal with Brazilian and African tribal music innovated new pathways in the genre. Keeping within the same family (almost literally, with Sepultura vocalist Max Cavalera leaving to form the outfit), Soulfly continued tribal metal fusion, although neither Cavalera-fronted band truly integrated more traditional (as opposed to tribal) Latin music with metal.
That’s where Ankla comes in. Without knowing the impetus behind the band’s formation, Ankla is recognizable as precisely the type of project put together by musicians driven by the passion to create something different in a genre littered with laughable clichés that pack more punchline than punch. On Steep Trails, Ramón Ortíz and company combine the metal-mainstay of throttling riffs with traditional Spanish guitar and percussion blended with tribal drumming. In addition to Latin sounds, Ankla also adds traces of Middle Eastern music to the mix, most noticeable on “Still Alive” and “Scattered Existence”.
Clearly the band’s most outstanding feature, Ortíz’s guitar work achieves a rarity in the world of metal and thrash. Simply put, it’s innovative. On songs such as “Seasons Never Change” and “Deceit”, the guitarist demonstrates both his range and proficiency. “Deceit”, in particular, showcases the best facets of his work, beginning with Spanish guitar that transitions smoothly to the crunching, bottom-heavy riffs that chug out the song’s beat. To throw out a few of the requisite comparisons in an attempt to pinpoint Ortíz’s style, the guitarist combines the heavy Latin overtones of Carlos Santana with Steve Steven’s hard rock bag of tricks and tremendous Spanish guitar work, and then tops it off with the pyrotechnics, speed, and ass-kicking power of the late, great Dimebag Darrell.
As multi-layered as its founder’s guitar style may be, Ankla pushes the envelope even further by including not one, but two percussionists in its lineup. Pepé Clarke Magaña tackles the rapid-fire drums that are a staple of metal music, while Oscar Santiago is the group’s other percussionist responsible for enhancing Magaña’s beats with more traditional Latin rhythms usually not found in such a heavy atmosphere. Scattered throughout Steep Trails, evidence of the effectiveness of Ankla’s dual-drum assault makes itself known. Both drummers’ styles work exceptionally well with one another and add a unique dimension to the band’s sound. “Your Grace Makes Me Sick” is propelled forward by its machine gun fills with light touches to the cymbals before crashing back with punishing, heavy hits at just the right moments of the song. Latin bongos join the fracas, supplementing the rattling snare and lending more depth to the track’s hard-hitting power.
The disc’s intro, “Sinking”, pulls together the best elements of Ankla and gives the listener a good five across the eyes, er… ears, rather. The track starts off with a brightly-colored Spanish guitar solo as the tribal-meets-traditional drums click behind Ortíz’s riffs. Adding to the polished, yet primal effect are lead singer Ikaro Stafford Santana’s vocals, kicking in with a throaty grit that still allows the listener to understand most of what he’s saying. In a genre clogged with Cookie Monster sound-alikes, that’s always a plus.
There are moments throughout, however, when Ankla falls off the cliff that Steep Trails places before them. At times, it seems that the band tries too hard to stake their claim and brand a new style, incorporating elements for the sake of adding them, rather than fitting them together cohesively. On “Suelta El Ankla”, following the grinding, hard thrash that stands as the track’s backbone, Ortíz throws in a beautiful yet disembodied flamenco solo at the song’s coda. While the piece certainly shows off the guitarist’s considerable skill, it seems out of place and could have been more cleverly woven into the fabric of the song.
While certainly breaking new ground, Ankla doesn’t entirely break cleanly away from the nü-metal mold. On several tracks, Stafford-Santana’s roar gives way to rap-rock vocals and a small handful of songs come off as overly-formulaic. The disc itself is musically sound from beginning to end, regardless of whatever style the band attempts to carry per track. Lyrically, however, Steep Trails produces some uneven moments. Whereas most of the songs contain thought provoking lyrics that work with the music, rather than against it, “Flush” stands as an example of the metal cliché of over-repetition of phrases.
In attempting to create something new, there are always a few stumbling blocks. Some experiments work whereas others fail. Overall, in spite of some minor faults, with Steep Trails, Ankla builds a solid foundation for a new direction of Latin metal and delivers a disc that would satisfy even the most critical of change-resistant metal fans.