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To be alive today, fifteen years after Rata Blanca first tasted fame in mid-Eighties Argentina by playing traditional hard rock and a variation of melodic heavy metal, is a miracle. Walter Giardino, the band's leader, guitarist, and main songwriter, says that to be able to release a new album, and to be touring the U.S. and Latin America -- as it did last October -- is, to put it mildly, "a double or a triple miracle, especially considering where we're coming from."
The economic crisis in Argentina is only responsible to a certain degree for what happened to Rata Blanca (White Rat) after its first five successful years, when it scored major sales thanks to a sticky power ballad à la Whitesnake's David Coverdale called "Mujer Amante" ("She Lover"), and then slowly but gradually faded out. In its wonder years, Rata Blanca created a mainstream heavy metal phenomenon that survived the insistent airplay of Brit bands the Cure, Depeche Mode, and Erasure and local favorites Soda Stereo. When Nirvana broke in the United States in 1991 using Seventies musical references, leaving no space for Eighties synthesizer bands, traditional hard rock groups were also wiped off the radio as part of the grunge evolution.
Rata Blanca could have gone that way too, but instead of dying the band became a top seller by reviving Seventies references like a falsetto singer and a guitar hero in the classic Brit rock format inspired by Deep Purple. It even experimented with a symphonic orchestra, as its idols did in 1969, while the cash was still rolling in from "Mujer Amante" -- by then covered by popular cumbia bands that found the song irresistible.
Ten years after its heyday -- following multiple lineup changes, four studio albums, two compilations, a live CD, and even a solo Giardino effort with side band Temple -- "Mujer Amante" has been included again in a Rata Blanca album. El Camino del Fuego (Highway on Fire), just released in the U.S. through local indie label Delanuca, includes an unplugged version of the hit song, co-written by Giardino and singer Adrian Barilari; it wraps up the album, recorded in Buenos Aires between March 2001 and March 2002.
"That song fed everybody up, including us, but it gave me a lesson. It showed me that it's not about you, it's about the people," says the guitarist who, when asked to include an acoustic song on the new CD, had no doubt about which one. "It has a strong connection with our past but also represents the present time, and it sounds terrific," brags Giardino, "to be in a big stadium totally overwhelmed by screams, without being able to hear anything but this huge chorus of thousands singing 'Mujer Amante,' that's priceless. To feel just a little bit Beatle once in a while is something that I'll always owe to that song."
Besides "Mujer Amante," though, the new songs show the band lyrically and musically stuck in the original formula. Giardino's explanation is direct. He says that Rata Blanca ignores trends. "We look at the Seventies or Eighties because that musical period was fabulous, everything was much better then than it is now. I miss the time when you had to play hard or to be a virtuoso just to get onstage," grieves Giardino. He doesn't think his band should update its sound at this point: "As musicians we have nothing to do with trends. I'm not going to wear shorts and pretend to be nu-metal to survive."