(Zoo Entertainment/BMG Music, 1992)
Diablero: this title is intriguing. The Spanish root word is diablo, meaning devil, but diablero implies a more expansive definition. According to the world’s most reliable source, The Internet™, diablero refers to a person who is some sort of black sorcerer and manifests a sense of overall evilness. Most interestingly, a diablero is also a shapeshifter, able to transform himself into a dog, a bird, or any other sort of animal or creature. The word, used primarily by the Sonoran Indians, also involves the innate and eternal struggle to reconcile man’s divine and primal natures. The diablero attempts to achieve this balance by squelching his divine instincts in favor of the most base and animalistic desires. It’s not exactly what Yoda had in mind.
Still, the title invokes a sense of power, wonder, fantasy, and mysticism, all qualities that correspond perfectly with heavy metal. The fact that Drive’s second album couldn’t have been more aptly-titled is an extreme understatement. Back in 1992, the Houston-formed, L.A.-based melodic speed metal/hard rock quintet created the quintessential (not intentional symmetrical alliteration, I swear) unsung gem in Diablero. Not only do the lyrics convey all the mystery and poignant emotion that the title implies, but the music is stellar. These songs ooze with divine vocal melodies, powerful-yet-melodic twin-guitar riffs, consistently catchy hooks, and an impeccable use of dynamic contrasts. Yes, Diablero is that good. So, why have you never heard of it?
That is the epitome of a loaded question and quandary this writer is not qualified to solve. For some background, Drive had cut their teeth as young teenagers in the Houston scene before moving to L.A. in the mid ‘80s. Their debut album, Characters In Time, stood tall as the epitome of U.S. melodic speed metal at its finest. Released on Rampage Records in 1988, then a division of Rhino, Characters received loads of positive press, including the ever-elusive “5K” rating from Kerrang. The album also received substantial radio airplay across the homeland, most notably from the famous KNAC in L.A. As an interesting side note, Kiss’ Eric Singer is credited as having played drums on Characters.
By the early ‘90s, Drive had generated enough momentum to be picked up by a larger label, the BMG subsidiary Zoo (later made famous and successful by Tool) for Diablero. The label had good enough distribution for average metal fans like myself to find the CD at chain stores like Best Buy. If it weren’t for a good friend of mine, TML’s own Craig Wisnom, having included “An Eagle Soars” on a mix tape, I never would have thought to look for it there (eternal thanks, CW!). Needless to say, the album received little push from Zoo and has since floundered perpetually in obscurity. Even at the time I bought the album, about 1994 or so, it was astonishing to me that nobody in the metal underground knew or cared enough to buzz about Drive, though Diablero was fairly readily available. To this day, that’s a tragic irony that still perplexing.
It’s a damn shame, too, because this is a timeless blast of powerful, yet innovative and eclectic, melodic metal. Drive’s music is fundamentally powered by the impassioned, high-range vocals of David Taylor, and the concurrently aggressive and infectious guitar riffs of Rick Chavez. Just try not to sing your guts out in the shower to the chorus of “Shapeshifter” or to resist headbanging your neck out of alignment to the monstrously speedy and galloping riffs of “An Eagle Soars.” Conversely, Diablero is far from a run-of-the-mill, one-dimensional traditional heavy-metal record. Rather, Drive peppers the album with songs and musical elements that stray far from the metal genre; the album includes slow blues, funk, Latin and Native American influences, and multiple bona-fide power ballads. Those who prefer their metal stylistically streamlined may be disappointed in Diablero’s blatant diversity, as I was upon my first few listens. Gradually, the balance of the album’s sundry styles grew on me like the loveliest fungus one could imagine.
Those heavier tunes, though. Diablero opens with the stately, slow-galloping “Dream Ceremony,” a pseudo-title track that doesn’t actually mention the album’s title in its lyrics. Here Taylor sings about a mystical ritual that conjures ominous images of the black sorcerer, the diablero: Under the stars/spirits fly around/creatures crawl the ground/candles burning down/still I’m not scared/tell me what you see/must know if it’s just me/something won’t let me be/it’s calling me.” Michael Anthony Guerrero’s driving and punchy bass playing shines brightly, as they do throughout the record. “Shapeshifter” is even better, with its crunchy and slightly funky main guitar riff and some of the most serenely beautiful vocal lines in the history of metal. Yes, this song is that good. A compelling, syncopated riff carries the excellent mid-tempo rocker, “Pandilla,” which also includes well-placed flamenco guitar and gorgeous Spanish singing from Taylor.
The furious instrumental “Brujo” delivers a welcome and exhilarating speed-metal assault. “Full Moon Rising” could best be described as nothing short of majestic, resembling Transcendence-era Crimson Glory at their mid-tempo best. Again, Taylor’s vocal melodies are devastatingly divine here. “Remember” finds Drive returning to core of their sound: frenetic, galloping metal infused with melody and crunch. This song is one of Diablero’s best, and its lyrical message lamenting the decline of respect for elders in modern society is poignant: “Doesn’t anybody remember?/our old were our wise/now we don’t give a damn about them/oh what a great society we’ve become.” On “An Eagle Soars,” all of Drive’s best qualities coalesce into one spiritual, inspirational, perfect metal song.
Diablero’s non-metallic songs are also effective, for the most part. “Once Again” and “Barrio Blues” are genuinely emotional power ballads, the latter of a traditional slow-blues base. “Betrayed” is a fun and peppy funk-rock number, not too dissimilar from Extreme or early Chili Peppers, albeit with some Latin, Santana-esque guitar melodies in the chorus. I could still do without the irritating, bad hair-metal stomp of “Money, Marbles and Chalk,” but few albums are perfect. “A Character In Time,” by contrast,” with its melancholy guitar arpeggios and brooding cellos, works magnificently as a dark and haunting metal ballad.
On June 25, 2009, Taylor, while driving on a San Antonio freeway, suffered a tire malfunction, lost control of his vehicle, and crashed. He died at an area hospital five days later at the age of 44. “Doesn’t anybody remember?” You bet. Let the eagle keep soaring and Diablero be your swansong, David Taylor. R.I.P., and eternal cheers.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot