Record labels don’t get much more cult than Svart. Based in Turku, Finland, and primarily devoted to the country’s metal scene, the imprint has unearthed many underground treasures in recent years, including early-Nineties efforts from esoteric death-metal crew Demilich and their more stripped-down contemporaries Rippikoulu. But even in this context, their latest effort, a vinyl-only three-LP set containing the complete discography of the Eighties/Nineties-era quintet Santa Lucia and titled Perse Palaa (“Arse Is Burning”), seems like some kind of new benchmark of obscure brilliance. If you’ve heard of this band before and you’re not either from Finland, or a serious connoisseur of that country’s rock subculture of the past few decades, well, our hats off to you. For everyone else, you’re in for a treat.
Based on the only album Santa Lucia released during their initial 1984–1992 lifespan — 1990’s Arktista hysteriaa (“Arctic Hysteria”), included here along with demos and various EP tracks — you might call Santa Lucia a particularly proggy metal band, or an unusually aggressive prog outfit. But then there’s those keyboards … The band’s lengthy, twisty, wildly unpredictable songs often recall dystopian art-metalists Voivod, if they’d spiced up their sound with gothy New Wave and anthemic proto–pop-punk. Take into account that Santa Lucia’s five members, all female, were just 12 when the band formed, and 16 when they signed with Finland’s Poko Rekords, and the sophistication of their sound only becomes that much more impressive.
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Only one track from Perse Palaa, “Hiljainen mies” (“Quiet Man”) is available digitally, but at six action-packed minutes, it’s an apt summation of what makes the band so special. At first, the song hurtles ahead, propelled by a wall of fuzzed-out guitar, spacey keyboards, and the charismatic vocals of Eija “Mape” Morottaja, who punctuates her lines with dramatic rolled “r’s” that recall a youthful Björk. But around the two-minute mark, Santa Lucia (who took their name from a Christian holiday celebrated in Scandinavia where young girls walk in processions wearing white robes and lighted wreaths) pull one of their trademark scene-shifts, downshifting into an almost serene half-time instrumental section featuring gorgeous lead-guitar work from Kati “Aide” Pyykkö and, later, eerily dissonant synth textures from Mari-Anne “Sipe” Mäki. The song ends with a merciless prog-thrash workout worthy of Master of Puppets–era Metallica, punctuated by a few beastly growls from Mape. Like Santa Lucia as a whole, the track is both bewildering and giddily exhilarating.
Information on Santa Lucia in English is scarce, and it’s especially tantalizing that the booklet for Perse Palaa — packed with charming photos showing the spiky-haired members posing on jungle gyms and post-apocalyptic stage sets, and strolling down snowy city streets — features text exclusively in Finnish. But there are a few hints as to where the band’s weird, polyglot sound may have stemmed from. On a Teen Beat–style info sheet, guitarist Aide lists her influences as Sade, Duran Duran, Pink Floyd, and Iron Maiden, while other members cite everything from Faith No More to Cyndi Lauper.
Another thing that stands out when perusing the Perse Palaa package is how much fun the group seem to be having in one another’s company. Both in the archival photos, and in shots taken after Santa Lucia reunited for reunion gigs in 2011, all five members are often beaming. It’s clear that their unique sound arose from tight-knit solidarity and a healthy sense of fun.
“Most of us have known each other since the age of 7,” the members write in a joint statement (and please pardon any awkwardness arising from our use of Google Translate). “We were 12 when we formed the band, at 16 we got a recording contract and at 21 we quit. We were cool, self-indulgent, wacky … . This was not easy for everyone to digest. In the 1980s, many people were tight-lipped about how girls should be, live and behave, but fortunately we were not pressed into the boxes created by these expectations. Rebellion, going our own way and appreciating all difference have always been part of us.”
Both the band and Svart deserve serious kudos for this set. We can only hope that they’re able to issue Perse Palaa digitally at some point: Santa Lucia’s sound might be esoteric but the emotions that fueled it are universal.