Review Summary: The best damn rock album you've never heard of.
This century, there has been little to no correlation between how popular an artist is and the quality of their music. This makes it all the more frustrating that while Santeria have answered the question of "Is it still possible to make perfect rock music?" with a blinding "Yes," they are still in the depths of the ocean in terms of obscurity, or in their case, the depths of a Louisiana swamp. Santeria have been lurking in the Lafayette underground since the early 90s before breaking up in 2003 after one notable album, House of the Dying Sun
, and their drummer's near-death experience that resulted in an inability to use his legs and so play drums. However, his passion never died, and in 2008, after making a recovery, the band reformed to deliver their magnum opus.
At first, Year of the Knife may seem like a fairly typical Southern-influenced rock album with its opening trio of apparently standard three-and-a-half-minute rock songs, though this is not entirely the case and the album takes a turn to the more psychedelic and heart-in-mouth emotional as it progresses.
Opener 'Come On, Baby' may have a generic name but heck is it catchy, Dege Legg's wonderful raw but gentle voice propelling the song along, coupled with the unconventional and endlessly enjoyable use of power chords and wah-wah riffs found throughout the album. It only takes until the middle section of sequent track 'Leave Something Witchy' for the album to soar, with an extremely intense crescendo of drum fills and Legg's glaring vocals, repeating "one... and one..." over and over. The only problem with this is that it happens so fast and unexpectedly - breaking free from a normal song structure - that if you blink, you'll miss it.
What this song does push to the forefront is Indian drummer Krishna Kasturi’s masterful percussion work. Bringing in an Eastern edge to Santeria's sound with cyclical poly-rhythms, each song is given an unpredictable and dynamic pulse which creates just that bit more of emotional impact to make every song outstanding.
Santeria's lyricism is another point to applaud. They steer away from Southern-rock clichés of "babes, booze and bikes," instead opting for soulful words like those of Nowhere To Go's stirring bridge "like a flower on an ocean / watching the cities burn / watching the world fall / watching the world burn." With Legg's delivery and Kasturi's impactful drumwork, lyrics that are not necessarily outstanding are made to seem like something special. The album takes a change of direction with next track 'Haunted Heart,' repeating a single wah-wah riff to verge on psychedelia before suddenly slowing down to a blistering yet simple solo halfway through before a spine-chilling spoken monologue of "In our time we have set forth to put flower to flame, flame to flower and flower back again to flame..."
This is where the band live up to their name taken from an occult form of Christianity, invoking mystical imagery such as this with lines like "versed in a language that only assassins use." It all comes to a head in the second last, title track that circles round the ambiguous concept of what the 'Year of the Knife' actually is, lyrics like "they'll take our women as our wives... we must kill them to survive" painting a post-apocalyptic picture before descending into a hallucinatory, mellotron-led second half accompanied by tribal drumbeats.
Clearly this is a very varied album, with original musical ideas (no matter how subtle) and deeper-than-expected lyrical meanings that slowly reveal themselves. This is one of its greatest strengths, being accessible and catchy first time round, and still being surprising and rewarding on repeated listenings.
The songs that strike this balance best are foot-stomping ballad 'Mexico' and centrepiece 'HWY To The Morning Star' which mark the album's first build-up and climax of emotional intensity, started from the very first track. The former begins with a fanfare of drums and horns, giving way to gentle acoustic guitar and piano, plus gorgeous lyrics that I can't help but quote "You were a killer down in Mexico / watching John the Baptist drown / the angel of Guadalupe / whispering in your ear." This is accompanied by subtle wailing guitars in the background, creating a lamenting atmosphere which, along with a rousing chorus, builds to another solo that is uncomplicated but feels all the more natural and heartrending for it.
The latter song is quite certainly the album and band's career highlight, starting off with a small, laid-back Dobro blues riff and ascending to stratospheric heights with a chorus of question-and-answer between Legg's croon of the song's title and pounding, march-like drums, then tender bridge that shows a new, delicate side to his vocals as he nostalgically recounts the Louisiana countryside with a sad "we must move on, gift to the highway of the morning star." The slow, yet immense power-chords then collapse into an astounding three-minute acoustic guitar solo, so beautifully simple and fragile, echoing into the heavens. This comes to a a chilling climax of swamp-ritual ambience, reminiscent of their previous album's ten-minutes-of-swamp-noise closer 'Zixox', guitars and tambourines rustling until they fade to black.
Surprisingly, this is followed by the album's most light
-hearted track, 'My Right Thing Can't Go Wrong,' a good ol' knee-slapping country-rock tune that Santeria use to purposely dispel the album's emotional tension and give way to a more eclectic second half. This consists of two more straightforward rockers that nevertheless manage to stand out due 'You Got What I Need' being the album's hardest rocking song, reminiscent of the band's heavier preceding album House of the Dying Sun
and having not one but two powerful guitar solos. Alternatively, 'Sold My Soul (For Nothing)' is one of the album's most instantly loveable tracks with its offbeat raga-style riff and almost obligatory sweet and mellow bridge.
The album's two most psychedelic tracks come with 'Can You Dream?' and its - you guessed it - dreamlike atmosphere from cyclical, chilled-out wah-wah riffing and Krishna's rolling drums, plus 'Haunted Dub' which is essentially a trippy remix of 'Haunted Heart.' In an intoxicating mix, Dege's echoing vocals and even high-pitched wails play over yet more excellent drum patterns, giving a new spin to the song rather than recycling already familiar ideas, and that
guitar lick is as spine-tingling as ever. These two songs really help give the album its atmosphere and unique identity, being welcome deviations into experimentation, 'Can You Dream?' in particular providing some arcane highlights with lyrics such as "Under the cold towers of Eden / Can you dream like I dream?"
This leaves but the final two songs, both over six minutes in length and worthy of holding the tag of 'progressive,' not just because of the title track's use of mellotron. This is where Santeria most strongly define themselves as unique, the eclectic sounds of 'Year of the Knife' ranging from those haunting tribal drums, to tambourines and rhythm sticks, to Legg's wordless vocals and spoken monologue which you can imagine him saying while standing over a campfire in the pitch-black of night, staring into the darkness and surrounded by the ruins of civilisation; "I saw my angel fall / picked her from the wrist, cleaned her dirty dress..."
'The House of the Dying Sun,' is the morning to the title track's night, but paints a no less sinister picture of how the world will be in the Year of the Knife, morphing through several ever darker stages, Legg's song-writing and vocals at their absolute best. Strange, ambiguous lyrics tell the song's story - "I've come to seek asylum / mutate in the gene pool / drop my dead dreams down in the earth's soil / Come crucify the body / to the powerline poles / on the boulevard and I ain't gonna hang like a scarecrow" - before a thundering climax. An ominous piano line leads the album to its end and since Santeria have only released two albums this millennium and Legg is now performing as solo act Brother Dege
, poses the question - is this the band's final moments?
If they are, then it's a shame they never found success and all that potential was never fully explored, but nevertheless what we have with Year of the Knife is a band firing on all cylinders for every second of its runtime, finding the right balance between accessibility, experimentation and uniqueness that should
have the album found in many years time and hailed as a lost classic.