Essential albums: Dead Can Dance

Drawing on primitive world folk music, modern song and a Western musical heritage stretching back to medieval Europe, the duo's music is mysterious, powerful and bewitching. Dead Can Dance do the world music-ambient-classical mashup thing with a depth that defies easy description.

Dead Can Dance

country of origin:

World beat, folk, medieval, ethno-ambient

decades active:
80's - 10's

essential releases:

  • In The Realm Of A Dying Sun (1987, 4AD)
  • Serpent’s Egg (1988, 4AD)
  • Aion (1990, 4AD)
  • A Passage In Time (1991, 4AD/Rykodisc)
  • Toward The Within (1994, 4AD/Warner)
  • Spiritchaser (1996, 4AD/Warner)
  • Anastasis (2012, Pias Recordings)

Reviewed by Mike G

Founder of the 4AD label Ivo Watts-Russell snared a catch greater than he may have imagined when he signed this Australian duo back in the early 1980's when they relocated to the UK. Although they would never have hit singles or have albums high in the mainstream charts, Dead Can Dance went on to become 4AD’s biggest selling act over the next decade, outselling the likes of the Cocteau Twins and indie rock gods The Pixies.

And the music? In a word, eclectic. Drawing on primitive world folk music, modern song and a Western musical heritage stretching back to medieval Europe, the duo's music is mysterious, powerful and bewitching stuff. Dead Can Dance do the world music-ambient-classical mashup thing with a depth that defies easy description. Perhaps their secret is that they understand the universal humanity of all these disparate musical elements better than most.

Lisa Gerrard is the band's most dominant personality. Her beautiful and demonstrative vocals abound on these albums, with lyrics much less a concern than the actual timbre of her extraordinary voice. Often there's no actual lyrics at all, but rather what she describes as "a language that grows by itself". And despite the "morbid gothics" tag that has long dogged them in the UK, the idea of music as catharsis, of transcending pain to create beauty, is something Gerrard understands better than most. "Even through the music of despair there's always this little light of hope", she told me in an interview in 1996. "This is the most private relationship you can have with another enable them to put things in their place in a quiet, meditative moment".

The duo's other half is Brendan Perry, a fantastic multi-instrumentalist and also a gifted vocalist, sometimes accompanying Gerrard with vocal harmonies and proving a perfect foil, at other times singing alone. When heard solo on these albums his resonant baritone is perhaps less affecting than Gerrard, if only because his lovely folkish songs are often relatively straightforward.

The classic albums

While all DCD albums are worth hearing, Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun (1987) marks the beginning of their more refined and mature work. The sound is huge, as if recorded in a giant cathedral, and the intensity almost overwhelming at times. A large backing arsenal of violins, cellos and brass give the album a stately grace that saves the music from the abyss even in its darkest, saddest moments.

The opening track from the next album The Serpent's Egg (1988) distills the group's very essence. “The Host of Seraphim”, featuring a stately progression of organ and strings over which Gerrard intones a mournful chant, is simply stunning and packs an emotional punch used to devastating effect in a sequence from Ron Fricke’s wordless 1993 film Baraka.

But perhaps the group's high watermark is Aion (1990). From the opening incantation it takes hold of you and never lets go, offering a veritable sonic bath of striking vocal textures, enticing medieval melodies and exotic percussion. It's a breathtaking synthesis that showcases the pair's multi-instrumental abilities and sets new standards in fusion music.

The band's early 90's output is equally strong. A Passage In Time (1991) is a carefully assembled compilation album with the addition of two new tracks. Towards The Within (1994) is an enchanting live set featuring based on a concert film and containing a good deal of previously unrecorded material, while the duo's (apparent) final album of original material Spiritchaser (1996) demonstrates a much stronger tribal element than its predecessors and is superb throughout.

Rest and reunion

For many years it seemed like Spiritchaser was the band's swansong. Although still occasionally touring as DCD in the 90's and 2000's, recording-wise Gerrard and Perry focused on solo pursuits. Gerrard has since garnered widespread recognition for her soundtrack work on mainstream American films. These include The Insider for which she and collaborator Pieter Bourke were nominated for a Golden Globe, as well as the music for the Oscar winning sword and sandal epic Gladiator which, although officially credited to Hans Zimmer, features powerful vocal contributions from Gerrard.

Then in 2011 the pair reformed and recorded all-new material, embarking on a long world tour and releasing the album Anastasis (2012) the following year. Faced with a rather different world where their sound had made its way into Hollywood movies and the music of hundreds of other downtempo and ambient acts, they focused on what they do best: writing emotional, complex, texturally seductive music. The compositions are very strong - exceptional in places - and Gerrard and Perry are both in fine vocal form. Perry's song "Children Of The Sun" elevates its hippie storytelling into an epic, spine-tingling realm with a magnificent arrangement for horns and strings. Gerrard's incredible voice is especially powerful on "Return Of The She-King", its vocal cadences layered upon a haunting Celtic melody.

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