Dead Can Dance
|country of origin:
World beat, folk, medieval, ethno-ambient
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)
Founder of the 4AD label Ivo Watts-Russell snared a catch greater than he may have imagined when he signed Australian duo back in the early 1980's. Although they would never have hit singles or albums 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.
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 person...to enable them to put things in their place in a quiet, meditative moment".
The duo's other half Brendan Perry is 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 somewhat less affecting, if only because his folkish songs are often relatively straightforward.
While all DCD albums are worth hearing, Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun 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 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.
Perhaps the group's high watermark is Aion. 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 90's output is equally strong. A Passage In Time is a carefully assembled compilation album with the addition of two new tracks. Towards The Within is an enchanting live set featuring a good deal of previously unrecorded material, while the duo's final album of original material Spiritchaser demonstrates a much stronger tribal element than its predecessors and makes a superb swansong.
Although still occasionally touring as DCD, Gerrard and Perry disbanded as a recording act in 1999. Since branching into solo work in the mid-90's Gerrard has garnered widespread recognition for her soundtrack work on mainstream American films. These include The Insider for which she and 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.