Along with Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance helped define the sound of the 4AD label back in the early and mid-‘80s. Even still, they stood at one end of the spectrum of talent that label-founder IvoWatts-Russell was pooling together. While one might be inclined to label DCD as “gothic”, they didn’t fit in with the clutch of goth rock bands who rode along on the cloak tails of Bauhaus. By avoiding the typical guitar / bass / drums lineup, they also operated outside the dream pop camp (Cocteau Twins) or the college rock realm (Throwing Muses, Pixies). Dead Can Dance’s style was more austere, reverent, studied, wide reaching.
The duo, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, took an ethnomusicological approach toward creating their albums. Having met in Melbourne, the two worked in a Lebanese restaurant together before relocating to London. While it would be oversimplifying the band’s history to say that a transitional job in the food service industry shaped their sound, the geography of Lebanon seems appropriate to their restless musical identity, situated as it is on the cusp of Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. The flavors of all of these areas (and others) play significant roles in the discography of Dead Can Dance, all of which is well represented in the beautifully packaged two-disc collection, Wake.
Their first, self-titled record, released in 1984, did not display their innovativeness or eclectic impulses. It actually was pretty gothy, albeit otherworldly, thanks to the cathedral-filling voice of Lisa Gerrard. On 1985’s Spleen and Ideal, however, their sound began to solidify, as much as it ever would. Along with 1987’s excellent Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, we find Dead Can Dance in their medieval period, wherein timpani drums and brass motifs seem to announce processionals or, perhaps, funeral marches. Thanks in part to Perry’s rich baritone, it was often easier to imagine the latter. But they never reveled in melodrama. The darkness that suffused much of their music was quiet, deep, prayerful. They were more philosophical than morbid, as evidenced in the lyrics to “Anywhere Out of This World”:
“We scale the face of reason to find at least one sign
That could reveal the true dimension of life lest we forget
And maybe it’s easier to withdraw from life
With all of its misery and wretched lies, away from harm”
But Dead Can Dance’s lyrics didn’t necessarily contribute to their most arresting vocals. That honor belongs to Lisa Gerrard and her powerful, haunting alto. Using pure sound rather than concrete language, she created hypnotic-yet-massive mantras, seemingly channeling some ancient chant pulled down from the ethers. Untraceable in origin, her vocal style sounded Bulgarian, or Scandinavian, or Saharan, or funneled up from some lost civilization. Regardless of where their musical wanderings would take them, this attribute would remain a powerful constant in the music of Dead Can Dance.
The Serpent’s Egg (1988) was a religious experience, Gerrard’s voice combining with chiming notes and pedal tones to evoke the swirling reverberations of a great church organ. Two years later, they released Aion. Something of a sleeper for them, it remains one of my very favorites, incorporating a few traditional compositions from the Renaissance with their own likeminded works. Short and sweet, it is perhaps the band’s most pleasant music, better suited to morning’s mellow beginnings than the usual nocturnal soundtrackings DCD provided.
While their popularity had grown tremendously in Europe over this period of time, we here in the States were lagging behind. I was introduced to the band through a fellow record store clerk who listened to almost nothing but 4AD and Beggars Banquet, but most listeners in the US probably got their initial taste of Dead Can Dance through A Passage in Time, a very good 1991 compilation. Fortunately, this coincided with the birth of alternative radio. By 1993, you could actually tune your dial to a major metropolitan FM station and hear tracks from their new album, Into the Labyrinth, amidst songs by Tori Amos, Nirvana, and Cracker. It was a golden age for music listeners and for Dead Can Dance, as well.
On Wake, five tracks are taken from that fantastic record, which, in itself, sounded like something of a disc of greatest hits; its material tying a thread through all of the styles they’d explored to date and weaving them all together. In1994, they followed with a live album, Toward the Within. Two years later, the duo released their seventh and final regular studio album, Spiritchaser. The disc had its own tribal, tropical feel, as if recorded beneath a sun-blocking canopy of dense, wide-leafed trees in the Congo or the Amazon. And, despite Gerrard and Perry’s collaboration nearing its conclusion, the fusion of their writing and ideas had coalesced almost completely by this stage. Maybe there was no new territory for them to explore together. With solo albums already in the works, the two split not long thereafter.
One has to question the timing of the US release of Wake. It’s been available in the UK for over three years now; in 2005, Rhino issued a single-disc compilation Memento: The Very Best of Dead Can Dance; the duo’s reunion tour was last year, so the excitement has pretty well worn off by now. Why wait until now? Had 4AD forgotten they’d never released it stateside? “Oh, right, best get on that then.” Nonetheless, this set is a treat at any time. The music of Dead Can Dance remains fresh, whether the songs are 10 or 20 years old, and I doubt that will change over the oncoming decades.
The compilers, too, performed an admirable task in assembling the key tracks from the DCD canon. Rather than aiming for fair and balanced, they skewed heavily towards the band’s best works. They also included a few scarcer tracks, such as the 1981 demo, “Frontier”, which got Ivo to sign Dead Can Dance to 4AD, plus two tracks from their 1984 Garden of the Arcane Delights EP, “Bird” from A Passage in Time, and “The Lotus Eaters” from their aborted final sessions. Most important, the tracks all flow well together.
While Wake is sequenced in roughly chronological order, some shifting was done for the sake of the overall listening experience. Although this should obviously be the paramount concern when assembling an album of previously issued material, it’s amazing how often compilers act as if the notion of creating an historical document supercedes making CDs that people will want to hear. With Wake, you will want to hear all 26 tracks on both discs, and you will want to hear them over and over again. It is the superlative sampler of Dead Can Dance, a unique act whose music is as great now as the day it was released.