Pathways and Dawns, the first solo album by former Dead Can Dance percussionist Ulrich, is largely as percussive as one would expect. What may come as more of a pleasant surprise is how melodic the album is and Ulrich’s gift for an evocative lyrical metaphor. In “Always Dancing”, for example, he gives us the line “In photographs I hear your song”, and “Life Amongst the Black Sheep”, which I first heard as part of the Orphee compilation, retains it’s melodic power here.
On the other side of the coin, however, this is a pretty programmed-sounding album which could have benefited from a lighter touch at the sequencer and especially the drum machine. The aforementioned “Always Dancing” suffers from the airless sound of the percussion and overly repetitive guitar figure (played by Brendan Perry, also of DCD, who produced and arranged the album). It’s not the programming and sequencing I object to, but there is a way to use these elements without sounding so much like a demo. “Nocturne”, for example is a much lovelier mix of the same elements. The tracks on this album were recorded seven years apart, with two dating from the beginning of the ‘90s and the rest from the last years of the decade. It shows most on “Evocation”, which sounds like the work of someone who just lived through the ‘80s: a great beat, and a chanted lyric wishing one’s spirit to free them from “the chains of order, clear my path through weeds of turmoil, guide me to the shores of insight”. Here as throughout the CD, there is a mixture of the Celtic and synthesized sound that suggests the inner life of a modern man.
I’ve praised Ulrich’s lyrics for the thoughts they conjure. They are also, at times, full of the kind of wet, sensitive new-age guy jargon we nearly drowned in during the ‘80s, yet presented with real charm and at least a half-grasp of maturity. Still, for all Ulrich’s lyrical gifts, the single most impressive track here is the instrumental (but for some wordless backing vocals) “Journey of Discovery”, which builds from a sequence of bell sounds into a sweeping track that recalls Tony Banks’s work, with and without Genesis.
I seem to have on the other handed a lot so far in this review. Perhaps it is because this is so much an almost-but-not-quite album. Here’s another hand: Though the album is limited by it’s instrumental reliance on programs and sequencers, it also has more exotic touches: When was the last time you heard a contemporary CD with a hurdy gurdy on it?
Ulrich is a real talent, but it seems to me he needs to find other collaborators (even, perhaps, his own band) to flesh out his sound or a producer who can get a better use out of programs and sequences.