Originating in Australia, Dead Can Dance formed in 1981. The core musicians are Brendan Perry who sings and plays a variety of instruments, and Lisa Gerrard who provides ethereal and haunting vocals. Their self-titled debut album appeared 1984. The name and the music, much of which resemble the Cure’s early work, led to them being labeled goth. The band says that “so many people missed the inherent symbolic intention of the work and assumed that we must be morbid gothic types”. Though the album cover features a picture of a ritual mask from Papa New Guinea, and the album contains Gerrard’s playing of the yangqin (a Chinese hammered dulcimer), the band’s core sound stuck to the traditional setup of bass, guitar, drums, and vocals within songs of three to four minutes in length. Referencing Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake, the cover of Garden of the Arcane Delights—later added onto the first Dead Can Dance album—features a man reaching for a tree. Recalling the story of the Garden of Eden, the EP represents choice and transformation. One can hear the band beginning to transition from its previous sounds to a newer sound as it begins to explore and transcend traditional boundaries.
Bringing into cellos, trombones, and violins, Spleen and Ideal (1985) documents the band moving into more of a neoclassical and exploratory sound. This is also when Gerrard would break from English, or any other known language, and instead sing in indecipherable sounds of emotion like an ancient oracle. Some think of Spleen and Ideal as the first true Dead Can Dance album. The references to Baudelaire and a painting by Carlos Schwabe continue to make clear that Dead Can Dance does not worry about being instantly accessible.
Adding trumpet, tuba, and oboe, Dead Can Dance moved further into classical with 1987’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun. The cover of a shrouded stone figure reaching inside of or perhaps escaping from a crypt in Père Lachaise cemetery helped create the sense of a golden age passing, time moving on, summers slipping by, and loss—all themes Perry and Gerrard say are the album contains. The Serpent’s Egg (1988) further developed Dead Can Dance’s sounds. “The Host of Seraphim” is perhaps Gerrard’s finest vocal performance. With “Mother Tongue” the band branches out into something of a tribal sound.
Aion (1990) borrows its cover from part of a Bosch triptych. In terms of sound, Aion moves back to medieval and Renaissance music. Having recently ended their romantic relationship perhaps Perry and Gerrard felt there had already been enough change between albums. Since the cover features a naked couple inside of an embryonic bubble, it suggests interpreting the album as both a commentary on relationships and a desire to retreat to the sanctuary of something soft and known. The world depicted outside of the bubble is strange and unfamiliar, a visual counterpart to their decision to leave England for two different locations.
After the compilation of 1991’s A Passage in Time, they ditched the session musicians while adding bongos, sitars, and tabla, and delved further into ethnic music via 18th-century traditional Irish ballads and expressions of Australian spirit dances with Into the Labyrinth (1993). Not quite a concept album, it references the Greek hero Theseus and the Labyrinth. “How Fortunate the Man with None” is one of the best Dead Can Dance songs ever.
Toward the Within (1994) is a live album composed mostly of songs that had never been officially recorded. “Sanvean” is a highlight and the only song sung by Gerrard that equals “The Host of Seraphim”. Having moved into the labyrinth and processing what was inside, Dead Can Dance emerged and expanded their sound even further with the global/tribal sounds and rhythms of Spiritchaser (1996). Mexico, Haiti, the Algonquian tribe, and Africa all figure into the album. If one reads interviews with Gerrard and Perry, it’s evident that far from being ignorant colonizers of sounds, they have an understanding of the history of and a deep respect for both these instruments and the cultures that they come from. It’s tantalizing to think what would have come next. Unfortunately, Dead Can Dance disbanded in favor of solo careers and soundtrack work (Gerrard received a Golden Globe award for her worth with Hans Zimmer on the Gladiator soundtrack). A box set and various distillations and compilations followed.
The band revived itself putting forth a slew of live albums in 2005 and then released Anastasis (2012)—the Greek word for resurrection. Though the album cover features a crop of withered and wilted plants, one realizes the plants are sunflowers, which often return in future seasons via the seeds they disperse after death. In Concert (2013) showcases various Anastasia tracks (search out the 20-track version for a stunning version of “Dreams Made Flesh”).
This year brings us Dionysus. The album contains seven songs or movements spread over two sections titled “ACTS”. Each song expresses some aspect of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility, madness, and theater. The title suggests that Dead Can Dance are going to open up and let loose. Ironically, instead of a double album or even one that occupies most of a CD, Dionysus is just barely over 36 minutes in length. One might also expect an album named after a god who represents abandon, lack of restraint, the circumvention of conventions, and the breaking of boundaries to venture more into unfamiliar territory.
Nonetheless, anyone who appreciates Dead Can Dance’s expansive sound will enjoy the album’s use of instruments such as the zourna, gadulka, autoharp, bowed psaltery, davul, ocean drum, daf, fujara, saz, pivana, Aztec flute, rainstick, berimbau, gaida, balalaika, gong, baglama, zils, bouzouki, and zither. Perry plays all of those. The sounds of Swiss goatherds, New Zealand beehives and birdcalls from Mexico and Brazil are also present (the cover image comes from a mask made by the Huichol of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico). This is all fantastic sounding stuff, but where are the vocals of Gerrard and Perry?
Gerrard sings less than on previous albums with vocal credits for just two songs, “The Mountain” and “Psychopomp”. Her limited vocals are another reason that the album’s brevity is somewhat disappointing. We have to wait until “ACT II” before we hear from either Gerrard or Perry. Even then, none of the songs seem organized around them; their voices just become two more instruments among many. Still, Dionysus satisfies and demonstrates that Dead Can Dance are still alive and recording.