Dead Can Dance: A Retrospective


Amidst the soulless mediocrity of the Nowadays era labeled by some as “modernity”, there exist certain currents of contemporary music which hearken to a perennial spirit, evoking reminiscences of an ancient and timeless existence of a more vibrant, numinous nature – ultimately putting the listener in contact with a deep intimation of the greater Reality of which they are a part. It is assumed that many readers of this site intuitively recognize that the best of Metal exemplifies this. Many fans and musicians of Metal also tend to recognise similar expressions as they emerge in other styles of music, whether it be Classical, Electronic, Prog, Punk, Folk, Industrial, Goth, or whatever. One enduring group which especially stands out to the sensitively attuned is, of course, the eternal Dead Can Dance.

Emerging from the so-called Post-Punk/Goth Rock scene of the 1980’s, Dead Can Dance became one of the most unique voices in modern music, transcending genre altogether. Incorporating Celtic, Baroque, Medieval and Afro-Mediterranean musical influences; with themes inspired by Ancient Hellenic Mysticism, Gnosticism, the importance of ancestral traditions, and personal experiences of love, loss, sorrow and rebirth… Dead Can Dance ultimately became an influence on everything from Burzum and Graveland to contemporary film scores. The interplay between the voices of Brendan Perry’s rich, masculine baritone and cryptic, poetic lyrics paired with the famously indescribable, muliebrous glossolalia of Lisa Gerrard forms a distinctively ethereal sound that has transfixed listeners across various audiences for decades. With both members being just as talented composers as they are powerful vocalists, and consequently releasing a musical output of a consistently pleasant and intriguing nature, Dead Can Dance may well prove to be among the most enduring “popular music” acts of the past half-century.

“To understand why we chose the name, think of the transformation of inanimacy to animacy. Think of the processes concerning life from death and death into life.”


Dead Can Dance [1983]
Dead Can Dance’s self-titled debut shows themselves firmly rooted in the stylings of the so-called “alternative” or “gothic” rock music of the time. While even here it is apparent from the incorporation of traditional folk instrumentation and idiosyncratic Lisa Gerrard works like “Ocean” that Dead Can Dance were by no means to be a typical group of this style, this record barely hints at the grandeur of the defining works they would release in the decade to come. Despite justifiably having a reputation as one of the band’s weaker works, perhaps due to it being the group’s only Rock album, it is nevertheless a solid recording on its own merit and highlights such as “A Passage in Time” and “Wild in the Woods” exemplify the record as a respectable work in its’ respective sub-genre. Recommended for fans of Joy Division, The Cure, Cocteau Twins, The Chameleons, etc.


Garden of the Arcane Delights [1984]
It is here, with this transitional 4-track EP, that hints of the greatness that is to come begin to emerge. Continuing in the style of the debut, the quality of the song-writing has improved significantly, to say nothing of the intensity of emotion conveyed. The obvious highlight is the enduring fan favorite “In Power We Entrust the Love Advocated”, a classic tune of desolation, perhaps stylistically reminiscent of Scott Walker crossed with Fields of the Nephilim. “The Arcane” is a similarly pensive track, albeit of a more slow and moody nature. The two Lisa Gerrard pieces which book-end the record show a more colorful and vibrant feel, like an incantation to join in the reverie of ancient pagan rites and explore the re-discovery of forgotten modes of being. But this, was all ultimately mere tidings of what would come…


Spleen and Ideal [1985]
Here is where the majesty truly begins. Right from the very opening, this record instantly enshrouds the listener in a compellingly all-engulfing atmosphere as if one has been transported to a supermassive cathedral of titanic proportion where mysterious rites to transcendent spiritual forces are perennially underway. Stylistically, a dramatic shift has occurred from the debut with most of the Rock elements largely discarded, and only the prominent “post-punk” style of active bass guitar remaining to counterpoint perfectly with the now distinctively uncategorizable “Gothic”/“Medieval” sound Dead Can Dance would engage with from now on. (Often described by critics and internet posters with the rather awkward title of “Neo-Classical Darkwave”, against the wishes of the band who refuse to have their music be bound by classification to arbitrary and transient genre classifications). The sensations of profound sorrowful melancholia is totally overbearing on this record but with hints of greater spiritual transcendence omnipresent through the midst of the darkness. Lisa Gerrard’s vocal cries are as heartbreakingly powerful as ever, most prominently in the album climax “Avatar”. Brendan Perry’s always eloquent lyrics would rarely match the sublime poetry on display here, and the compositions are generally nothing less than masterful. Every one of the nine tracks which comprise this record are complete works of excellence in their own right, and from beginning to end there is not a single note that is not put to perfect use, with the flow and atmosphere of the record impeccable throughout its duration. One of the crowning achievements of Dead Can Dance’s discography, and ultimately one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Highly recommended to anyone who appreciates good music of any kind.


Within the Realm of a Dying Sun [1987]
Here is the group’s most well-known album, also generally considered to be their best. While the present author is of the opinion that the immediately preceding and succeeding records surpass Within the Realm of a Dying Sun in their musical brilliance, it is fully understandable why it has the reputation it does. Being the first record where all traces of Rock music have been completed eliminated, and the last record before “tribal” folk elements would become progressively more prominent, in many ways it can be seen as the “archetypal” Dead Can Dance album where the purest distillation of their iconic sound is on display. It certainly serves as a very fitting introduction to the band’s sound, with each side of the album dedicated entirely to tracks that accentuate each respective songwriter’s style. Many of the group’s most iconic tracks are to be found here, from the operatic Brendan Perry works “Anywhere out of the World” and “Xavier”, to the breathtaking Lisa Gerrard hymns “Summoning of the Muse” and “Persephone” which conclude the album on a very strong note. In conclusion, definitely one of the group’s most accomplished works, a rightful successor to the previous masterpiece and overall a recommended entry point to their discography. And yet, the heights Dead Can Dance had reached on these two masterful releases, were still of themselves mere stepping stones for what was about to immediately follow…


The Serpent’s Egg [1988]
There are some things in life that simply cannot be expressed in words. How can one ever do justice to witnessing a sunset, standing on top of a monolithic mountain, being in the presence of a loved one, having one’s inner core totally desecrated through traumatic desolation, contemplating the supreme magnificence and mystery of existence and how ultimately insignificant human society is in the face of Nature… by attempting to reduce and dissect such ineffable experiences through the imprecise and ultimately hollow medium as human language? As clichéd (and perhaps paradoxical?) as it can be to write such things, it is ultimately a fact as real as the blood flowing in your veins that human language can never be more than a signpost to the patterns which exist inherently in reality, and all great art worthy of the name ultimately seeks to engender in the participant an intimation of such numinous experiences which exist beyond man-made words and conditioned abstractions. Throughout their entire career, Dead Can Dance have always endeavored – and countless times succeeded – in presenting such ineffable spiritual experiences through their music. Here they have outdone themselves, for the sublime heights reached on this album far exceed even their other successes. The music on this album reaches to the very depths of one’s being. Amidst all the powerful music the group has released throughout their discography, this is the peak of their career, and among the zenith of so-called “popular music”. I can only listen to this music on special occasions, it is simply too powerful and emotionally significant for casual listening. I have a feeling many Dead Can Dance fans know what I’m talking about. Recommended to anyone with a soul.


Aion [1990]
The aptly-titled Aion marked the ending of an era for the band, as well as the beginning of a new. Following the heels of their three most popular albums, as well as the dissolution of Brendan and Lisa’s romantic relationship (who, at least for a few more years, would still remain friends and musical partners), the group looked to the past of Medieval and Renaissance Europe for inspiration. Quite literally, as arrangements of two pieces from the respective time periods (the 14th century “Saltarello” and the 16th century “Song of the Sibyl”) made their way onto the new album. The general format of the previous record is continued here, with the relatively short run time comprised of about three major pieces nested in the midst of many diverse shorter tracks. Indeed “Fortune Presents Gift Not According to the Book”, “As the Bells Rings the Maypole Spins”, and especially the almighty “BLACK SUN” are all excellent pieces worthy of the caliber set by the previous half-decade of Dead Can Dance works. Most of the shorter choral and instrumental tracks are also rather enjoyable in their own right. However, especially compared to the impeccable unity of the similarly structured predecessor, Aion ultimately does not have the same flow between tracks and feels more like an assorted collection of strong individual pieces as opposed to a cohesive album statement. By the standards of almost any other modern music artist, this album is still ultimately comprised of highly compelling music. However one gets the impression that some indefinable je ne sais quoi is missing, and ultimately Aion lives up to its reputation among fans as one of the middle works of the band’s catalog – both chronologically and qualitatively. Strong material far from their “worst”, and yet not quite cohesive enough to displace their iconic masterpieces.


Into the Labyrinth [1993]
Here, Dead Can Dance follow-up Aion with a newfound burst of creative inspiration and general sense of purpose. Being the first album where both members were living (and writing music) on separate continents before meeting in the studio, the difference in style between the two composers perhaps became rather prominent. On the one hand, the Brendan Perry tracks are some of his most sensitively personal and majestically ethereal, with “The Carnival is Over” and “How Fortunate the Man with None” especially being the highlights of the album and some of the most emotional pieces of the band’s career. On the other hand, this marked the first album where “tribal folk” elements, particularly of Mediterranean, African, and Australian Indigenous influence, became consistently prominent during the Lisa Gerrard-led glossolalia pieces. In some cases this works in spellbinding fashion, particularly in the psychedelic reverie of “Towards the Within”, however it could be argued that many of the other pieces could seem a little out of place alongside the aforementioned Brendan Perry pieces. However, one of the strengths of this album is the consistent atmosphere throughout its duration binding the tracks of varying styles and quality together in a consistent flow and mood that the previous album didn’t really have. Featuring perhaps the most “engulfing” (in Trey Azagthoth’s usage of the term) production of any of their albums, as well as some of their greatest individual compositions, one could be easily be tempted to put it on the same level as their three 80’s masterworks, despite not being quite as internally consistent.


Toward the Within [1993]
This first official live release by the group is notable for being mostly comprised of original pieces that do not appear on any of their studio albums, hence making it arguably count as a notable installment in its own right. By this point the “tribal” elements have begun to dominate the music. As well, the atmosphere on display for much of the album is noticeably more diurnal and less solemn than what group had been stylistically known for at this point. At times on this recording, such aesthetic choices may bring the mood dangerously close to resembling so-called “New Age” or “World Music”. However, the compositions are still at least rather pleasant to listen to, and a few of these tracks remain to this day as staples of the band’s live set. (For better or worse, depending on one’s taste). The standout among the new pieces is the breathtakingly gorgeous Lisa Gerrard masterpiece “Sanvean”, for which she would record a studio version on her debut solo album. Overall, Toward the Within is an interesting snapshot of a transitional point in the development of the band’s sound, however ultimately non-essential compared to the rest of their catalogue.


Spiritchaser [1996]
Here is the infamous Spiritchaser, an album of somewhat notorious reputation. The reasons for this are threefold. Firstly, it is the album where the progressive development into a so-called “tribal”/ “world music” sound reached its zenith, and the music had now become all but dominated by such sonic stylings which more readily evoke reminiscences of attending an exotic spa resort or floating down the Nile as opposed to the ancient Celtic mysteries and Gothic cathedrals of their earlier output. Secondly, it would be the final album that the band would release before their initial disbandment in 1998. Thirdly, it has the reputation among fans as being their weakest record, perhaps in no small part due to the two aforementioned factors. While this record is indeed among the lower echelons of the group’s output and is presumably rather stylistically divergent from the tastes of many readers of this article, it is not without its redeeming features. The material here is at least, arguably a more confident display of this style of music than some of the tracks on Toward the Within. As is always the case with Dead Can Dance, the sense of melody and atmosphere is generally rather pleasant and consistent throughout, if not full of the same spiritual depth and authenticity as previous outings. Overall a potentially enjoyable album to have playing in the background while preparing and enjoying a meal, or “chilling out”; however ultimately the overwhelming indulgence into what some leftists could call “cultural appropriation” and discerning critics could call “new age fluff” make this outing strictly for already converted fans.


Anastasis [2012]
Aptly titled with the Greek word for “resurrection”, this first new album in 16 years is an astounding return to form for the group. The best aspects of the “folk” stylings of the group’s 90’s works have been perfectly blended into the sombre majesty of their beloved 80’s sound, and yet the record does not feel like a retread of past material with a uniquely mature and fresh approach to song-writing being displayed in the material on hand. Being one of the most consistently “massive” sounding albums the band has ever made, highlights “Amnesia” and “Return of the She-King” are jaw-dropping displays of the talented composing, lyrics and vocal performances that exemplify Brendan and Lisa’s respective iconic talent. In many ways a perfect summary of the band’s career to this point, and yet a hearkening to an abundant future of potentiality, Anastasis is a major success and deserves its’ place among the halls of the group’s impressive catalogue. One of the most impressive “come back” albums ever recorded, and one of the best albums released this decade by anyone.


Dionysus [2018]
After more than half a decade had passed, the second post-reunion album Dionysus was released barely two months before the writing of the present article. This record was initially controversial, due to being another “tribal” affair, as well as being the first Dead Can Dance album to feature absolutely no lyrics of any kind. Inspired by the mysterious Eleusinian Rites of Ancient Greece and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, casual listeners who would place this paean to the divinity of wine, ritual, fertility and ecstasy in the same category of Spiritchaser would be greatly misjudging the material on hand. Constructed as a continuous piece of music in two acts, this record boasts of an entrancing ritualistic atmosphere. As opposed to Spiritchaser, the tribal folk elements do not feel contrived in any way, and perfectly match the ancient Mediterranean spirit being evoked. As well, instead of the flimsy “new-age”-isms of the group’s mid-90’s work, Dionysus is much more focused and darker in nature, and is bursting throughout with vibrant sensations calling to mind orgiastic celebrations in a deeply hallucinogenic and borderline erotic reverie. One of the few gems of musical worth that emerged from the mediocrity of the past year, and overall a more than sufficiently worthy outing from Dead Can Dance at this stage of their career. The present author openly admits to have been initially unimpressed with this record, but quickly discovered that it greatly rewards repeated encounters. Recommended listening at relatively high volume on a quality sound system for full experience.

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24 thoughts on “Dead Can Dance: A Retrospective”

  1. NoThanks says:

    Why in hell I never listened this group and why in hell I had the idea that this group was formed by some kind of hippy musicians ???!!! You only need a few seconds of their music to feel it. Amazing band. Thanks for the article.

    1. T. Desecration says:

      Cheers and thanks for the compliment. If I could turn more people on to the DCD magic, this article will have more than done it’s job.

  2. Nuclear Whore says:

    Thumbs up, DCD is a very special group

    1. T. Desecration says:

      “Thumbs up”

      Cheers!

      “DCD is a very special group”

      Indeed!

  3. noheroesnoidols says:

    LOL – Dead Can Dance, the band that everyone cites when they want to seem hip! Pretty sure that when 80% of metal fans are asked what they listen to other than metal, it’s these guys! No hate, just a funny observation.

    1. T. Desecration says:

      Dead Can Dance are indeed one of the stereotypical “Token Non-Metal Music for Metalheads”. Although then again, seeing as how very few modern music acts (Non-Metal or Metal alike) are of similar caliber, one could do much worse than DCD.

      1. Nuclear Whore says:

        I recall the review of the concert they made in Barcelona more than ten years ago. The writer told what was funny was the complete variety of people attending it: gothic people, normal people, everything :D

        BTW the original of the DCD cover is sung every Christmas in many churches
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Song_of_the_Sibyl. In Barcelona, as an example.

        Al jorn del judiiiici parrà qui avrà feeeet serviiiiici.

    2. Thewaters says:

      No way!! Kraftwerk and VNV Nation are more likely to be cited imo.

  4. Frozenlake says:

    I’m surprised to see a DCD article around here, and happy about it. DCD was one of my favourite bands, from the very beginning. I lost interest around the time of Into the Labyrinth, simply because I had moved on to other interests… Mr Desecration, not only are you bringing back fond memories but also the surprise of a 2018 release, I had completely missed that and will check it out asap. Thanks.

    1. T. Desecration says:

      Cheers and thanks for the compliment! Dead Can Dance are a very personally significant group for myself, plus this is my first time attempting to write an article like this, so I truly appreciate it and am glad to have brought back the band back on your radar.

    2. Thomas Wildeman says:

      Yes, I am with Frozenlake. Thanks for bringing back some good memories. The Serpent Egg is smashing indeed.

      1. T. Desecration says:

        Cheers and Hails

        1. Thomas Wildeman says:

          T. Desecration, Have you listened to any of Lisa Gerrard’s recent work with the choral group The Mystery Of The Bulgarian Voices on the LP “BooCheeMish”?

          1. T. Desecration says:

            Yeah I gave it a listen it’s pretty nice. “The Mirror Pool” and “The Silver Tree” are probably the best of Lisa’s solo albums. Brendan Perry’s two solo albums “Eye of the Hunter” and “Ark” are also both REALLY good and underrated.

  5. $uicideboi$ and Profanatica says:

    Good replacement for the summary that used to exist on the now defunct forum. Thanks. These guys disappeared up their asses after the first album into songs that expressed the formless folds of their bowels adequately and musically. It was nice to hear them fall back out for Dionysus into something concrete.

  6. Urrumpel says:

    Nice. Next someone could review Nico and Lubomyr Melnyk from a metal perspective.

  7. Chrised says:

    Great stuff here! Thanks so much!!!

    1. T. Desecration says:

      Thanks for the compliment. Cheers!

  8. LordKrumb says:

    Very good article. I’ve only heard the first album + EP and the third album, so this article serves as a useful guide for me to explore the rest of the discography.

    1. T. Desecration says:

      Cheers

  9. Flying Kites says:

    So, is it only a “professional” relationship of Brendan and Lisa?

    1. T. Desecration says:

      When the band originally formed they were a couple, however since they split up around 1989, they are solely platonic friends and professional collaborators. I believe they are both married to other people and have had separate families of their own for quite some time now.

      (Additionally, there has been whispering among fans for years speculating that Brendan and Lisa may not exactly be “the best of friends”. Seeing as Dead Can Dance re-united in 2005 performing a series of concerts with talk of a new album but then split up again in less than a year, in addition to the markedly different “attitudes” between the duo displayed in some nowadays interviews such as the one linked by user “Shitting Bull” above. If there is any truth to such rumours, then I guess Brendan and Lisa do have “only a professional relationship” nowadays. However such incursive gossiping irrelevant to the music on hand should not be the focus of an article like this.)

      1. Flying Kites says:

        They would have had adorable little WASP children. As long as they aren’t breeding out of their race, then there may be hope for further art produced.

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