On Dead Can Dance’s message to the within

The further listening series

There are very few artists that could claim to have truly transcended genre. Even fewer that can boast the vast, eclectic appeal of an artist like Dead Can Dance. It’s not an exaggeration to say that their fanbase is its own distinct subculture, counting members from the worlds of goth, metal, punk, electronica, folk, and classical amongst their ranks. I’d be willing to bet however, that for many of these fans Dead Can Dance albums remain an anomaly in their collections. A happy segue into an ethereal sonic offering that proudly sticks out on the shelf next to the Darkthrone and Dead Kennedys’ back catalogues.

This broad appeal is not without explanation. Revisiting Dead Can Dance’s significant discography reveals an artist with an insatiable willingness to explore, meld, develop, and innovate whilst maintaining a swaggering confidence in the strength of their own voice and artistic vision to shine through regardless of the musical traditions they worked with. These traditions – which ranged across eras and regions – are often unhelpfully referred to as “world” or “ethnic” music, terms both descriptively impotent and indicative of a Western audience still staunchly placing all non-Western music beyond the bounds of specificity.

Although they were joined by a rhythm section in Paul Erikson and Peter Ulrich, from the get-go the Dead Can Dance signature sound quickly formed around the power duo of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. Having relocated from Australia to the UK in 1982 and signing to 4AD, the band opted to go straight for the jugular and release an LP right off the bat in the form of ‘Dead Can Dance’ in 1984, only later offering an EP of supplementary material on ‘Garden of the Arcane Delights’ some months after.

To understand how this sui generis entity captured the imagination of such a broad audience within contemporary music, it’s important to note the stylistic melding that was taking place on this self-titled debut. Perry was a member of punk outfits The Scavengers and Marching Girls, both of whom incorporated a lavish melodic character into the punk formula that so many in the post punk era were seeking to supplement the initial outbursts of noise that characterised the punk explosion. Equally, Gerrard was the vocalist for post punk outfit Microfilm, whose one single ‘Centrefold’ released in 1980 reveals a primal, intoxicating brand of post punk that finds its kindred in the likes of Siouxsie and The Banshees.

Listening to Dead Can Dance’s debut in this context is like watching the splitting of genres in real time. A rhythm section married to driving, melodic post punk sets the scene for ethereal, spacey melodies, Gerrard’s ritualistic, wordless vocal technique known as glossolalia, and all manner of percussion and atypical instrumentation adorn what was essentially still a post punk album. Perry’s vocals already displayed their stark similarity to old school jazz crooners, with his rich, earthy tones adding a touch of class and power lacking in other similar attempts at gravelly textures within goth vocalisations of the time. His ability to craft the simplest pop melodies into opaque dreamscapes achieved a level of captivation akin to haunting nursery rhymes.

The reach of Dead Can Dance’s stylistic scope, supplemented by a tight conceptual unity made the debut feel like a transitional album in a career that had only just started. But with each new chapter in this story, it would become clear that their entire body of work was one elongated and ever unfolding transition.

The stark duality between Perry and Gerrard’s personalities would come to define the structure of all Dead Can Dance albums to follow. 1985’s ‘Spleen and Ideal’ solidified the formula for the next run of albums, with the duo splitting the tracks between them, stamping the album with their own individual voices rather than integrating their contributions in tandem. There are many labels one could attribute to the style that was taking shape on ‘Spleen and Ideal’. Deep horns, timpani, harpsichord, and cellos coloured the album with a baroque aesthetic, and many of the melodies were lifted from medieval and Gregorian techniques, Celtic flourishes, and homely neofolk. Gerrard’s vocals reached further into articulations of dreamlike, fantastical soundscapes. And Perry supplemented this gently dark chamber music with lyrics that today read like a libertarian punk anthem:

Who will suffer the laws
That State can decide your child’s education
Unless you pay the price?
Who will suffer their laws?
Who will suffer their minds?
Who will suffer their words?
Who will suffer their designs?

Indoctrination (A Design for Living)

But it was the third album ‘Within the Realm of a Dying Sun’ released in 1987 that would consolidate the true musical vision of this mysterious entity. Structurally the album is split down the middle, with side A being Perry’s and Gerrard monopolising side B. Whilst such segregation is just asking for a split in the fanbase – kids latch onto Gerrard’s bold and captivating theatrics, adults favouring Perry’s understated philosophical crooning – in reality the two work as the perfect complement to one another. It’s true that Perry makes the slower burn offering, with rich darkwave instrumentation accompanying his deep, earthy voice that gradually burrows into the subconscious over time and repeated listens. The final track for his half entitled ‘Xavier’ is where we really start to see him articulate his identity by spinning out epic poetry inspired by antiquity, literally forming a musical narrative around the lyrical story he wishes to tell.

But there’s no getting away from understanding this album as anything other than a pinnacle of Gerrard’s career. From the doom-laden horns of ‘Dawn of the Iconoclast’, to the dimension hopping ‘Cantara’, which sees rich string tones and harpsichord arpeggios combine with Gerrard’s raga vocal improvisations, to the indescribable beauty of ‘Summoning of the Muse’ fashioned from trancelike church bells and rich vocal flexing ripped straight from the Tallis Scholars. The closing number ‘Persephone (The Gathering of Flowers)’ is shaped as an overture that builds its dynamics and hauntingly sustained cadences with all the inevitability of time’s passage. It also saw Gerrard demonstrate a contralto vocal range spanning three octaves, showcasing the true power and reach of her voice and setting a gold standard for years to come.

‘Within the Realm of a Dying Sun’ remains a fan favourite. A voice like Gerrard’s is a rare commodity and Perry’s technical abilities were also easily a cut above the usual post punk crop, and although many darkwave albums shared musical and textural similarities to Dead Can Dance, few were able to master the balance of subtlety and gravitas that this duo were capable of. This was also the point where their impact on the surrounding subcultures was beginning to be felt, with goth becoming enamoured by this celestial body floating far above the common crop of alternative music. Doom metal, neofolk, the fledgling black metal scene, and underground electronica were also all taking notes.

The follow up ‘The Serpent’s Egg’ released in 1988 would see Dead Can Dance move away from anything that looked goth adjacent and begin to traverse music history and geography even further. The opening track ‘The Host of Seraphim’ is possibly one of their most recognisable pieces. In one sense it functions as a sequel to ‘Persephone (The Gathering of Flowers)’, with each track working in perfect structural asymmetry to the other. The rest of this brief album would see them entrench elements of Indian classical, African percussion, medieval spiritual music, and Perry’s increasing penchant for story telling with material lifted from ancient mythology and historical fable.

The results, although stunning in places, were too brief and underdeveloped for anyone to claim this as a worthy follow up to ‘Within the Realm of a Dying Sun’. It comes across as a testing ground for potential avenues and identities for the power duo to explore, one that may have been more fittingly delivered in EP form. But this album’s shortcomings were quickly swept aside on 1990’s ‘Aion’. This was Dead Can Dance exploring art in miniature. Offering a series of beautifully crafted suggestions, hints at disparate fragments of music history largely lifted from medieval and Celtic traditions that make the listener feel like they are exploring a sound archive stretching over time and place. One could open a series of doors to reveal distinct instances lifted from a rich tapestry of culture.

This was also Dead Can Dance at their least identifiable. Despite the ambitious stylistic reach of their albums up to this point, they all contained within them an identity that was immediately recognisable as the work of Gerrard or Perry. But aside from the Perry numbers ‘Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book’ and fan favourite ‘Black Sun’, for ‘Aion’ these musicians were able to subsume their own musical personas for the sake of bringing to term this celebration of music history and culture. This is quite the feat for such bold and distinctive artistic visionaries.

By 1992 Gerrard relocated to Australia whilst Perry settled in Ireland. Recording the follow up to ‘Aion’ would therefore present a new challenge. Opting for a three month intensive session with no guest musicians, ‘Into the Labyrinth’ released in 1993 offers some of the strongest music Dead Can Dance were capable of, yet paradoxically one of their weakest albums to date. The disconnection that worked so well on ‘Aion’ is here stretched to breaking point, making ‘Into the Labyrinth’ feel more like a compilation than a finished, unified work. Perry’s talent for bittersweet, wonderfully naïve ballads is stronger than ever on tracks like ‘The Carnival Is Over’ and ‘Tell Me About the Forest (You Once Called Home)’. As is his knack for putting Homeric fables to minimalist darkwave on the closing number ‘How Fortunate the Man With None’, hypnotically pivoting on its own internal narrational logic.

Equally Gerrard continued to expand her performative range on her haunting rendition of Robert Dwyer Joyce’s ballad ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’. Her voice scatters across the rest of the album in a style that would become a staple for any soundtrack to a Hollywood film set in the Middle East or North Africa, with ethereal chants, undulating scale runs, and unsettling cadences all weaving their way in and out of her tracks.

But despite the disjointed structure and tonal swaps that stretch ‘Into the Labyrinth’ beyond the fluidity that characterised their previous efforts, it sold 500,000 copies and made them 4AD’s highest selling artist. A world tour quickly followed in 1994 which gave rise to the live recording ‘Toward the Within’ filmed in Santa Monica. Released both as a VHS and an album, it features many tracks that were previously unreleased, along with live versions of ‘Cantara’ and ‘The Song of the Sibyl’. Whilst Perry adopts the role of a folk musician, breathing life and depth into material that at times looks like fairly middle of the road singer songwriter fluff, this live album is really all about Gerrard. She is at the height of her powers in terms of technical ability, flair, passion, and that mysterious, detached stage presence she would become known for.

It would be all too neat to call ‘Toward the Within’ the perfect way to close off a decade that saw some of the most creative and influential contemporary music seep into the imaginations of a growing subculture whose only connection was a shared love of Dead Can Dance. But the reality is that – although this is a fine live album – Perry does not do himself justice, and despite some compelling instrumentation, the whole show is swept away whenever Gerrard takes to the mic. It was clear that Perry was losing interest in anything remotely connected to the darkness that ran through their first clutch of albums. Further, the magical naivety that brought colour and life to the more light hearted moments of ‘Aion’ and ‘Into the Labyrinth’ was largely absent on ‘Toward the Within’.

This observation was only corroborated on the final album from this era of Dead Can Dance, 1996’s ‘Spiritchaser’. I despised this album on first encounter, dismissing it as “white people do world music” fodder that delegitimised any artistic value it might have possessed. But this may have been unfair. Dead Can Dance have always treated their influences with a degree of intimacy and nuance absent in many similar artists. And the truth is that the main difference between ‘Spiritchaser’ and their earlier works was the lack of darkness. Reviews were filled with terms such as Latino folk, Africana, Oriental, and Middle Eastern, all of which are simply far too broad to hold any meaningful descriptive power. Dead Can Dance themselves were able to bridge the gap between respecting their source material whilst satisfying Western audience expectations as to what these sweeping categories should sound like. This is also one of the main reasons for their enduring uniqueness within the contemporary canon.  

But the real problem with ‘Spiritchaser’ is not the music itself but our expectations. One is immediately struck by the brightness and euphoric mood they attempt to strike. Despite retaining their trademark geography hopping, this album has far more in common with post rock or minimal techno than it does anything remotely connected to darkwave or goth. The pieces are repetitive, meditative, pivoting on a simple central motif and allowing other voices and instruments to swell and subside against it. Compositionally this was a very different approach, and Dead Can Dance pulled it off with marked success. But it was so utterly removed from anything they had done previously that a degree of initial revulsion on the part of fans was inevitable.

Two years later the duo split in the middle of writing a follow up to ‘Spiritchaser’. Gerrard had already been pursuing a solo career, releasing ‘The Mirror Pool’ in 1995, which saw her expand on the brighter side of her style with a prominent neoclassical influence. Perry would also take the solo path in 1999 with the release of ‘Eye of the Hunter’. The sparse, baritone folk ballads found on this album spoke of a mind clearly more interested in the soulful grit of a post grunge musical environment than the regal dark romanticism of the 1980s.

But the most notable event to occur during Dead Can Dance’s first hiatus was Lisa Gerrard’s contribution to Hans Zimmer’s score for the 2000 blockbuster ‘Gladiator’. Ridley Scott’s historical epic was a triumph of cinema in spite of the minimal assistance offered by Zimmer’s tired, cliché ridden musical platitudes. But when Gerrard’s unmistakable angelic lamentations sweep the score away it lit up the sonic tapestry of the film in a way that perfectly married with the on-screen action, serving to pull the listener further into the subtextual conflict between primal mysticism and the modernist glory of Rome that sits beneath the central plot of the film. Even Russel Crowe *doing acting* benefits from this truly unique accompaniment. It would also (and rather regrettably) set the soundtrack standard for any Hollywood film set in ancient Southern Europe or the Middle East, becoming something of an early 2000s meme.

Following an exclusive tour in 2005, and to the delight of fans too young to enjoy the first incarnation of Dead Can Dance, Perry announced a reformation in 2011, to be followed by a new album in 2012. In order to interpret ‘Anastasis’ it’s important to understand the context into which it was released. This was the era when reunions, remakes, come back albums, and revivalism was solidifying its grip on every aspect of pop culture. The resurgence in 80s and 90s touchstones became a new hegemony, and old timers from across the musical spectrum saw an opportunity to re-join the fray and maybe show the kids how it was done.

We could debate the sincerity or cynicism of this trend until our discussion of Dead Can Dance is a mere speck in the rear-view mirror. But in the present context it’s enough to say that ‘Anastasis’ was completely typical of comeback albums from artists of their age and calibre. An incredibly well respected artist with barrels of critically acclaimed music under their belts – one who had never really committed any grave missteps to date – wades into the picture again with swaggering aplomb, and drops an album so free of risk and intrigue that begin to smell something like cynicism. This has happened so many times to so many artists that I could almost cut and paste my recent Immolation review here as so many of the same points apply.

The truth is there’s nothing inherently wrong with ‘Anastasis’. All the Dead Can Dance calling cards are there, aided by some cinematic production qualities and dramatic orchestral flourishes. But it feels like a band on autopilot. An imitation of Dead Can Dance by an artist not quite up to the task of meeting history’s legacy. This looks like a band growing stale at the end of a long run of successful music. This seems odd from a group newly reformed and ready to deliver unto the world again. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that both artists never really took a break from music prior to this album. Perry had released his second solo outing ‘Ark’ in 2010, and Gerrard continued collaborating and offering her voice to various film scores throughout the 2000s.

But, whether ‘Anastasis’ was deliberately playing it safe in order to prepare the ground for subsequent material or was indicative of a growing malaise were questions quickly answered in 2018 with the release of ‘Dionysus’. This album dispenses with the fragmented mishmash of Dead Can Dance calling cards that was ‘Anastasis’ and instead delivers laser focused specificity formed around ancient Greek and Mediterranean music. Although the album is lacking in standout moments and chooses to fixate on one particular mood colouring throughout, one has to credit the effort to work outside of expectations this late in their career. Having briefly drunk of the revivalist kool-aid the duo dispensed with any concern for their own weighty legacy and instead indulged in a detailed unpacking of music and conceptual material from one particular time and region. The attempt to unfold a story within this context may have had mixed success, but it remains a far worthier entry offered up in the spirit of Dead Can Dance if not the surface level traits we have come to expect of them over the years.

Dead Can Dance’s influence, their genre spanning appeal, and their longevity, all can be explained by the fact that no one else was really capable of pulling off anything like this. They treated their vast pool of cultural influences with a degree of respect and intimacy that disarmed anyone primed to call what they were doing “appropriation”. They also supplemented these disparate histories with their own distinctive musical identities that marshalled an alchemy and seamless diversity that can only be described as lightning in a bottle. They were also – despite the clear segregation of material on each album – a perfect collaboration. Perry’s understated, soulful ear for folk ballads, lyrical storytelling, and soothing melodic hooks spoke directly to the child in us all, and was the perfect balance for Gerrard’s ethereal, spontaneous, and at times aggressively primal vocal acrobatics.

Their influence on music from the 1980s onwards cannot be overstated precisely because it touches on so many largely unconnected subcultural territories, even entering the mainstream consciousness for a brief time in the early 2000s through popular cinema. This could only be achieved by two once in a generation musical minds who were able – for a time at least – to work in harmony with each other in a manner that elevated their individual voices beyond what they were capable of expressing alone.  

3 thoughts on “On Dead Can Dance’s message to the within

Add yours

  1. While you’re review is eloquently written, I honestly found myself wondering if you truly immersed yourself within the spirit of Dead Can Dance, or whether you were a casual “fan” or even if you were simply someone reviewing their eclectic history.

    Your opening line stated “There are very few artists that could claim to have truly transcended genre.” I was in 100% agreement. But as the article progressed, I found myself scratching my head at some of your opinions and criticisms, as they contradicted nearly every philosophy of Brendon and Lisa. I can’t understand why you were disappointed with the progression of their motives and the evolution of their Musical exploration.

    In an interview after Dionysus was released, Brendan defended the fact that they had gone so long without releasing an album because they never felt any need to meet anyone’s criteria but their own, in their own natural course. The same would go for each of their albums progressively; of course they wanted to open the minds of their listeners, but they never did so under the guile of giving the “fans” what they wanted. You either get their music or you don’t, in every aspect. I have actually spent time in percussion workshops with Brendan, drumming with him, and I can tell you that his plain philosophy is pure journey of communication and expression through music. Dead Can Dance was never just about the initial dark wave/ Post Punk / Gothic themes, (my opinion would be that it started that way because they both emerged from some form of the punk scene) it was only about expression and exploration, so naturally their music would evolve immensely. To the criticism that they lost that “darkness” with Spiritchaser, I would imagine Brendan would meet that with either disregard or respond that to be otherwise would be ignorance through stagnation. Spiritchaser to this day remains one of my most beloved albums.

    For me, Dead Can Dance is purely existential. Every single album progressed with new personality and exploration that has led us all to Dionysus, which is so far removed from the goth and darkwave, and with good reason because, in Brendon’s own words, it has led us to be more worldly and think more about our connection to Nature and culture.

    I thank Brendon and Lisa for the passion they gave in NOT staying stagnant.


    1. Hi, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I’ll offer some clarity and rebuttals here, as I think you are in danger of deifying the artist somewhat.

      I was never disappointed at DCD’s musical progressions, I actually find it fascinating. But to say that “you either get their music or you don’t” is a fanse dilemma, and a little simplistic, no artist is immune to that ambiguous space where lumpy good faith criticism sits.

      There are many artists that would claim that their music is purely about exploration and expression, but unfortunately for them, once it’s released into the world it is fair game for measured critical analysis, which will take the interpretation of their art well beyond their original intent (this is distinct from expecting artists to never progress or develop however).

      I am very comfortable contradicting the philosophy of Perry and Gerrard, responsible fandom is about precisely that, reinterpreting and re evaluating the narrative and meaning behind pieces of art, sometimes in defiance of its creators .

      And just to clarify on Spiritchaser, the observation that it is a brighter album than its predecessors was not a criticism per se, but more a comment on the more dogmatic elements of fan expectations, those that would have DCD make the same album twenty times over.

      I am thoroughly in agreement that one of their greatest strengths was their ability to reinvent themselves, but I thoroughly disagree with closing off any critical view of their work by reducing it down to “getting” it or not.

      Thanks again for reading.


  2. As I reread my comment, I can see how it may have appeared that I was on the cusp of defying them. I can attest, as some of my colleagues, after having spent time with him he is far from deity 😉 he certainly has his human weaknesses, and that’s as far as I will go with that.

    I always enjoy reading articles on them, as they have been a large part of most of my life, and I certainly appreciate the added thoughts from you concerning your article.

    Liked by 1 person

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