COULD it be in good-humoured jest that a group called Dead Can Dance should title their first album in over 15 years after the Greek word for “resurrection”?
Perhaps. But let’s not get too swept along with thoughts of a mischievous bone-jangling danse macabre. This may not be a playful reference at all. Because Dead Can Dance, as their acolytes already know, take their music very seriously.
The duo comprising singers and multi-instrumentalists Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry first emerged during the anything-goes post-punk era and fitted right in with the doomy art rock of their contemporaries on the 4AD label (Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, Birthday Party, This Mortal Coil). Their own gothic leanings were gradually shrugged off as they broadened their musical horizons and forged a truly pangeneric soundtrack, drawing on classical and folk music traditions from all around the world, both ancient and modern. Quietly and entirely without celebrity, they went on to become the biggest selling group on the label before their split in the late 1990s.
A watered down, far less adventurous version of their mystical soundscapes lived on in Gerrard’s subsequent work for film, most notably her collaboration with Hans Zimmer on the Gladiator soundtrack and, to some extent, it is this diluted rendition of their signature style which turns up again on Anastasis.
The tenth Dead Can Dance album has its roots in a world tour the pair undertook in 2005. In the end, this reunion was temporary. Afterwards, Perry returned to his base in Ireland, Gerrard to her native southern Australia, probably to lie down in a darkened room. But the seeds were sown and it was decided that their next tour would be on the back of new material.
For DCD, there can be no new material without some homework. Gerrard and Perry are diligent ethnomusicologists and often the springboard for fresh work comes from the introduction of new, unfamiliar instrumentation. Perry has cited the influence of Greek, Turkish and North African traditions on this album, which features a number of song titles of Greek derivation and references to Greek mythology.
If this all sounds a bit desiccated and academic in theory, the execution is often cathartic, thanks to their soulful yet contrasting singing styles. Anastasis features an equal division of vocal labour: Perry’s rich crooning baritone is applied to the rather portentous English language torch songs, while Gerrard’s otherworldly ululations, delivered in a language of her own devising, grace the more mantra-like numbers.
Perry leads off with Children Of The Sun. There is an epic pomp to its mix of glacial synths, martial drums, cinematic strings and Perry’s marvellous tone, as authoritative as the Oracle, even as he sings such hippyish lines as “we are the children of the sun, our journey’s just begun, sunflowers in our hair” (perhaps not such a hopeful image given the wilting sunflowers on the sleeve). At one point, he strays very close to The Doors’ Peace Frog in making a connection between the Woodstock generation and ancient pagan beliefs, but what’s 40 years too late for a band who have delved back as far as the Renaissance, even medieval Europe for musical inspiration?
Amnesia is a sombre hymn to history’s unlearned lessons, which never falters in its regal pace. Opium, as the title suggests, is a downer odyssey, softened by the resonance of the Hang - part steel drum, part gamelan gong – and the pattering of a Moroccan Sufi rhythm, which concludes that “all roads look the same, they lead nowhere”. Perry definitely has the hangdog voice for such a bereft observation but he saves his most impassioned, soaring vocal for the stately, mournful strains of All In Good Time, which celebrates the virtue of patience.
Speaking of which, the Gerrard songs are also minded to take their time. Anabasis is an exercise in restraint, with a snake-charmer of a hookline. The shimmering Agape is darker, fuller and more sensual, but can’t quite sustain its charms over its seven-minute running time. Kiko builds from a spare, ominous rumble into a chiming Eastern Mediterranean arrangement over which Gerrard weaves her sad, soulful appeal.
The only misfire in taste is Return Of The She-King with its cod-Celtic pipes and chorus-style multi-tracking which dilutes the potency of Gerrard’s vocal. Perry joins the po-faced party later on but it is still the blandest moment here, as close as they come to incidental music.
Anastasis feels more one-note than their earlier works. Hearing those chiming dulcimers again is a bit like encountering an old, cherished love with warmth and affection, while realising that the frisson has gone. Possibly that is down to familiarity with their oeuvre or the greater prevalence of world music in popular culture; more likely, it is because the material here is more comfortable, constrained and conservative than the truly transporting sounds of their back catalogue.
Dead Can Dance: Anastasis
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