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Zen Sounds 062: Dead Can Dance
A journey through the Australian duo's magical discography of 40 years
Hi there! I’m interrupting my summer break for a post that yearned to be written, while I was immersing myself in the dream world of Dead Can Dance’s music these past weeks. Hope you enjoy my little career-spanning retrospective.
Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, also known as Dead Can Dance, broke into the mainstream with their sixth album “Into The Labyrinth” in 1993. That album fused wordless vocals inspired by Bulgarian folk music with polyrhythmic percussion, Middle Eastern melodies with traditional Irish ballads. To put it short, it was an unlikely record to sell 500,000 copies.
But by that time, their videos were played on MTV and their concerts hosted in venerable venues such as Hamburg’s Laeiszhalle. It was there I saw Perry and Gerrard along with an enormous cast of live musicians playing ancient instruments I had never heard before. I was 16 and until then, I’d only been to a few local jazz and punk shows in my town. I was enchanted, to say the least.
The audience was a weird mix of goths, ravers and hippies, classical listeners, new agers and Tolkien fans. Many new listeners had learned about them through film scores and syncs; their music had also become a staple of chill-out and ambient DJs. In years to come, their records would become standard soundtracks for yoga classes and hot stone massages. But that can’t take anything away from the impressive catalogue that Perry and Gerrard built.
Originally a quintet, Dead Can Dance were born out of Melbourne’s lively post-punk scene. Perry and Gerrard, both Australians of Irish heritage, had met playing in local pubs as early as 1980. He was a Joy-Division-loving, self-taught multi-instrumentalist; she had been fronting a Banshees-inspired outfit and played a Chinese hammered dulcimer from the flea market. They became a couple, and she joined his band Dead Can Dance the following year.
They moved to London in 1982, in hope of getting a record deal. Being broke musicians, they rented an apartment in a high-rise building on London’s Isle of Dogs, overlooking the river Thames, spending their days in libraries to seek out old records, films and books for inspiration. In 1983, they landed their first “Peel Session”; around that time, they met Ivo Watts-Russel of independent label 4AD. He was enthusiastic about “Frontier”, a song from their demo tape that showcased Gerrards outstanding vocals.
Dead Can Dance joined a label roster with Bauhaus and the Cocteau Twins, and while their early music had roots in post-punk and darkwave, Perry and Gerrard already felt more drawn to classical and folk music. Still, they were attributed to the gothic rock scene at first – after all, they were signed to 4AD, quoted romantic novels in their lyrics and featured a ritual mask against black ground on their debut album cover.
Even later in their career, Perry and Gerrard never really came to terms with their self-titled debut album. Due to recording constraints, “Dead Can Dance” wasn’t able to capture their full talent. They only had two weeks of studio time, an engineer they didn’t get along with, and maybe they just weren’t quite ready yet. It wasn’t a bad album, but a rather tame one. It had its moments, but they couldn’t get the production right, leaving it sounding a bit muddy. Many songs fit standard post-punk territory, but that movement’s heydays were over.
A self-produced four-track EP, “Garden of the Arcane Delights”, released later that year, roughly hinted into the direction they were about to head off into. Its opener “Carnival of Light” featured Gerrard singing a kind of fantasy Catalan over her hammered dulcimer and clattering percussion. But nothing could have prepared anyone for “Spleen and Ideal”, Dead Can Dance’s second album and early masterpiece from 1985.
On this transitional album, Perry and Gerrard changed their sound drastically, minimizing the post-punk influence to a few songs. Instead, the record started with a full-on blast of choir, bells and timpani, through which Gerrard’s voice cut with her trademark style, inventing words from syllables, similar to what she had done on “Carnival of Light” but with even more impact because of the instrumentation’s dramatic weight.
Dead Can Dance now openly embraced their classical leanings, employing strings, trombones and elements of Gregorian chants. The more traditional songs around guitar, bass and drums – usually featuring Perry’s vocals – were hidden in the second half on the album. They hadn’t left all of their scene roots behind yet, but Side A of “Spleen and Ideal” showcased a duo that had moved into its very own artistic world. It was also the first time they worked with producer John Rivers.
Perry and Gerrard seemed like aliens, even in a city with such a rich experimental music scene as London in the 1980s. Their haunting, baroque nostalgia somehow matched the zeitgeist, even though there was no other band around that sounded even remotely similar to them. They were on to something completely new, and they had gotten much better technically as well.
Dead Can Dance spent most of the year 1986 on tour. “Spleen and Ideal” had been mildly successful, but Perry and Gerrard still lived in that apartment building on the west side of the Isle of Dogs. They had also boiled the group down to a duo, working with producer John Rivers and session musicians. With their third album “Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun” in the following year, they continued on the path of its predecessor, but left even the last traces of their post-punk past behind.
By this time, the Dead Can Dance sound had fully formed. Both Perry and Gerrard wrote songs, and they worked on them together, but like on “Spleen and Ideal”, they separated them by album sides. Here, Perry’s romantic vocals dominated Side A, while Gerrard was more present on Side B; her part of the record opened with fanfares, marching drums and her singing in a language that might sound like Celtic or Latin, but she has most likely, again, made up in her very own mind. She once called it the “language of the heart”.
The obvious comparison to Gerrard’s wordless vocals was the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, but at this point, Lisa was much more influenced by Bulgarian folk music. She had discovered it through the legendary compilation “Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares”, originally released in 1975 and re-released in 1986 by Dead Can Dance’s label 4AD. She experimented with open-throat style singing and mystical-sounding overtones. Side B of “Within the Realm of a Dying Sun” is testament to that new obsession, showcasing her outstanding vocal range and technique. Some think it’s the best Dead Can Dance album ever.
“The Serpent’s Egg”, released just a year later, was recorded in their home studio in that East London apartment block, which they had built from a £10,000 advance from 4AD. Instead of separating Perry’s and Gerrard’s songs by album sides, on this record their vision seems perfectly intertwined. By that time, they used mostly classical instruments, enhancing their sound in the studio with computers and synthesizers. It was the last album they produced with John Rivers.
The stunning opener, “The Host of Seraphim”, was prominently featured in the soundtrack to Ron Fricke’s 1992 movie “Baraka”, which would kick off Dead Can Dance’s rise to mainstream success a few years later. Martin Aston once aptly called the song Gerrard’s “ultimate creation of Bulgarian-inspired ecstatic glossolalia”. There’s many more breathtaking moments on “The Serpent’s Egg”, including the Hungarian folk lament “The Writings On My Father’s Hand”, where Gerrard actually seems to sing decipherable lyrics.
“Aion”, their fifth album, came two years later. Much had changed in the meantime. Most importantly, the two had separated after almost a decade as a couple. Consequently, they left the Isle Of Dogs. Perry moved to rural Ireland and Gerrard to Barcelona. Still, they had started some of the ideas for the album in London; the rest was done at Perry’s new place, an abandoned church on a canal island at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Dead Can Dance still managed to create an album that not only held up to their high standards, but actually became one of their best and most acclaimed works. On “Aion”, they reflected their interest in early, medieval and Renaissance music, interpreting traditional Italian and Catalan songs and Gaelic ballads. Perry employed his trademark hurdy-gurdy, but you would also hear bagpipes played by Perry’s brother Robert, and a string section of four viola da gambas.
In 1991, Dead Can Dance’s first compilation album signified the end of a cycle. The title “A Passage In Time” could be read as the closing of the first chapter of the band, but also as the closing of the chapter of their romantic relationship. As the US was slowly picking up on the band, the compilation was designed as a “Best Of”-type introduction for new listeners on the other side of the Atlantic. It contained songs from most of their albums until this point, excluding their debut and “Garden of the Arcane Delights”.
After “Aion”, it took three years until Dead Can Dance were ready to release “Into The Labyrinth”, their sixth album and biggest commercial success. In the meantime, Gerrard had moved to the Snowy Mountains in Victorialand, Australia, with her new husband and young daughter. It took some time for Gerrard and Perry to get together to record the album. They had to develop a new working process, writing the songs separately. Gerrard would travel to Ireland for a couple of months to finish the record with Perry in the studio.
On this album, they played all the instruments themselves for the first time. Perry got his moment to shine on the second single “The Ubiquitious Mr. Lovegrove” that surprisingly blew up on US college radio, while Gerrard stole the show on songs such as the spiritual opener “Yulunga” or the Irish revolutionary ballad “The Wind That Shook The Barley” that she sung acapella. All in all, this album sounded a bit more polished than its predecessors, but that alone doesn’t explain its unlikely mainstream success.
“Into The Labyrinth” capitalised off of a slow-burn underground hype that had grown organically for many years. Their live shows were long known to be intricate, intense spectacles. Their film score syncs had spread the word further about this amazing duo that played this super mystical, but weirdly accessible fusion folk. Radio and music television suddenly decided to join in the praise and play their music. The stars just aligned in their favor.
The exhausting world tour that followed “Into The Labyrinth” spawned the exceptional live album “Towards The Within” (1994). It also might have destroyed the band, at least for the moment. During that frenzy of success, it seemed as if their shared creative spirit was slowly losing ground. Perry and Gerrard were growing apart, just as the physical distance between them had grown.
In 1996, they released another album, “Spiritchaser”, their last one for 15 years, continuing the more polished production style and musical tropes of “Into The Labyrinth”. While it’s certainly not their best album, it had its moments. By that time, both Perry and Gerrard had started working on solo material, and in 1998, they officially disbanded the group. Lisa became an in-demand film score composer, working with Hans Zimmer on blockbusters like “Gladiator” (the soundtrack sold more than one million copies). Brendan kept on working as well, writing and producing smaller scale projects in his Quivvy Church studio.
They reconciled after almost a decade, went on another world tour together in 2005, but their announced comeback album had to wait until 2012. Lisa wasn’t able to dedicate enough time to the Dead Can Dance reunion in between her movie assignments and family duties. When “Anastasis” finally came out, it featured that fusion of global folk elements, film score strings and nature field recordings that had become the signature sound of their post-”Labyrinth” era. It’s extremely beautiful music, and after all, they can’t help it being overused in urban yoga studios and all sorts of “ethnic” TV documentaries.
Dead Can Dance’s last album to this day was released in 2018. A concept album around Greek mythology, “Dionysos” was recorded in France. It is separated into two acts and seven movements, and it features loads of chorals, animal noises and some vocal samples woven in. It’s a weird one, even for Dead Can Dance standards. Even after all those years, they still come up with these sophisticated concepts, and the musical world they create seems as enchanting as ever.
Some critics say both of these last albums sound more like Brendan Perry solo projects. They tend to overlook the fact that Lisa Gerrard has never been merely a singer for the group, but has always had huge impact on the music and arrangements of Dead Can Dance as well. It’s true that her vocals have slipped into the background a bit more, but then again, she had been struggling with health problems in the 2010s that seriously impacted her voice (she still sounds gorgeous!), so maybe it was a deliberate decision on their end.
Over the last weeks, I went through Dead Can Dance’s discography of 40 years, and I still think it’s some of the most beautiful music ever created. When I hear some of their songs, especially their older ones from the 1980s and early 1990s, my arm hair stands up, and tears shoot into my eyes. But I also find that their newer albums shouldn’t be underrated. Perry still has this rare talent to orchestrate the most disparate influences into exciting new music without the slightest hint of cultural appropriation, and Gerrard’s voice always reaches something deep inside of me – emotions that I didn’t even know existed, like the voice of an ancestor speaking directly to me.
You can listen to all Dead Can Dance albums on your streaming service of choice. For the Zen Sounds Spotify playlist, I’ve put together a chronological timeline of personal favorites from 1984–2018.
Three classic Lisa Gerrard moments
For readers not familiar with her, here’s three videos from the 1990s capturing one of the most mesmerizing singers of all time in her prime.
The first one was included on the live album “Toward The Within”, and it’s still one of the most powerful demonstrations of the sheer power of Gerrard’s contralto voice. Her range is just unfathomable.
Just when you think it can’t get more intense... I am tearing up every single time I listen to her rendition of this Irish folk ballad, taken from the same live album as the previous video.
Going to leave you with some of Lisa’s post-DCD work from the late 1990s after the breakup and split from Brendan, here with Australian composer Pieter Bourke on synth around 1998. This performance has been particularly popular with vocal coach reaction YouTubers (my most recent obsession).
© 2023 Stephan Kunze