Another “band” from the good old days: Dead Can Dance, now barely remembered, tossed into the dustheap of unhip history. But they were an important moment in the soundtrack of my life in the late eighties and nineties. How to describe Dead Can Dance without using tired descriptors? They were/are a British/Australian duo who released seven albums between 1984 and 1996. Their early (1980s) work was primarily dedicated to excavating ancient and medieval European music from the grave of academic pretension and translate it for the arty underground/goth music scene of the 1980s. But Dead Can Dance were definitely not a goth a band. Their ambitions were much more limitless; their music encompassed everything from Gregorian chants (“De Profundis”) to faithful renditions of 13th century music (“Saltarello”) or 16th century Gatalan tunes (“The Song of the Sibyl”). They had a song called “Echolalia” and used glossolalia in their music. Some have called their music Neo-Medieval, whatever that means.
Later in their career (1990s), they moved more into what folks today call “World Music” and away from their medievalist roots. But the music still holds up remarkably well. They were an important aesthetic influence on my musical education, although they were in many ways antithetical to almost every other kind of music I listened to at the time. Through Dead Can Dance, I learned to be cautiously open to intellectual pretension. I understand that there’s a thin line between intellectual aspiration and pathetic (and bathetic) parody, but for some reason, I never placed Dead Can Dance in the latter category although many other bands or artists were not spared my scorn. Dead Can Dance felt incredibly earnest even as they collapsed time (centuries) and space (continents) into tidy album-sized chunks with lyrics that would not be out of place in Chaucer.
Brendan Perry, one half of Dead Can Dance, was someone who played in punk bands as a kid but having been influenced by the post-punk of P.I.L. and Joy Division took a complete left turn into more expansive music. Lisa Gerrard, the other half, is someone who you imagine should have done her Ph.D. in Medieval Studies in a small liberal arts college in New England. She looks tiny, frail, wispy, and proper. She later scored the music for the film Gladiator.
I like all of Dead Can Dance’s albums but my two favorites are Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (1987) and The Serpent’s Egg (1988), partly because these were the first two I heard. I still have both of them on vinyl and they sound beautiful, if a little strange. If I had to generalize, the former is based around melody and the latter around percussion, but both sound like nothing out of the twentieth century. For their latter, “world music” phase, I would recommend Into the Labyrinth (1993), probably their most successful album in terms of sales. Going more into territory that the Real World Records label was promoting, this album is impeccably produced but sounds a bit like two people who happened to accidentally put their (very) different songs on the same album. It was clear by this point that Perry and Gerrard were heading in different stylistic directions (and apparently didn’t get along much either). Since then, Gerrard has had a fairly successful solo career contributing to movie soundtracks, having a beautiful voice worthy of sirens welcoming you into heaven.
Recently, Perry and Gerrard have decided to re-activate Dead Can Dance. Their new album Anastasis is due in August 2012 and the band is about to embark on a massive world tour (New York on August 29 and 30!). As preparation, they have released 21 live recordings from previous tours free on their website under the generic title Live Happenings. Many of these live songs remain “officially” unreleased on any album.
Here then, are three random selections from the Dead Can Dance oeuvre.
Above is “Echolalia” from the album The Serpent’s Egg (1988). “Echolalia” literally means “the automatic repetition of vocalizations made by another person.”
Here is “Saltarello” from the album Aion (1990), which refers to a dance first recorded in Napoli in the 14th century:
And finally, here is the band in the latter day / world music phase with a song called “Rakim,” actually only released in a live version on the album Toward The Within.