Something of a rebirth for Dead Can Dance, a band who started off in 1984 as little more than Cure or Cocteau Twins darkcore also-rans. Few anticipated the great musical leaps guitarist Brendon Perry and singer Lisa Gerrard would make over the next 12 years, bringing together medieval European folk with ambient and world music, and polishing it all off with a grandiose neoclassical orchestrated sheen. The Australian duo who based themselves in London embraced practically every corner of the planet in terms of musical styles, their almost nomadic nature making them quite hard to pin down to any specific time or place, music seemingly with one foot in the world and the other up among the spirits… indeed, Dead Can Dance.
Perry and Gerrard have kept the quality of their material at a consistently high level, driven by great musical ambition throughout the group’s tenure and beyond. It’s possible they burned out after 1996′s Spiritchaser, the last official Dead Can Dance studio recording, the follow-up to which was never completed. It seems that creative ties still bind them together, however, despite now living on opposite sides of the planet. After a brief reunion in 2005 to tour they have finally found the time and inspiration to record together again. Anastasis is their first studio album for 16 years.
The music world has always been divided over Dead Can Dance. What can seem to some inspirational to others appears banal and derivative. An album like 1987’s Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun encapsulates their appeal for me, with its outstanding musical narrative matched with the powerful but contrasting vocal styles: Gerrard’s famous multi-octave alto and wordless glossolalia style of singing, something like speaking in tongues, which has become her trademark along with singers like the Cocteau’s Liz Fraser, matched with Perry’s warm dulcet baritone. But not everyone agrees: some see DCD as overblown and pretentious, rather pseudy, or dismiss their music as pastiche.
So after 16 years with each member achieving things in their own right, does the world really need another Dead Can Dance album? Anastasis doesn’t satisfactorily answer that, because you won’t find much here that’s very different from the band’s previous material. Rather like Television re-appearing fully (re-)formed again in 1992 with their third album Television, on their latest DCD recording, Perry and Gerrard seem ready to pick up exactly where they left off.
They’ve actually divided the vocal duties equally, rather like on Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun, with Gerrard singing in her characteristic glossolalia on ‘Anabasis’, ‘Agape’, ‘Kiko’ and ‘Return of the She-King’, and Perry taking up the mantle of storyteller to deliver ‘Children of the Sun’, ‘Amnesia’, ‘Opium’ and ‘All In Good Time’. Dead Can Dance have never been adherents of any particular faith or religion to my knowledge, but their songs often use liturgical writings and explore a wider spirituality. On this album, however, the ideas are more existential than metaphysical, a philosophical message of humankind learning from its mistakes and moving on.
‘Children of the Sun’ is the grandstanding opener, reminiscent of Suede’s ‘Introducing The Band’ on Dog Man Star before Brett Anderson launches himself into ‘We Are The Pigs’. Perry’s voice is rough around the edges but uplifting as he optimistically recounts our evolution and ancient legacy. It’s a sort of hippie-child Woodstock anthem about reaching up to the skies for answers, but in a cynical age perhaps something to admire. There’s less optimism on ‘Amnesia’ where he reflects on the collective amnesia that stops history teaching us any real lessons. There’s a sweeping orchestration on these two tracks, but on ‘Opium’, a strong dark pulsing bass and rhythm takes hold instead, meant to evoke the feeling of being trapped in addiction and the need to break free. The hypnotic beat, a Moroccan Sufi 6/8 rhythm, is also hard to escape. ‘All In Good Time’ grabs the philosopher’s stone one more time and reflects how things don’t always come along when we expect them to. Here, Perry sounds eerily like Scott Walker and the references to ships being cast adrift on the sea conjures up Echo and The Bunnymen’s classic ‘Ocean Rain’ for me: “All your ships/Have left their moorings/Cast adrift/On the Sargasso Sea/Waiting for the wind/To set your sails free”.
Gerrard’s songs explore themes of folklore and legend. Perry said in a recent interview that the heart of the material for Anastasis lies in the eastern Mediterranean, somewhere between Greece, Turkey and North Africa. ‘Anabasis’ is backed with exotic birdsong and the Swiss Hang (something like a West Indian drum and a gong). There may also be an African harp amidst all the chanting and clapping sounds, the music and singing evoking the spirit of earlier work ‘The Host of Seraphim’ from 1988’s The Serpent’s Egg. ‘Agape’ (Greek for “divine” or “higher love”) is rich in orchestration and again the rhythms sound North African or Turkish. Gerrard’s singing on this album is as powerful and evocative as any of her solo work. ‘Kiko’ is driven with an ancient drum sound and a dark orchestration which gives it space to breath before being joined by Greek bouzouki. There’s a distinct eastern Arabic influence, something like Lebanese legend Fairuz, while ‘Return Of The She-King’, possibly a reference to Granuaile, the legend of the 16th century Irish Queen of Umaill (and pirate), is more Celtic-sounding. Fittingly, Perry joins Gerrard on harmonies towards the end of the song.
Reunions are tricky things, it’s hard to think of an example of many that really work on a creative level, but Dead Can Dance can lay a reasonable claim to one. One of the last gasps of a dying record industry was to realise the marketable value of music from different parts of world, so-called “world music”, but Brendon Perry and Lisa Gerrard have always happily stood to one side of all the hype and just concentrated on exploring the type of music they were interested in. Anastasis in Greek means ‘resurrection’, but with two distinct meanings: a sort of re-birth, followed by a regeneration. The album cover depicts a field of sunflowers withered and blackened by the sun. Apparently dead, once harvested their roots ensure that they will rise again and ripen. They danced before and now Dead Can Dance again.