Mesmerizing if a bit laborious, Dead Can Dance’s eponymous debut finds the Australian-born/London-based Anglo-Irish quintet spinning slow webs of drum-driven but mostly shapeless guitar music with chanting, singing and howling by Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. The more intriguing four-song Garden of the Arcane Delights EP (included on the Dead Can Dance CD) has crisper production than the album, although similar musical stylings.
By the time Spleen and Ideal was released, DCD were down to a duo of Perry and Gerrard. Some of the guitars have given way to ethereal keyboards, with tympani, cellos and trombones blended in; much of the LP sounds as though it belongs in a cathedral rather than a concert hall. The songs are more structured than before, but things do get a bit precious, and the three hymnalesque cuts that open the album are pretty tough to sit through. The music gets meatier as it progresses, though, and the end result is a record of haunting and solemn beauty.
With song titles such as “Xavier” and “Dawn of the Iconoclast,” and credits for such instruments as bass trombone, oboe and military snare, there’s no way that Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (and how about that title?) could be quite as boring as its sounds. (Comes close at times, mind you.) Major mistake: segregating the Perry-sung material on one side of the LP and the (somewhat superior) songs Gerrard sings on the other forces the listener to compare the two quite different solo vocal styles, rather than uniting the often spectacular compositions into one overall mood.
Building on its predecessor’s shift towards an awareness of ancient musics — European, Celtic and Middle Eastern predominate — The Serpent’s Egg has some scintillating moments. Still, it’s a lesser, transitional work, without much sense of flow, serving mainly to pave the way for the fully developed medievalisms of Aion. Jettisoning any ties to the present, this masterfully organized recording whirls headlong into the Renaissance, to a sonic realm where somber Gregorian chants (and there’s a lot of them here) and jaunty maypole dances like “Saltarello” have never left the hit parade. Utilizing authentic folk instruments (hurdy gurdy, lutes, bagpipes, etc.) and letting Gerrard’s lovely voice soar unimpeded, Dead Can Dance has finally found a distinct sound of its own.
By A Passage in Time, Dead Can Dance’s increasing awareness of European classicism and ancient musics (predominately Celtic and Middle Eastern) had blossomed into archaic mastery, married to an intriguing lyrical bent for myth and symbolism. Aiming for a coherent mood rather than comprehensiveness, A Passage in Time ignores the Cocteau-inflected goth-rock drones of the band’s first two records to concentrate on the medieval masterpiece Aion and The Serpent’s Egg, with one selection from Spleen and Ideal (“Enigma of the Absolute”) and two from Within the Realm of a Dying Sun. Additionally, the album includes the newly recorded “Bird” and “Spirit.” Many of these masterfully arranged songs whirl headlong into the Renaissance, to a sonic realm where somber Gregorian chants (“The Song of the Sibyl,” “Song of Sophia”) and jaunty maypole dances (“Saltarello”) have never left the hit parade. Subtle semi-orchestral keyboards, spiced with authentic folk instruments (hurdy- gurdy, flute, bagpipes) form the evocative backdrop for Gerrard’s soaring vocals (the seminal, glossolalic “Cantara”) and Brendan Perry’s darker, silky intonations (“Severance”).
Into the Labyrinth finds Dead Can Dance moving away from overwhelming medievalism, incorporating both more organic, non-Western sounds (“Yulunga,” the ululating “Saldek”) and relatively contemporary influences like historical Irish ballads (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”) and theatrical idioms (“The Carnival Is Over” and a sharp adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “How Fortunate the Man With None”).
Toward the Within, recorded live (and filmed for a long-form video) with five added musicians in Santa Monica, California, at the end of the 1993 tour following Into the Labyrinth, does an excellent job of displaying not only the mystic richness and pan-ethnic musicianship of the duo’s diverse concert presentation, but also a substantial amount of new material. Only four of the fifteen songs are from previous releases; Toward the Within is studded with such otherwise unheard treasures as “Tristan,” “Desert Song” and “Rakim.” The last of those begins with Gerrard’s skeletal cascade of yang ch’in (Chinese dulcimer) scales, before Perry’s heady Arabic exhortations ignite the lush, rhythmic piece. Gerrard’s vocal cords are also tested, and achieve gorgeous heights on “Cantara,” “Yulunga (Spirit Dance)” and the traditional “Persian Love Song.” The backing quintet contributes chanting vocals, keyboards, uillean pipes, whistles, bouzouki and various exotic percussion. In particular, Perry’s brother Robert shines on the show- stopping “Piece for Solo Flute.” Three mainly acoustic Brendan Perry originals — “I Can See Now,” “American Dreaming” and “Don’t Fade Away” — flirt with pastoral folk, while his increasing Celtic enthusiasm is displayed in a moving rendition of Sinéad O’Connor’s obsessive “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.”
Residing at opposite ends of the earth (Perry on a river island in Ireland, Gerrard by Australia’s Snowy River) and meeting only to unite their sonic visions, it’s natural the pair would eventually put Dead Can Dance on hiatus to pursue individual projects. Gerrard was first out of the gate with The Mirror Pool, which unsurprisingly devotes the lion’s share of attention to her vocal theatrics, buttressed by the Victorian Philharmonic Orchestra and various guest players. “Violina (The Last Embrace)” and “La Bas (Song of the Drowned)” are ominously operatic — static and gorgeous — as are studio recordings of Toward the Within‘s “Persian Love Song (The Silver Gun)” and “Sanvean (I Am Your Shadow).” The droning “Ajhon” and “The Rite” recall Native American chant, while many of the album’s minor-key melodies are reminiscent of the haunting ballads of the 13th and 14th centuries. The wailing Middle Eastern sway prevalent on latter-day Dead Can Dance material rarely comes to the fore (“Swans” is an exception); without her more visceral partner’s input, Gerrard’s debut is almost too ethereal. Still, it’s an enjoyable audio treatise on the pure beauty of the human voice, exemplified by a stunning rendition of Handel’s “Largo.”