I was first introduced to the music of Dead Can Dance a number of years ago, when cassette tapes were state of the art. (Yes, that many years ago.) With my interest in offbeat popular music and music from other cultures, they were a good fit, but it wasn’t until I picked up their “best of” release, Wake, that I realized how much in tune (if you’ll pardon the expression) we were.
Listening through this album again, the range of traditions embodied in the music is remarkable.
Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry met in Melbourne in 1980. Perry, according to Gerrard, was making music in the mold of the New York Dolls; she doesn’t talk about what she was doing, but what happened when they got together was something very different than either had been doing before. The collection starts off with their first collaboration, “Frontier,” which they used as their demo when they moved to London and managed, after four years of rejection, to link up with Ivo Watts-Russell of 4AD. The amazing thing about “Frontier” is that it is already full-blown DCD: Perry’s instrumental collages flow over, under and around Gerrard’s highly abstract vocalizations to produce something that it, indeed, unique — in this case, a beat that is almost something you might find in pop music (and more about that later), and Perry’s own supporting vocals that become an inextricable part of the instrumentals.
About that beat: Dimitri Ehrlich, in his essay put together from interviews with Gerrard, Perry, and Watts-Russell, notes that Gerrard grew up in East Prahran, Melbourne, with a mix of Greek, Italian, Turkish, Irish and Arab neighbors. The two also worked in a Lebanese restaurant while saving money for the move to London. It would be insane to say that these experiences had no influence on their music. (Keep in mind that both are Australian, and that Australia is historically as ethnically mixed as North America; the major groups of immigrants there today are Asian. When Australians go “overseas,” they are much more likely to go to the Philippines, Indonesia, or Japan than Europe.) What is astonishing about the music is that, while one can point to a particular piece and say, “Indonesian influence,” or “Arab influence,” or “from medieval sources,” when one backs away a step or two, those influences are submerged into a seamless whole that simply says “Dead Can Dance.” I mean, how does one attribute influences to the high drama of “Summoning of the Muse,” with its carillon and heavy synths supporting a multi-tracked Gerrard singing a chorale (and being Gerrard, of course, doing bizarre things with the harmonies that we almost notice).
It’s clear, listening to this set (and one of the best parts of writing this review is that I’m sitting here listening while I’m writing, which I always do with music review), where the strengths are. Perry is a talented singer, but those songs on which he is featured are more “standard” fare, with a clear vocal line in song form. His strength is in the instrumentals that pull together all the diverse influences and introduce amazing subtleties — toward the end of “In the Kingdom of the Blind the One-Eyed are Kings,” for example, he introduces a very quiet pulse on the bass drum, barely audible, with the effect of throwing the entire soundscape into high relief.
Gerrard is The Voice. Ehrlich says in his essay that “Gerrard . . . made sounds with her voice and turned that experience into something much larger and more far-ranging than mere singing.” I can’t describe it any better myself. Take my favorite combination on this collection, “The Lotus Eaters” and “Rakim” on disc 2: In “Lotus Eaters,” the vocals may or may not be in any known language. It doesn’t matter — I’m not even sure those are actual words (no lyrics are provided for that one). The song is an Iberian-Arabic influenced masterpiece instrumentally, and Gerrard’s vocals, charged with raw heat, twine sinuously through, creating one of the most erotic pieces of music I’ve ever heard. “Rakim” is a very different animal, Perry fronting a lively, upbeat Afro-Caribbean-sounding piece while, starting about halfway through, Gerrard starts yodeling in the background. It sounds odd put like that, but that’s what she’s doing: yodeling. It’s perfect, and it’s fantastic.
This is not a chronological sequence, quite — “The Lotus Eaters,” from 2001, is near the beginning of the second CD, followed by “Rakim” from Toward the Within (1994); the set ends with “How Fortunate the Man with None” from Into the Labyrinth (1993). The design, by the way, is superb — it’s worth having this set for the booklet alone, which is just beautiful.
I think this really is “The Best of Dead Can Dance,” and if you’re going to have one album by this pair, this is the one to have, hands down.
(4AD ltd., 2003)