Dead Can Dance’s Toward the Within

Kate Danemark Penned this review.

From the very first eerie opening bells, percussion and crystalline notes of the yang ch’in of “Rakim,” it becomes clear that this is music unlike any you’ve ever heard. Amend that: it’s certainly unlike any I had previously heard.

It’s as if from some other time: unplaceable; familiar, but also utterly foreign.

I can’t actually remember now when first I encountered Dead Can Dance. It seems as if they were always there, and also always something mysteriously untouchable. The music is exquisitely beautiful. It feels not so much manufactured as pulled surreptitiously from our collective unconscious.

The first song I recall hearing is “American Dreaming,” one of the few commercially likely offerings from this album. Struck by the intense lyrics, which seem to describe both the helpless vulnerability of the human condition and the redemptive power of love, I was sold immediately. Brendan Perry’s voice is compelling, dipping low into deep registers, which call your soul to believe his words. The tune is simple, but perfect accompaniment.

Following this familiar and safe ground, “DCD” turns it all around on us. The slow paced, opening “Cantara” seems a warning prelude to the frenzied passion into which Lisa Gerrard whips her voice, the music following her to create a windstorm of emotionally churning activity. The mood is of some middle-eastern ritualism. This must be the music to which Salome danced.

As “Yulunga” moves into its growing rhythm, images of rainforests, medicine men and jungle animals slip and spin through my mental imagery, aided by what sounds like a rain stick being shaken, and what couldn’t possibly be a monkey calling.

“I Can See Now” is another highlight for me, beginning with the pondersome lyrics, “Ever loved a woman, who made you feel tall? Ever loved a man who made you feel small?” Answered by, “If you were a sailor / I’d raise the anchor / to sail the sea / in search of you and me / and god.” But that answer is followed by this warning: “There’s nothing more dangerous / than a man with nothing to lose / nothing to live for / and nothing to prove.”

These are a few of my favorite picks from the album. To describe each in the detail they deserve would result in a review too long to read! Although each song is distinctive, there is an overall commonality to the themes, and each is a compliment to all the others.

To try to put it any real world context, such as to compare it to popular music, seems impossible. The backbeat of drums in nearly every song is like a heartbeat, or the natural pulse and rhythms of the earth. To me, it is more like a force of nature than something a human could conceive and create.

Who are these amazingly talented musicians? In attempting to find a simple answer to this question, I found an entirely new level to the music. I did an Internet search, and found an enormous fan base and mountains worth of information on Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, founders of the band. From this point, Dead Can Dance has become an interactive experience for me. I first checked the band’s official Web site. There I found this quote from Brendan Perry: “Since our formation in 1981, we have refused to conform to the momentary passing of musical trends choosing instead more demanding avenues of expression, adopting diverse musical traditions and tailoring them to our own needs. This has often caused consternation to those who would attempt to classify our music.” He adds this: “In the beginning we were berated for being gothic two years too late, today we are applauded for being at the vanguard of World Music.”

Another great site to check out for more info is this one, an amazingly thorough fan site which can also clue you in to some lyrics.

Both of these categorizations seem applicable, though I would hesitate to oversimplify the talent of this band by naming them gothic, which calls to mind too much eye makeup and an unimaginative wardrobe.

I think their target audience is thinking people who have roots in traditional, as well as medieval and classical music.

This CD was recorded live at The Mayfair Theatre, Santa Monica, California. It lacks the tinny, distant feel that many live recordings are cursed with, and the presence of the audience contributes to the energy of the album. It is also the soundtrack for the DVD Toward the Within: Dead Can Dance, available on 4AD/Warner’s Home Video, parts of which, as I mentioned, can be viewed at the above Web site.

It’s been said that previous fans of DCD may find this recording unusual. I can’t speak to that, as this is all I’ve heard from them. I do know that it’s worth picking up, whether as your first DCD experience, or to add to your existing collection.

(4A.D./Warner Brothers, 1994)

About Cat Eldridge

I’m the publisher of Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog.

My current novels are listening to Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds, and reading Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on Cat-net and Anthony Boucher’s Murder in the Morgue My current graphic novel is Spider-Gwen: Most Wanted..

I’m listening to a whole bunch of new Celtic and Nordic new releases but I’ll dip in my music collection for such artists as Blowzabella, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and Frifot as the weather goes colder.