|Dead Can Dance
||10 August 2012
|Brendan Perry, Lisa Gerrard
It means ‘resurrection’, and it acknowledges the fact that the cherished antipodean duo have released their first studio album since 1996’s Spiritchaser. Not that they’ve been idle in the interim: Lisa Gerrard worked on the soundtracks to Gladiator and The Insider as well as collaborating with Patrick Cassidy on Immortal Memory. Brendan Perry, relocated from Australia to Ireland, where he continued as a solo artist.
This resurrection has been well received (the concerts arranged to promote this album sold out within forty-eight hours), and it is easy to see why. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s Dead Can Dance released a series of albums so unlike anything else around that they achieved immediate cult status. Their sound, infused with esoteric Hellenic and Ottoman stylings, were at least interesting and at most seductive. Their ethos of being in this world but not of it found its way onto their album art; tribal masks, details from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and funerary statues all signalled that Dead Can Dance were being dictated to by a muse mute to others. Perhaps the greatest example of this was the bewitching cover art of 1985’s Spleen and Ideal.
The music contained in those albums lived up to those promises. With lyrics by Baudelaire, de Quincey, Luis de Góngora y Argote, and Perry himself they led the listener into imagined past worlds. The music seemed to have been conjured up from the Levant, or to have sallied forth from under the Sublime Porte. At other turns it sounded like music from Renaissance Italy, a religious synod in Coptic Egypt, or a Moorish pleasure-garden. The past is a foreign country and its lure can be as potent as the lure of distant lands. In the fifteen years since they last recorded together, Dead Can Dance had left a legacy that gathered to it a devoted fan-base. It is they who sold out every show on the Anastasis tour; but will their expectations be rewarded?
As with their other albums, the cover art of Anastasis is striking: a monochrome field of dead sunflowers. The image recalls 'Black Sun' from 1990’s Aion, and there may be a flickering reference to that song in Anastasis’s opening number 'Children of the Sun'. Something, however, is awry.
Although Perry’s sonorous voice remains unchanged, the lyrics are less intimate than before. Not only that but they lack the gravitas of his earlier work. At some stages during the song it felt as though the lyrical territory was veering too close to the teen R&B of TLC’s 'Waterfalls'. Sonically, no such common ground is reached; yet the spellbinding grandeur of Dead Can Dance is gone, replaced by cinematic theme music. One could imagine ice-skaters performing to it.
It’s not the opening one expected. The second track, 'Anabasis', seems more familiar. Here are the Levantine motifs and Lisa Gerrard’s lulling singing, hypnotic against a rich texture of handclaps, birdcalls and a soporific metallic pulse. It’s the type of head-nodding Sufi trance music that continues into 'Agape'. Here the song does not conceal its near-Eastern affectations. Egyptian strings swing open the palace doors of 'Agape' as we arrive in an ancient city on the Maghreb. High, piercing chimes introduce Gerrard singing as she did on Immortal Memory with a voice that belongs to the ages. The final beats of the song, sounding like water dripping onto hot metal dissolve in an amorphous chant that blows away across the desert sands.
Having overcome such a weak opening with such a brace of powerful songs, it’s a pity that the album falters on 'Amnesia'. Were it not for the chime plucked with almost hostile insistence, 'Amnesia', with its charmless piano riff, would not be out of place as an Enya B-Side. It feels like it was designed to be sung at someone, rather than to someone and its stentorian horn-blasts reinforce this. The lyrical theme of forgetting the past is also distancing. Forgetting the past is not necessarily a bad thing and despite the group’s obvious love of it, custom and tradition have blood on their hands.
The following track 'Kiko' is even less welcome. Sad, Sephardic singing is undermined by drawn out, indulgent, droning music that renders the Sufic trance of the earlier tracks to boring monotony. Here is the stasis in Anastasis. Even less excusable is 'Opium' with its adolescent posturing and Orientalism. The music, now flat and repetitive rather than hypnotic, has deformed into Prog-Rock.
'Return of the She-King', the penultimate track, introduces Anatolian gaitas but they sound like Hollywood bagpipes and the entire song resembles a rejected score for Rob Roy. It reflects less the world of Roman Cappadocia and more the Mills & Boon fairy worlds of Enya and Loreena McKennitt. Although Gerrard’s singing demands attention, the music robs it of its power. Perry’s incomprehensible crying and the brass riffs and windy strings detract from it further. It’s layered on, but no amount of atonal chanting can repair this.
"All your ships have left their moorings/ cast adrift on the Sargasso Sea/ waiting for the wind to set your sails free" surmises Perry (incorrectly as it happens, but by this stage I know the feeling). So begins 'All in Good Time'. "Look for a sign" he encourages the down-hearted. Such mawkish, cheap and useless advice is a far cry from Aion’s 'Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book', in which Luis de Góngora y Argote reminded us that, "when you expect whistles, it's flutes/ when you expect flutes, it's whistles".
Having borne witness to the resurrection of Dead Can Dance, I’m afraid I’d have to agree with him.
- Paul McGranaghan