Saturday, 27 September 2008

Dead Can Dance

I had to insert this image of the maginificent Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance fame, looking most Brigidine. At the moment I'm listening to The Silver Tree, which is her latest solo album. Hmm. She's teetering on a very fine line between wordless mystical love-songs and enervating New-Age mood-music. Some tracks (1, 2, and 3) are excellent, with a rich, eerie sinuousness. Track 6 is one remix away from being the best track that never appeared on Massive Attack's album Protection. But the rest rather blends into one, leaving the impression of pleasant-textured but undemanding musical wallpaper. Writing all these soundtracks is sapping her strength. Much of the music here is akin to her soundtrack for Whalerider, which was a beautiful film but which did involve a lot of long-held drones and vaguely-cetacean groans and squeals. The dynamism of the Dead Can Dance days is long-gone.

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Describing the music of Dead Can Dance inevitably brings up words such as ethereal, darkwave, haunting, and perhaps even mystical. These seem to be qualities best ascribed to their record label, the enigmatic 4AD (4AD being the year many scholars believe Christ to have been born) and as such are partly shared by their label-mates The Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. But here, I want to concentrate on what makes DCD unique, and so will try to avoid using such terms.

Dead Can Dance consists, or consisted, of two Australian singers and multi-instrumentalists, both of Irish extraction: the brooding, bearded Brendan Perry and the statuesque, enigmatic Lisa Gerrard. Perry has a remarkable, rich baritone, capable of sounding chill and incantatory (as in the tragic Irish folksong ‘I am stretched on your grave’) or wildly rapturous and free-spirited (as in the bluesy ‘American Dreaming’) and a dozen shades in between. Inevitably, however, it is Gerrard’s voice that attracts most notice, as it’s simply an extraordinary instrument that gets right down into your marrow. Gerrard has spoken of her upbringing amid Melbourne’s vibrant ethnic mix, with vocal styles from the Middle East and Mediterranean being familiar to her in childhood. She's capable of a dizzying range of vocal personae: smoky layers of drones and ululations that come at you like a wind off the Caucasus circa 3000BC; ecstatically high, seraphic harmonies like the ‘wings of immaterial glory’ ascribed to angels in the Orthodox Church; a heartbroken Irish keen sung in a man’s voice; undulating melismas that glisten and slide over each other like honeyed serpents. On the limited-edition CD of their 2005 London concert, Gerrard has perfected a new technique, which I can only describe by saying that she makes her voice sound like a cross between a bone flute and an Armenian duduk, with its hollow, sad sound. It's as though she rolls up her voice and blows through it.

Indeed, there is something austere and sacerdotal about her vocal technique, an extraordinary beauty that is only occasionally touched by sensuality, as in the lullaby-like last track on DCD’s final studio album, Spiritchaser. (Indeed, it strikes me that sexuality is absent from their entire oeuvre.) This overall sacerdotal effect is heightened in live performance – with long blonde hair looped in two plaits over her head like a diadem, and a penchant for simple, robe-like dresses, Gerrard can come across as an entranced priestess. In the song ‘Cantara’, hand-drums build up a rhythm exceptionally slowly to a point of almost painful excitement, until her voice blazes in with half-jabbered, half-sung vocals. She sounds exactly as you would expect the staring eyed, bare-breasted, snake-brandishing priestesses of Knossos to sound, throwing and whirling her voice as though performing some primeval rite. Her wordless, microtonal, drone-haloed voice effortlessly invokes the primordial and it is small surprise that her soundtrack for Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator - which featured a duduk prominently - won her an Oscar. Words, in fact, are not Gerrard’s strong point, and Perry is by far the more conventionally articulate of the two. In interviews about their music, Gerrard’s soft delivery, extended sentences and outrageous mixing of metaphors means that her utterances tend towards the delphic, fading away in a smoky drift of hanging clauses.

Behind Perry and Gerrard were a team of instrumentalists and technicians, some well-known in their own right. In performance, instruments used (that I spotted) included a dozen different types of drum, guitars, rattles, tablas, keyboards, something that might just have been a zither, finger cymbals, and Gerrard’s favourite instrument, the Chinese hammered dulcimer or yang ch’in. ‘It’s a very unintimidating instrument…you just hit it with sticks…’ she says. The glittering, brittle resonance of the hammered dulcimer is to be heard in many a DCD track. It sounds like starlight on knucklebones.

Many DCD tracks sound as though they were composed for a specific occasion, some ancient seasonal ritual enacted by a lost tribe; still more, they often sound as though they come from a specific culture. Whole albums often seem to be localised in place and time. Aion (1990) for example, stunningly mixes brooding gothicism with the sound-world of medieval Spain. Hurdy-gurdies, pipes and drums lead us in quickening reels, mixed with birdsong-like instrumental pieces that sound like they come straight from perfumed Al-Andalus, capped by Gerrard singing a Sybilline prophecy in medieval Catalan. 1993’s Into The Labyrinth mingles sinuous, ethnic-sounding vocals with African polyrhythms, adding starkly tragic folksongs from the golden age of Gaelic song to the mix. 1988’s The Serpent’s Egg seems to emanate from Byzantium and the Levant in the time of the Crusades, intermingled as always with Perry’s dark ballads.

Being no music-expert, I find it very difficult to describe precisely what DCD songs sound like. But in spirit, it seems to me that one way to look at them is as Symbolists, that great, decadent movement in art and literature which flourished at the fin de siecle. Song and Album titles ('Splean and Ideal', 'The Summoning of the Muse', 'Persephone', 'The Arrival and Reunion', 'Enigma of the Absolute', 'The Host of Seraphim') echo Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Gerrard's rapt, chiaroscuro tones have the gleam and lustre of Klimt's serpentine, hieratic women. Many a DCD song could be the soundtrack for Bocklin's 1880 'Isle of the Dead' (above) with its mysterious portentousness and eerie blocks of sunlight and shadow. Meaning is not spelt out; great mysteries of the soul hover at the edge of perception, heralded by enigmatic angels.

This intuition was confirmed in an interview with Gerrard in Clive Collier's wonderful documentary Sanctuary. She said: 'Definitely the vocabulary we grew together wasn’t one that was only influenced by music, it was influenced by literature and poetry. We did a lot of reading in the early days when we were living in London, and discovered Symbolist poets and painters. There was a lot of research into spiritual schools of thought and theologies...' (How those nights in their Isle of Dogs bedsit must have flown past.)

The parting of the ways came in 1996, to sadness from fans around the world. Despite this, the music of DCD is so dynamic and yet timeless that it feels wrong to speak of them as past. Indeed, one of the highlights of my life was seeing them in concert last year at the Barbican – Perry now bald and grey-bearded, Gerrard looking frail but otherwise totally unchanged since their Towards the Within concert and video of 1994. (The film of the concert can be found on DVD as part of the DCD boxed set. It’s electrifying.There's an extraordinary moment at the beginning of a particular song, where Gerrard, eyes closed, sings a low drone which seems composed of several different voices at once...and then, as the chord changes, she dreamily opens her eyes with a look of pure tenderness and bliss, and inclines her head to smile faintly at the audience. It makes you catch your seems almost supernatural, as though she had just come instantly, effortlessly, from somewhere very far away.)

Both have produced solo material, Gerrard going on to a lucrative second career as a creator of soundtracks, notably to the New Zealand film Whalerider, the biopic Ali, and of course Gladiator. Her albums without Perry have moments of gorgeous brilliance, but can lack energy, drifting off into a sound best-described as ‘gloomy New Age’. Together, one can’t help feeling, they were greater than either of them are apart. But that is not to diminish their achievement – in an age of utterly derivative, mass-produced pap, Gerrard and Perry are the real thing. Their music stirs the soul’s depths and seems to navigate a winding path through the labyrinthine Kingdom of the Shades, making long-forgotten voices live, and soar, and sing. Enticed by their music, the dead themselves might take up drums and dance.

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