Saturday, 24 July 2010

Aion, Dead Can Dance

Aion, Dead Can Dance's extraordinary fifth studio album, is twenty years old this year. It continues to represent an apogee in their development, the creation of a flawless work in which local beauty and overall structure cohere into a shimmering perfection which is more than the sum of its parts. Part of DCD's power as a band had always lain in the raw visibility of their creative differences, as multi-octave vocalist Lisa Gerrard's seraphic harmonies played off fascinatingly against Brendan Perry's brooding folk-balladeering. Her voice benefited from the rhythmic structure and backbone his musicianship provided, and he needed her ecstatic glossolalia to temper his native bluesy austerity. If you know DCD's back-catalogue well, it remains a strange experience to listen to Gerrard and Perry's respective first solo albums, The Mirror Pool and Eye of the Hunter: their musical styles seem to have separated out as completely as oil and water.

And yet in Aion, it all somehow came together, for the first and arguably the last time. The album was the second in a series which continued until the band broke up, in which the music seemed to be partially localised in space and time. 1988's The Serpent's Egg had possessed a solemn, Levantine quality, redolent of Crusader castles and gilded, incense-shrouded mosaics, of bell-caparisoned horses and leper-kings. This technique anticipated Gerrard's later soundtrack work: The Serpent's Egg evoked a more-or-less coherent soundworld in a variety of moods, from mystical keenings and solemn processions to a thunderous cavalry charge, as though for an early forerunner of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. In this soundscape of chimes, horse-brasses and chant, Gerrard's voice at times sounded strained, as though she was aiming at mid-nineties John Tavener but not quite hitting the mark. (The latter's 1995 'Song of the Angel' would be quite at home on The Serpent's Egg.) Perry's three songs on that album, 'In the Kingdom of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King', 'Severance', and 'Ullyses' [sic], on the other hand, injected a much-needed rhythmic vigour and a smokily-autumnal vocal depth. Don't mistake me: Gerrard's voice is ever a marvel, but The Serpent's Egg showcased rather less of its inherent flexibility and range than other DCD albums. It is in my view Perry's rich baritone and poignant lyrics which lifted the album above atmospheric historical pastiche.

In Aion, all these issues were luminously transcended. Ironically, for an album which saw Gerrard and Perry's musical voices fuse more intimately than ever before, it emerged out of the wreckage of their romantic partnership. (The gulf between them has grown worse over the years---apparently after 2005's reunion and world tour they no longer speak, and twelve-year-old footage of Perry was used somewhat awkwardly in Clive Collier's 2006 documentary about Gerrard, Sanctuary.) Aion is one of DCD's briefer albums, lasting less than a forty minutes, and it has a sealed, hermetic perfection which echoes the Hieronymus Bosch image on the album cover, chosen by Perry: a man and woman float inside the transparent globe of some vast paradisial fruit, threaded through with placental veins. The woman's pale skin and long blonde hair evokes Gerrard's own; the man reaches up to kiss her, placing his hand on her womb, their arms crisscrossing in anticipation of union. This deeply alchemical image is perfectly apt: it hints at at the complex fusion of competing skills and visions behind Aion, itself a recaptured Eden---A Garden of Earthly Delights---brought about by the self-isolated devotion to the Work of the alchemist and his soror mystica. The mysterious title too is evocative: a word of many meanings, I think it is most likely to point to Jung here, whose AION: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self was published in 1959. Indeed, as I have suggested above, the album embodies some very Jungian concepts: anamnesis or 'far-memory', alchemy, spiritual refinement and the coincidentia oppositorum in the pursuit of wholeness. Saturated with Renaissance and baroque influences, it reveals a band who had utterly transmuted the thrashing industrial textures of their eponymous 1984 debut.

I propose now to go through each of this sublime album's tracks in turn, with a few words of discussion. I recommend you listen to them reasonably loud; if you buy the album, note that a beautifully remastered version is now available.

* * *

The Arrival and the Reunion

In this extraordinary opener, it is instantly clear how greatly Gerrard and Perry's technique had been honed even since The Serpent's Egg: a single glossolaliac line suddenly shatters into a sumptuously swift-moving polyphonic blaze. Punctuated with great whacks on a drum, Gerrard's lustrous vocal glitters like cloth of gold against the silk of her own multitracked voice and the dark velvet of Perry's: after barely a minute, all voices resolve again into a stately, ritualistic monody. The soundtrack quality of The Serpent's Egg persists: as the title suggests, this is music for a formal meeting between two gorgeously-arrayed potentates, perhaps the Queen of Sheba appearing in the court of Solomon in a cloud of nard and styrax, or Isabella being led before Ferdinand in the Palacio de los Vivero in Valladolid, hung about with pearls. Sumptuous and imperial, 'The Arrival and the Reunion' is an opening apparently more suitable for a Hespèrion XXI release than a band whose roots were in the early 80s Melbourne post-punk scene, a fact which underlines the extraordinary fearlessness of DCD's musicianship: from Joy Division to Jordi Savall in six years.


And then from imitation Early Music, we come to the real thing: a brilliantly energetic performance of a medieval Italian street-dance (originally performed by those higher up the social ladder, but filtering down and becoming widely popular at the close of the Middle Ages), played on the period instruments---including bagpipes and a hurdy-gurdy---which had become Perry's passion. Like most of the songs on Aion and indeed the album itself as a whole, the track is circular, wheeling round merrily to a beautifully crisp conclusion. There is another, equally lovely version by Arany Zoltan here.


A tiny, luminous track which lasts under a minute. A perfumed melody with a ravishing, nostalgic timbre simply repeats twelve or thirteen times, growing gradually louder and then fading away again. I can never listen to it without thinking of the opening of Cavafy's wonderful poem 'The God Abandons Antony':

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving

...αόρατος θίασος να περνά / με μουσικές εξαίσιες, με φωνές...'Ah! Poetry!', as Woolf's Orlando says.

The Song of the Sibyl

Having mentioned Catalan Early Music maestro Jordi Savall in passing earlier, we now come to him directly: the third track on Aion is a fragment of the chanted medieval (mainly Iberian) liturgical drama known in Catalan as El Cant de la Sibil·la, in which the Cumaean Sibyl foretells Judgement Day. Savall and his wife Montserrat Figueras had begun recording the surviving versions---Catalan, Latin, Galician, and Mallorcan---in 1988, in a series of stark, uncanny performances: the constant repetition, incremental increase in power, and bloodcurdlingly apocalyptic refrain of the 'Song' impress it deeply upon the listener. A number of versions can be found on YouTube: Figueras' own is here; and here is another, clearly authentically performed, as in the Middle Ages, at Christmas.

Gerrard's own sibylline persona lent itself well to this piece---below you can see a mesmerising video of her performing it live, robed all in white, austere and sacerdotal. Her naturally rich contralto is given full rein for the first time on the album, as we shift from the complex pieces----complex in terms of voices or number of instruments---which have gone before to something far simpler and slower. Cool and dim as the interior of a cathedral, Gerrard's voice moves with great suppleness over an ecclesiastical organ-drone and the chimes of handbells. This is the first time on the album that we have heard intelligible lyrics, albeit ones (in a typically oblique DCD move) in medieval Catalan: Al jorn del judici, parrà qui avrà fet servici---The Day of Judgement, for those who will not have been saved.

Fortune Presents Gifts not According to the Book

The Baroque Iberian theme continues with Perry's first solo song on the album, a setting of a poem by Góngora (1561--1627) translated from the Spanish. With this song, we move into a different mode and into more open terrain. So far, Aion has evoked winding medieval streets and the shadowed, sumptuous interiors of churches and court buildings: but 'Fortune Presents Gifts' leads us out into the parched countryside of Don Quixote, its theme the brutal caprice of earthly life and the omnipresence of injustice for the poor.

Sometimes she robs the chief goatherd of his cottage and and goatpen
And to whomever she fancies the lamest goat has born two kids
When you expect whistles it's flutes
When you expect flutes it's whistles
Because in a village a poor lad has stolen one egg
He swings in the sun and another gets away with a thousand crimes
When you expect whistles it's flutes
When you expect flutes it's whistles

(Luis de Góngora)

The music has a hazy sunniness which is ostensibly at odds with the fatalistic lyrics, as a bright, fluttering harp-like melody is plucked out upon the guitar against a warm drone. And yet one remembers that Góngora (despite being a priest) was a notorious gambler, and his poem is kind of card-player's shrug at the wiles of Fortuna and her ever-turning wheel. This is a very simple poem by Góngora's convoluted standards, but there is a faint allusion to Virgil's first Eclogue in the first two lines quoted. In a further example of the care with which Aion is constructed, 'Fortune' continues the Iberian theme of the album while introducing English lyrics sung by Perry, whose own reflective, elliptical style somewhat resembles Góngora's poem.

As the Bell Rings the Maypole Spins

We begin with an unaccompanied descending vocal line from Gerrard in sombre voice, which quickly resolves in a second dance that recalls 'Saltarello', but in a more stately and less demotic fashion, with drones and chiming bells. Gerrard's lyricless lyrics alternate between low and high, accompanied by the starry sparkle of bagpipes. After a few minutes, her voice changes timbre and becomes much warmer: doubletracked to the sound of pounding finger cymbals, the song circles rounds to a gentle and irenic conclusion.

The End of Words

The 'End of Words' on the album it certainly is not, with one of Perry's most compelling songs still to come; but it certainly marks the beginning of a darker interval. Punctuated with a solemn bell, this is a funeral procession, the coffin being borne from the dark church by mourners with a slow and heavy tread, followed by black-eyed women in lace mantillas. As in 'Song of the Sibyl', Perry and Gerrard begin by singing the same repeating, ritualistic line, before her voice separates from his and floats over the top. Again, multitracking allows two people, both in possession of chameleonic voices, to imitate a small choir. If 'The Arrival and the Reunion' was a wedding, 'The End of Words' is a wake.

Black Sun

In many ways the centre of the album, 'Black Sun' is the second showcase number exclusively for Perry's powerful voice, and the first with his lyrics. It is a perfect example of his penchant for building a song out of overlaid rhythmic structures of continually increasing complexity. (See the superlative 'Crescent', which is notable for Perry indulging in Gerrard-like speaking-in-tongues.) A complex drum polyrhythm is paired with nervy cymbals and an unsettling, circling four-note synth motif, with flashes of brass breaking like lightning over a dark landscape.

Murder! Man on fire.
Murder! I've seen the eyes of the living dead.

It's the same old game. Survival.
The great mass play a waiting game.
Embalmed, crippled, dying in fear of pain, all
sense of freedom gone.

Black sun in a white world.
Like having a black sun
in a white world.

Sinister and lurid as a Caravaggio, 'Black Sun' is probably the key song on the album, and yet the most unrepresentative: it could easily be on a Perry solo album, alongside the extraordinary 'Utopia', for example. But only in this song are the alchemical themes which the album as a whole embodies to the fore: the 'Black Sun' was an hermetic term for Saturn, symbolic of the stage of the alchemical process known as the nigredo, the 'blackening', the reduction of all matter in the sealed vessel to an undifferentiated and putrid mass. Hence the pounding, dramatic despair of the song, its images of death and maiming: it stands for the breakdown into cynicism and self-disgust which presages the reflorescence of life. One wonders how much of the breakdown of Perry and Gerrard's relationship is contained within it. Less mannered perhaps than many of the other tracks, 'Black Sun' is the emotional heart of Aion.


This one, readers, I cannot find as an embeddable video, so here it is. The penultimate in a series of four sombre tracks, 'Wilderness' has an a cappella Gerrard multitracked over herself in shades of sombre grey. It's a brief piece of polyphony that would be luminous in the Anonymous 4 manner if it a) wasn't so gloomy, and b) didn't suffer from the spongy lack of aural texture that overlaying a single artist's voice can cause. Atmospheric but lacking something in radiance and impact, it prefigures some of Gerrard's Oscar-winning work on the Gladiator soundtrack.

The Promised Womb

Sorry about the dog. Another wholly mysterious title, for another solemn faux-Baroque track. Against a background of string glissandi which sound like The Academy of Ancient Music busking in the rain, Gerrard plies a bit of vibratoless sub-Monteverdi. It's a bit like catching a bit of Orfeo wafting from the next door palazzo. On that note, here is a piece of the very same, conducted once again by Savall, with the exquisite Figueras playing personified Music: one can immediately see the closeness of Aion to Monteverdi's soundworld, poised on the edge between the Renaissance and the Baroque:

The Garden of Zephirus

Ah, and now Cavafy's procession which we heard in 'Mephisto' confounds our philosophical leave-taking of Alexandria by doing a three-point-turn and passing us again going the other way, this time accompanied by tinkling sistrums, flutes and birdsong. It's like a vision of a seraglio seen through a grille wound about with jasmine, or an Empress passing by in a scented palanquin.


The album ends with, as Terry Wogan would say, a whiff of the souk. We've definitely been moving down through Andalucía during the course of the album---if 'The Garden of Zephirus' evoked a Moorish courtyard with its fountain and channels representing the four rivers of Paradise, then 'Radharc' takes us over the Straits of Gibraltar and into North Africa. (The title---oddly---is Irish, meaning 'faculty of sight' or 'spectacle': given the track's mystical overtones, one wonders if Gerrard and Perry, both of whom are of Irish extraction, looked up 'vision' in an English-Irish dictionary and arrived at radharc instead of aisling.) The third dance on the album, 'Radharc' combines all the instruments which have appeared so far into a sinuous, snake-charmer's melody. Over insistent, skittering drums, Gerrard lets her chiaroscuro voice swell to the primeval and un-Western extremes which suit it so well. Pulsating and hypnotic, in under two and a half minutes the track, and the album with it, end in a triumphant flourish.

* * *

Aion displays something like what Classicists call 'ring-composition', whereby motifs appear and reappear in a mathematical order. The album is trisected by three dances, the outer two faster and the inner one slower, and further it falls into an initial 'sunlit' half and a subsequent 'shadowed' half, each one containing, like the yin-yang symbol, a track of the opposite kind: the solemn 'Song of the Sibyl' in the first half and the exotic 'Radharc' in the second. Perry's two solo songs appear after four tracks have gone past and when another four are left to go. Those two fragrant little interludes, 'Mephisto' and 'The Garden of Zephirus', mirror each other from opposite ends of the album, serving as transition pieces between sunlight and gloom, gloom and sunlight.

From Aion's mysterious first words---est ol ghirgond'olbe cahli sond'olbe, in d'alte grand'olbi, cahli vrend'olbe!---which sound like they could be in Occitan, we realise Perry and Gerrard are engaged in a kind of vocal archaeology analogous to Pasolini's 'anthropological cinema'. With a minimum of resources---two extraordinary voices and a crew continually swapping a dozen instruments between them---they summon spirits and evoke an age. Perry's two fierce, cynical songs add savour, salting Gerrard's operatic longeurs with urgency, and preventing her atmospheric vocals from becoming ennervating. We think back to the cover image: the man and woman afloat in their sealed alembic, joined to each other but not in sexual union, isolated from the world yet able to see it through the frail membrane which protects them and their great and precious work. As Hilary Mantel has written of alchemy, but might have written of Aion: 'After separation, drying out, moistening, dissolving, coagulating, fermenting, comes purification, recombination: the creation of substances the world until now has never beheld. This is the opus contra naturam, this is the spagyric art, this is the Alchymical Wedding!'


Jane Holland said...

You have surpassed yourself, my dear.


Bo said...

Thanks dolly! xx

Fionnchú said...

"Great post on a great record by a great blogger": so went my update sharing this on Facebook.

Bo said...

Thanks Fionnchu---that might perk up my stats a bit! I'm most grateful.

thedreamofbeing said...

thank you for this great post .. enjoyed every bit.

Bo said...

I'm glad! Thanks for commenting.

Richard said...

A wonderful post on one of my favourite albums... Such a pleasure to read your thoughts on these pieces. Since you've mentioned a lot of the musical influences and precursors of this work, I wanted to share with you one of my own discoveries. The musical phrases in the two short, instrumental tracks, "Mephisto" and "The Garden of Zephirus", while not credited as such, are taken from Tristan & Iseult. We know that Dead Can Dance were familiar with this song cycle, as Lisa Gerrard has quoted some of the dialogue in concerts. A wonderful recording by the Boston Camerata (Joel Cohen) is probably the one they were most familiar with. Check out the "Interlude" (Anonyme) for the most obvious example... Fascinating stuff!

Bo said...

Thanks for that Richard---that's new to me!

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