The return of the living Dead Can Dance
If you’re going to call yourself a Dead Can Dance fan, it helps to develop patience. It has been 16 years since DCD released Spiritchaser, its last album of new material—a long, long 16 years for admirers of the band’s unclassifiable blend of globe-spanning rhythms, medieval plainsong, neoclassical arias, and darkly contemplative rock. The Australia-formed duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry has tried to break its recorded silence before; an attempt at making a Spiritchaser follow-up in 1998 was scuttled, after which Dead Can Dance officially called it quits. The two reunited for a tour in 2005 and took another shot at creating new material, but Gerrard says that the timing wasn’t right.
The problem, she explains over the phone from Ireland (where Perry lives and where the group is rehearsing for its current tour), was that she and her bandmate had spent too much time out of each other’s company and found it difficult to reconnect.
“Because we hadn’t spent time together, when we actually did get together to do it, it was almost like, ‘Oh, we have to dial it up now,’ ” Gerrard says. “And we realized, ‘You know what? This isn’t happening.’ And then we just decided ‘We can’t do it. It doesn’t feel right.’ And we got quite frustrated with each other. We just didn’t feel—we didn’t believe—what was happening. It just didn’t have any back to it, because it hadn’t grown up out of us spending 12 months being inspired, researching, getting excited about stuff. It’s not calculated. It was always something that was just part of our friendship. It was always there, that land of learning and discovering and hunting and collecting.”
However, the pull of Dead Can Dance, which formed in Melbourne in 1981, was too compelling to keep the long-time collaborators apart forever.
“This time, when Brendan contacted me—it was during bushfire season in Australia, just about three years ago now—we’d really been missing the stuff we were doing together, and missing each other, because we’re really close friends,” Gerrard says. “We started to rebuild that dialogue together and introduce each other to each other’s worlds again, and inspire and wake up the imagination and mythology of things that had always been there in the past that we wanted to share—felt we needed to share.”
She and Perry, she notes, have always bonded over their common interest in culture on a level that goes far beyond mere aesthetic appreciation. “Music and art has always led us back to being able to unlock the door of who we are as human beings, intellectually and soulfully and emotionally,” the singer says. “And that’s why we’ve always shown an enormous interest in looking into these areas, because they motivate and provoke and inspire your imagination to do this work, and it gives it a solidity that you otherwise wouldn’t have. It opens up the pathway of the heart and enables you to speak through the work, to offer an olive branch and to create a sense of community, and to provoke people to remember who they are and who they can be and try to find their potential outside of materiality.”
That may be a lot to ask of any work of art, let alone an LP, but Dead Can Dance has always stood apart from the mainstream, both musically and thematically. The duo’s forthcoming new album, Anastasis, picks up precisely where things left off more than a decade and a half ago. Its compositions draw upon the musical traditions of the Mediterranean and North Africa, with “Opium” incorporating a 6/8 rhythm characteristic of Sufi devotional music and the similarly trance-inducing “Anabasis” evoking a heat-hazed meander through the Grand Bazaar. Perry sings in English, usually using his lyrics to meditate on the human condition—our foibles and failures, but also our potential. Gerrard responds to those themes in an abstract fashion, using her otherworldly voice to deliver wordless, but invariably moving, hymns.
“To be a true artist is to unlock the deeper tissue of who we are as human beings and wake that up inside the other,” she says of the pair’s musical partnership. “And that’s what I think has always attracted us to working together, the fact that we never step into each other’s territory. We always leave a gap for each other. Because that’s the power of the relationship in our work. I’ve never had that with anyone else.”
Not that working with Perry is always easy. Gerrard reveals that he constantly pushes her to unleash the brilliance he knows she has within her. It can be taxing, she admits, but it’s worth it. “I’m like this sword in his bloody forge, being bashed every day with a metal iron,” she says with a laugh. “He doesn’t let me get away with anything, unless it’s absolutely, completely, and utterly sincere. And, I mean, I wouldn’t want to do anything otherwise. That’s why I like working with him. I trust him.”
“Absolutely, completely, and utterly sincere” is a pretty effective description of Anastasis. The new record ranks among Perry and Gerrard’s best. And, yes, Dead Can Dance fans, it was well worth the wait.
Dead Can Dance plays the Orpheum Theatre next Thursday (August 9).