Anywhere Out Of The World: The Unique Vision of Dead Can Dance
by Martin Aston
With the release of Aion, The Serpent's Egg and Spiritchaser, Dead Can Dance's 4AD catalogue (excepting compilations) has now been remastered on vinyl, their new pristine audio glory inviting a re-evaluation of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard's astounding sound and vision.
The term 'unique' is often bandied about, for all the various distinctive signature work through the ages, but still, music that might best be summed up - and watered down - by 'transcendent, classically infused, hyper-ethereal ethno-fusion' has a place all its own, something beyond more easily marketed genres. Lyrics that had more links with French symbolist poetry, or in some cases, wordless evocations between a state of glossolalia and a made-up language, only enriched Dead Can Dance's singular place among artists. Certainly, they didn't go for the easy sell. It was rare for people to go into record shops back in the day, and ask the sales assistant behind the counter, "Say, do you have that song, 'Enigma Of The Absolute?' What about 'In Power We Entrust The Love Advocated'?"
That was part of the quandary. By creating music that suited a cathedral or a classical concert hall more than the backroom of a pub or a stadium, Dead Can Dance were too adventurous for the mainstream; too 'weird' for the world of classical; too mutable to reap the 'world music' market once it became a marketing strategy. We are talking, after all, of music that spanned neo-classical to choral to folk to baroque, and from liturgical to secular, all under a New World planetarium that truly spanned the globe - western and eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the Mediterranean, Latin America, Africa and the Antipodes. Similarly, Perry and Gerrard overrode the guitar-bass-drums palate: synths and electronics weren't excluded, but the lead instrument could be the yangqin - or yang ch'in (Chinese hammered dulcimer) - the hurdy-gurdy or the ondes martenot. The beats could be timpani or Afro-Latin percussion. In this way, a song such as 'Chant Of The Paladin' could resemble a Yemenite ritual, Indian mantra, Irish lament and the imaginary soundtrack to the medieval monastic murder mystery In The Name Of The Rose.
Perry: "In terms of resonance and satisfaction, most pop music is superficial. The music I really love has a greater depth; it must have the ability to move me in places not normally stirred. We want to create a framework, the perfect medium, for the passions and emotions that need conveying."
"I think rock'n'roll has almost exhausted its form. Even more so in the eighties. It's just deplorable the amount of recycling that's gone on, and the lack of imagination, and almost the refusal to accept that all music forms are basically hybrids by nature, or fusions, and that the essence or attitude within the form itself has got to progress."
Within Dead Can Dance, Perry and Gerrard offered something distinctly different to the other, while still unified and complimentary in its intent - Perry's stately baritone, for his own words or borrowed poetry, brooding over compositions for months on end, a legendary perfectionist, against Gerrard's mournful, yet ecstatic, contralto with arabesque overtones, and a penchant for speaking in tongues and improvisation. "That's when I have that initial connection and everything seems to unlock," she proclaimed. "If I try to refine that, I start thinking as opposed to feeling."
Despite her contributions to our conversations through time, Gerrard was a more reluctant interviewee. "It was strange at the beginning, because I couldn't understand why everybody needed information about us," she said. "It was all there in the music."
Of course, it was; and it was all there in the album covers too - in line with 4AD's commitment to memorable imagery - which Perry instigated, to convey the essence and enigma of their music. If the pair did articulate their creative processes - I interviewed them on numerous occasions, starting in 1987, and as recently as February 2017; all the quotes below come from those conversations - their artwork tells as much of their story. So, here are Dead Can Dance, in sound, image and vision.
Dead Can Dance (1984, album)
The band's debut album featured a ritual mask from Papua New Guinea, to mirror the reasoning behind the band's name, which was written on the cover in the Greek characters ΔΞΛΔ CΛΝ ΔΛΝCΞ. Perry: "The mask, once a living part of the tree, is now supposedly dead. Nevertheless, it has, through the artistry of its maker, been imbued with a life force of its own."
The original image was in colour, but Perry used it in monochrome, to intensify the effect. He also felt the mask needed, "a font and lettering that would work with that, something a little outlandish, like the idea of a lost civilisation, so I used a Greek Cyrillic script for our name."
The Greek aspect harked back to Gerrard's childhood; her mother was English and her father Irish, but the family lived in East Prahran, one of Melbourne's melting-pot neighbourhoods, known as 'Little Greece' but Turkish, Arab, Italian and Irish too. She recalls, "exquisite, dark, arabesque voices that would blare out of the windows. It was so sensual and moving." By the age of twelve, Gerrard was playing piano accordion and beginning to sing. Later in her teens, she eventually joined a local band, Microfilm, whose only recording show a clear Banshees influence, but she had mastered the yangqin (the dulcimer had originated in Greece), found in a charity shop, which showed Gerrard was already away on her own orbit.
Born to an English father and Irish mother, and raised in the Whitechapel in east London, Perry's family had moved to Auckland, New Zealand when he was in his early teens. He learnt guitar at school, revelled in Holst's The Planets suite and the West Side Story soundtrack as well as Pink Floyd's 1967 debut Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, so he was already well versed in musical drama - though he was soon playing bass, and singing, for local punks The Scavengers. The NZ scene was small, so the trio moved to Melbourne and became The Marching Girls, before Perry began investigating electronics and percussion, while Joy Division, "changed my outlook, and their incredibly atmospheric qualities that mirrored Ian Curtis's wonderful lyrics, and the industrial sound by [producer] Martin Hannett."
Out of that, rose Dead Can Dance, a quintet once Gerrard had joined, though she was only a percussionist to start with! The first demo recorded between them, 'Frontier', was already clearly "Dead Can Dance", mixing yangqin, Aboriginal rhythms and the pair's rich, haunting vocals. It sounded both ancient and modern, and altogether hair-raising.
The Australian scene was also too small for their needs, "plus Melbourne had a very dark drug scene," said Gerrard. "We didn't want to suffocate there." So, they went to Britain, settling in Perry's former East London manor. Having tried out a drummer more accustomed to playing reggae, they were introduced to drummer Peter Ulrich. With James Pinker (their programmer and live soundman) and bassist Scott Roger, DCD were again a quintet. And off they went. Their use of digital drums, a dark, dense sound and Gerrard's anguished vocal - and the 4AD connection - raised unwelcome comparisons to Cocteau Twins, but right from the off, they were heading elsewhere. Take the debut album's instrumental intro 'The Fatal Impact'; the title alluded to Britain's colonial invasion of Aboriginal territory, with haunting chants taped off a TV broadcast of the 1964 film Zulu), like an aural equivalent of the Papua New Guinea mask.
Garden of the Arcane Delights (1984, EP)
Once a standalone 12" EP, then added to the CD reissue of the debut album, and now a standalone 12" again paired with a 12" of the band's only John Peel sessions), the Garden Of The Arcane Delights.
The title of the band's first EP was inspired by medieval Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch's triptych painting Garden Of Earthly Delights, but took its lead from the third track 'The Arcane'. To mirror Perry's lyrics, he created an ink drawing of a garden idyll, laden with biblical metaphors, inspired by the English poet, painter and visionary William Blake. DCD's website offers this Perry comment:
"The naked blindfolded figure, representing primal man deprived of perception, stands, within the confines of a garden (the world) containing a fountain and trees laden with fruit. His right arm stretches out - the grasping for knowledge - towards a fruit bearing tree, its trunk encircled by a snake. In the garden wall - the wall between freedom and confinement - are two gateways: the dualistic notion of choice. It is a Blakean universe in which mankind can only redeem itself, can only rid itself of blindness, through the correct interpretation of signs and events that permeate the fabric of nature's laws."
Contrary to the close relationship between 4AD artists and the label's in-house art director Vaughan Oliver, Perry wanted to go it alone: "I really liked some of the 4AD artwork, but having done all the hard graft, I wasn't prepared to throw it away for someone else's impression of what our music looked like," he reasoned. "I had such a strong connection with the visuals, and I was always on the lookout for visual representation, clues to the music's emotion and ambience. I couldn't find artwork that existed that would symbolise the songs, so I put together that drawing myself, to explain in an alchemical way."
The intent, and the sound of the self-produced new tracks - more fleshed out and alive, after what Perry and Gerrard had felt was an extremely compromised production on Dead Can Dance (with just two weeks to record, and with Perry acquainted with the studio as much as their allotted engineer John Fryer, "we clashed from day one") - was a marked step into their own unique realm.
Spleen and Ideal (album, 1985)
The big leap forward, musically and conceptually. Dead Can Dance's second album cover ramped up the enigma - a photograph of a figure in a hooded red cape, holding aloft a cut-out, slightly battered cardboard white star in front of a huge, half-demolished building. The image resembled a still from one of the medieval-set films by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, shot in some forgotten corner of Eastern Europe. In fact, it was staged by photographer Colin Grey, in Salford on the outskirts of Manchester's city centre, outside an old dock warehouse that explosives had failed to bring down, leaving it slumped to one side. The star tuned out to be a piece of rubbish that had been discarded on the ground. "The photographer had a few props in the boot, and the figure is his friend who was with him in the car," Perry explained.
Perry recalled that "Vaughan had Colin's portfolio on his desk, and this image caught my eye." The image was open to interpretation - was it a religious motif, or pagan? Was the figure a protester or a prophet? Was it a statement about brutalism, the march of progress, a forsaken world, in a Cold War era, riven by religion, race and poverty, under a nuclear threat? The terms 'spleen' and 'ideal' were symbolist ideals, not of Blake's universe but the 19th century, taken from a chapter of French poet Charles Baudelaire's collection Les Fleurs Du Mal (aka The Flowers Of Evil).
Sex and death were Baudelaire's twin obsessions, but DCD had another, more philosophical mindset. "Spleen, the ill-natured and malevolent aspects of human nature such as envy, ill temper, spite and intolerance - was seen as inextricably linked to the notion of the ideal," Perry commented in one press release. "Correspondingly, our songs were about the truth and illusion; conditioning and freedom; doubt and faith; and beneath all these couplings, the quest for perfection. The attainment of the ideal..."
Today, he elaborates: "It's the dualism between the ideal and the reality of striving for that ideal, which always robs the ideal of its ability to exist. We had the concept, and the photograph just jumped out at me. It's almost like a Statue of Liberty, with the star representing the nation, or the ideal, but the star point is broken, or decaying, as is the building. Industrial chic was all the rage then, especially around London, there was so much rebuilding and regeneration, and, especially around us, on the Isle of Dogs."
After living in London for three months, they'd moved to a council flat on the fourteenth floor of Bowsprit Point, overlooking the river Thames. The Isle of Dogs was then one of London's most derelict districts (Stanley Kubrick's war film Full Metal Jacket was partly filmed there because of the available wasteland in which to stage explosions). In their garret, separated from the 4AD office in south-west London by distance - and not being able to afford train fares, or pretty much anything at that point - Perry and Gerrard had each other for company, and rickety bicycles to make local trips, such as to nearby Bethnal Green and Limehouse libraries, source of many borrowed records. "I became obsessed with classical music," Perry admits. "Bach and Benjamin Britten but baroque music, Gregorian chants and film music too."
Gerrard: "I saw John Barry and Nino Rota influences immediately turn up in Brendan's arrangements and choice of instrumentation, like the cimbalom [a bigger, and complex, hammered dulcimer]. We'd gone shopping with the first advance from 4AD, and bought a sequencer and a Mirage [sampler] so Brendan could access all these keyboard sounds."
They were becoming a tight unit; a rhythm section was only necessary for live shows, not for recording, and James Pinker (on timpani) had been relegated to the list of session musicians -a cavalcade of strings and trombone, plus Andrew Hutton's soprano on 'De Profundis' (named after a Baudelaire poem), on which Gerrard's voice cut through the massed choral drift, singing what sounded like Latin but was actually her own invented language. Meanwhile, Perry was transposing the distressed heartbreak grandeur of Ian Curtis and Scott Walker to the eighteenth century, with his lyrics that Baudelaire, Curtis and Walker would have approved of: "Through darkened doors, her aspect veiled with indecision/ Gazing out to sea, she craved lucidity."
"We've had our rock'n'roll experiences," said Gerrard, "but it's not something we're talking to at the moment," Gerrard said in 1987. "We're talking to other things, to rhythms we don't understand, or that we want to learn about in order to communicate with them."
Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun (album, 1987)
In 1987, I met Perry and Gerrard for the first time, at Bowsprit Point. They'd just released their third album, Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun, housed in a photograph of a dramatic statue: another hooded - or rather, shrouded - figure, with arm aloft, but this time the hand was holding on to the window of a crypt (the family grave of French scientist and attorney François-Vincent Raspail) in Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery.
Perry: "That's where all the old writers and artists of the 19th and 20th century are buried. Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Jules Verne, loads of them. Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun addressed nostalgia for a golden age that had passed. The album was pretty full-on classical, exploring more of a fantasy world, and the sense of a golden age was very much part of classical thinking, like the ages of man, so we were toying with that, and reflecting on ageing and your childhood, those wonderful summers, along existential lines. The album cover reflected a mourning for a memory more than anything, of the person who had departed, and it's such a beautiful sculpture, and an amazing tomb."
Gerrard felt the image was also inspired by the album title. "In the past year, we've come to terms with many losses of friendships and very personal things in our lives, and I think our music is reflected in that. The best example is 'Dawn of the Iconoclast'. It was like a cleaning-out process, of this bitterness and darkness in our lives, and our displeasure with humanity. It's a series of images, and breaking those images that control people, to call on the monster and send it on, to remove it. The implication of intensity and anxiety that builds to a climax which is dispersed by the bass drum, and the overspill of reverb... it's a celebration."
The sound of ...Dying Sun built on Spleen And Ideal, with Perry and Gerrard's signature work occupying separate sides of the vinyl (Perry A, Gerrard B), allowing for their individual moods to be built and sustained. Trumpet, tuba and oboe were added to the mix, with James Ulrich this time on timpani (and military snare), as Perry reflected his interest in 19th century romantic classical music. "I also wanted to reclaim ceremonial music from the special preserve of religious music," he said - citing 'Persephone (March Of The Flowers)' - as if this was a normal activity.
Going by 'Summoning Of The Muse' alone, Gerrard had been learning too, experimenting with the open-throated technique of the Le Mystère De Voix Bulgares singers, courtesy of 4AD's compilation released in 1986. "When we were heard such an exotic and extraordinary weight of treasure that crossed all boundaries, we realised we had the right to do the same," she said. "When we worked on 'Dawn Of The Iconoclast,' Brendan said to me, "I really want this piece to break the image that people have of us, this gothic punk stereotype that has no value"."
Well, that's what you get from putting a gothic statue on your album cover. Having your visionary work reduced to such a cipher was, of course, annoying, but there at least a huge gulf between 'gothic' and goth, between Dead Can Dance and Sex Gang Children; between an archetypically sorrowful sound and posing like vampires. But the choice of band name had already laid the groundwork; likewise their place on 4AD, similarly typecast in the mid-'80s.
Perry: "To understand why we chose the name, think of the transformation of inanimacy to animacy, the processes concerning life from death and death into life. So many people missed the inherent symbolic intention of the work. It would have been much easier if we'd gone by 'Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard'. We really wanted to break into the classical market. When we started, it became very apparent the way things were marketed, especially in Britain, aligned with fashion and taste. We reacted against it really strongly, that's why we choose to do the music we do. We tend to react strongly against forms of musical cliché."
The Serpent's Egg (1988, album)
Haunted by humanity, the duo seemed to be rising above mortal concerns, to look at the wonder of nature on their fourth album, an image captured from high above, of a river snaking through the verdant Amazon landscape, like a serpent - to mirror the album title, which Perry had remembered from an Ingmar Bergman film, in turn inspired by a line spoken by Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "And therefore think him as a serpent's egg / Which hatch'd, would, as his kind grow mischievous; / And kill him in the shell."
Bergman's film is described by Perry as "a Nazi social experiment, putting drugs in others' food, unbeknown to them, and filming them behind mirrors, to see what their breaking points were. It was a really strange film, and the title always stuck with me. And the image of the river as it opens into the estuary, you can see the sandbar under the water, that's the egg for me. But sometimes things are so subliminal, as there's no real reason why I chose it. I just liked the title, and the image. But I love the way you can go from the micro of a jungle to the macro, looking down from above, seeing rivers like arteries in the body, bringing energy and life force. It's like you're expanding your mind and going out into the greater universe. It also refers us going out into world and folk music, taking in different influences from South America and Africa."
'Mother Tongue' was the first flowering of DCD's African phrase, set against the likes of 'The Host of Seraphim', perhaps her ultimate creation of Bulgarian-inspired ecstatic glossolalia, "with a big classical finish, with strings and voices," said Perry. It tied in to the soundtrack they'd just written for Spanish film director Agustí Villaronga's fantasy El Niño De La Luna (aka Moon Child) - one of the actors, David Navarro Sust, sang behind Gerrard's lead on 'Orbis De Ignis', an exquisite vocal arrangement that resembled a monastery, complete with tolling bells. Like most of the album, it had been recorded in their London flat, with a home studio funded by a £10,000 advance from 4AD. But the music's reverberations belied its modest provenance, though the Hungarian folk lament 'The Writing On My Father's Hand' - Gerrard sings decipherable lyrics! - was a new strain of DCD, with a hurdy-gurdy - a stringed instrument with a similar drone to a bagpipes - played by Perry. 'Chant Of The Paladin' uncannily bridged all DDC touchpoints - eastern European, middle eastern, gothic, folk.
By 1990, Gerrard and Perry were no longer a couple, and were living in different countries. With neither tied to Britain by sentiment, and having outlived the need for economy and London, they both moved away: Perry to Ireland, where he converted an old village church on an island in Quivvy Lough, into a new studio, and Gerrard in Barcelona, after she'd made her acting debut in El Niño De La Luna.
Perry summarised the themes on Aion (a Latin transliteration from a Greek word, referring to 'life' or 'lifespan') as, "existence, our role in the world, the problem of whether or not we control our own destiny, and how we should make provisions and not put too much faith in fate," but the album cover was more personal, despite the separation; a small section of the triptych The Garden Of Earthly Delights by 16th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. It was taken from the earth section, flanked by representations of Eden and hell, showing the 'flower' of a plant in the shape of a transparent bubble. The naked couple inside, said Perry, "reminded me of myself and Lisa transported back to the past in a kind of alchemical, alembic time machine."
Before Perry and Gerrard had moved, they'd recorded 'The Arrival And The Reunion' and 'The End Of Words' in the UK, with David Navarro Sust again in Gregorian choral support, but the record expanded on the folk-roots DNA of The Serpent's Egg, heading further back in time, "synonymous with the Bosch period," said Perry. The medieval 'Saltarello' and 'Song Of The Sybil' were respective covers of a 14th century Italian instrumental and a 16th century Catalan ballad, while Perry borrowed words by 17th century baroque poet Luis de Góngora for 'Fortune Presents Gifts Not According To The Book'. Bagpipes, played by Brendan's brother Robert, and a Renaissance string section (four viol, or viola da gamba players) joined the hurdy-gurdy in the 'early music' instrument section. Gerrard sang the traditional Gaelic ballad 'As The Bell Rings The Maypole Spins', as the pair joined forces in their alchemical, alembic time machine. "It was more like what a classical record label would do, to present music with a timeless feel, that won't be tied down to a contemporary point in time or culture. That would have been a disservice to the music."
A Passage In Time (compilation, 1991)
Dead Can Dance's first compilation was for the US record label Rykodisc (licensed from 4AD, though 4AD also released it), and named after a track from their debut album (though not included on the compilation). For the first time, Perry allowed 4AD's in-house team, at that time Vaughan Oliver and Chris Bigg, to design the sleeve: "Brendan sourced the picture from a photo library," says Bigg. "He had a very clear idea that a close crop was required for the final outcome."
The image was of a owl moth's wing, focussing on a circular pattern that - to this writer - resembled a planet with a solar aurora, but was just part of its remarkable ability to mimic the bark of a tree; by sleeping upside down, the moth's thorax resembled an owl's beak. Perry was inspired to use the image by, "the sublime nature of the evolutionary process, and the compilation was, in a sense, a journey in time. I also had six of these moths in cases, as I'd collected butterflies as a kid, and it's carried on as I've grown older. It's less of an obsession than it was, so in a sense, it was my own evolutionary phase."
A Passage In Time marked the journey in the eight years since Perry and Gerrard had left Australia. Two new tracks brought it right up to date: Gerrard's percussive incantation 'Bird' (which harked back to the Aboriginal influence of their earliest recordings) and Perry's becalmed 'Spirit', which closed the album with a narrative that suggested his and Gerrard's journey, from their curtailed romance - "I never thought it would be quite like this/ Living outside of mutual bliss" - to their shared fight for survival: "I thought I'd found a reason to live, just like before when I was a child/ Only to find that dreams made of sand / Would just fall apart and slip through my hands/ But the spirit of life keeps us strong / And the spirit of life is the will to carry on."
Into the Labyrinth (album, 1993)
Without an image that immediately fit the sound and vision of their sixth album, Perry again accessed the portfolios and photographic books in 4AD's art department, and found - with the help of designer Chris Bigg -an image taken by Moroccan -born, Paris-based photographer Touhami Ennadre, which he had titled Hands Of The World, of a child's hands gripping a much larger adult hand. The image linked back to Dead Can Dance's African energies, and chimed too with DCD's involvement in Ron Fricke's 1992 documentary Baraka, a profound study that spanned continents for its startling portrait of natural events, human intervention and the impact on humankind: 'The Host Of Seraphim' was used for the image of people searching for recyclable material on a massive garbage site. But Perry was thinking in his own inimitable way.
"Into The Labyrinth echoed Minoan culture [a civilization on Crete and other Aegean islands between the third and first centuries BC), and the mythic King Minos and of the Minotaur in the labyrinth that held it. I saw the lines on the hand almost like lines of a labyrinth, a life journey. As you grow older, the lines develop, which is a simple, strong image. Also, in the photograph, the little child's hand was almost being drawn into the darkness of the labyrinth."
Copyright issues meant that, for this reissue, new artwork was originated, a computer-generated pattern of circles (designed and photographed by Vilija Valeisaite) that maintained a symbolic concept with the labyrinth. "We settled on something that worked as a mandala, a meditative image that would help focus the mind, and then enter into the labyrinth, which is a metaphor for the mind," said Perry.
Songtitles on Into The Labyrinth alluded to the legends of Greek mythology, such as 'Ariadne' (the daughter of Minos) and 'Emmeleia' (in ancient Greek music, emmeleia signified perfect harmony) 'Towards the Within' symbolised inner thought, at the Minotaur at the centre of the Labyrinth. 'The Spider's Stratagem' referred to the spider at the centre of the web as the Minotaur was in the Labyrinth, and Bernardo Bertolucci's film adaption of a Jorge Luis Borges short story from his book Labyrinths.
Perry and Gerrard were now living far apart, since Gerrard had returned to Australia, in the rural outskirts of the Snow River mountains in Gippsland, Victoria, with her new husband and their baby daughter. But the creative flow continued; Into The Labyrinth was a more seasoned brew of world roots fusion, and their best-selling record ever. "Everything blossomed to the point of taking on our signature shape, and the work's beautifully executed," said Gerrard. "The album opened up most doors for us too."
The biggest opening was in America. Perry's typically stately ballad 'The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove' - amazingly, Dead Can Dance's first single, triggered by 4AD's new US licensing deal with Warner Bros - was a surprise college-radio hit after being picked up by LA's influential radio station KROQ, helped by 4AD's new label licensing deal with Warner Bros, making it their first non-compilation record released in the US - "it forced us to raise our game," said Perry. Likewise, 'Yulunga' (Spirit Dance), which fused Aboriginal to Middle Eastern, percussion to drones and Gerrard's giddy mantra, was spun on National Geographic's channel for a year.
MTV was also on board after one of the station's influential programmers saw a Dead Can Dance concert, and the video for 'The Carnival is Over' - the follow-up single to 'The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove' (which Perry refused to make a video for) was shown. At the same time, said Perry, "People would find us on New Age radio too. They used us for meditation."
The album was a perfect summation of Dead Can Dance: not just the above tracks, but the quoted Ian Curtis lyrics from 'The Eternal' and 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' respectively) for 'The Carnival Is Over' and 'Tell Me About The Forest', and Bertolt Brecht's words (from his 1928 poem Die Ballade Von Den Prominenten) for 'How Fortunate the Man With None'. Gerrard took on 's 18th century Irish ballad 'The Wind That Shakes The Barley' and singing together, 'Emmeleia' recalled the duo's fondness for monastic liturgies.
Toward The Within (live album, 1993)
Promoting Into the Labyrinth, the expanded Dead Can Dance toured America, including a show at LA's historic Mayfair Theatre (which had opened in 1911 as the Santa Monica Opera House), the venue's last major event as damage sustained in the city's 1994 earthquake closed it for good.
Because it was a live record, Perry admitted he didn't have any "strong visual ID" for the record, but was happy with Chris Biggs' suggestion of Linda Connor's photograph, of two bells outside a stucco missionary station in California, taken in the early 1900s.
"As our relationship developed," Bigg recalls, "I felt I was in a position to suggest direction. I'd recently returned from a work trip to LA, and as always there, I'd visited Arcana, a fantastic book store, where I bought book of Linda Conner's work, called Solos. There was something about the 'bell' image that seemed to fit the music of the Mayflower recording, it was a moment! Brendan approved it straight away."
Perry: "The image reminded me of something from the deep south, California or Arizona, all bleached out by the sun, which linked to the venue. But I wanted to direct the attention to the listening experience, as it was a live concert, and we're pretty static on stage, it's all about the music, the within: the 'inner ear,' as they say."
Toward The Within took its name from the preceding album track, which wasn't included on the album - in fact, only four tracks of the 15 had appeared on previous albums, indicating that creativity was ever-flowing. Two ('Sanvean' and 'Gloridean' as 'Gloridin') were later re-recorded for Gerrard's first solo album, The Mirror Pool.
Spiritchaser (album, 1996)
Gerrard named The Mirror Pool after the African belief that making music brings you, "into contact with spirits from another plane," she said. "They say that this place is like a mirror of the world we live in..."
'Spirit' underpinned Dead Can Dance's world, and it gave rise to the name of their eighth album. Said Perry, "We were looking for something that excited us, looking for the spirit, hunting it down, cornering it... we had the sense of searching for something which had meaning, something where you hear the spirits talking."
Spiritchaser was rooted in, "transcendental rhythms," said Gerrard. "We wanted live, non-sequenced human percussion," Perry added. "We decided to set limitations, to work from purely rhythmical means. I've been doing a lot of percussion workshops and sessions with friends. and invariably we'd have up to 15 people playing percussion, which generated some great ideas."
Out of them sprang 'Nierika' (in the Huichol culture of Mexico, the nierika is an important ritual artefact, and a metaphysical vision, an aspect of a god or a collective ancestor) and 'Dedicacé Outò' (the latter based on a Haitian Vodun rhythm: Outo means 'spirit of the drums'). 'Song Of The Stars' (which began with words taken from an Algonquian Indian poem) was even more of a percussive trance, and sounded both Afro-Latin and Ethiopian (Perry had also been listening to a lot of Chilean and Peruvian music). Other aspects traversed the planet, from a traditional Latin melody to the sound of crickets from the Nile Gerrard's soaring arabesques suited this shift, as the Arab world occupies large swathes of Northern Africa, though Perry's stentorian ballads and symbolist poetry were noticeably absent, making way for the new rhythms, as close to the 'dance' element of their name as the duo had ever got.
Not since the mid-Eighties had Perry and Gerrard's contributions dovetailed as they did on Spiritchaser, as opposed to their increasing tendency to work in isolation. Maybe it was the result of Gerrard's solo album, or the realisation that they'd become too separated - mentally as well as physically - over the passage of time. "We found ourselves crossing each other's boundaries, and maybe doing what we know the other usually does, so it's been an important record for us," said Gerrard.
The album cover was more a collaboration too, according to Chris Bigg. "Brendan talked at length about African drums, spirits and ritual, sharing some unusual experiences in the Quivvy church studios while recording drums. I sourced a book called The Dance, Art And Ritual Of Africa, and between us, we focused on one particular image. I suggested we try to re-create it, so we tried to find a copy of the mask to give us more options, a pool of images to work with. After searching museums such as Pitt Rivers, the Horniman and the Museum of Mankind without luck, I literally stumbled on a shop in [West London's] Portobello Market that traded in African art, and on the back wall was the mask. We borrowed for the weekend, and shot it for the cover."
As Perry explained, it was a 'butterfly' mask of the Bobo tribe in Burkina Faso, used in dance ceremonies to celebrate the rain after a long period of drought, "and rain triggers butterflies to be born, and everything comes to life. The mask spans out like wings, with big eyes... It's quite Dionysian in spirit. I love what Chris and Kevin did with that cover."
Kevin Westerberg, who Bigg chose to photograph the image against a backdrop of luminous aquamarine, was a veteran of 4AD shoots. History was, in essence, part of the image, as the use of a mask harked back to DCD's debut album, which wore the Papua New Guinea mask. There was a musical link too; "A track like 'Nierika' sounds like 'Frontier', the first piece Brendan and I wrote together, around the age of 16, before we'd heard any African music," Gerrard thought. "Our music has taken on an identity of itself."
The unifying force behind the album's eight tracks was "a search for sounds which would convey a sense of animism, to try and bring elements of nature through, like birdsong and things which suggest wood, snakes, water, atmospheres," said Perry. "To look for alternatives rather than conventional uses of instrumentation, to express an animal nature rather than music that was coming from a technological background."
The album's opening sound embodied the concept: a bullroarer, a sculpted piece of wood attached to a rope that is swung over your head (which Perry sampled, and played through a keyboard). The point being, that after much cultural discussion of musical 'source', about organic versus technological, 'original' versus 'sampled', there is no distinction or boundaries; essentially, there is no difference. What matters is the spirit.
Dead Can Dance: 1981-1998 (compilation boxset, 1998)
Spiritchaser had closed with 'Devorzhum', an invented word by Gerrard, "a lullaby for the sleeping spirit," she explained, after her brother had died. But the spirit that had carried Perry and Gerrard wasn't so much sleeping as waning by the time they reconvened to make the follow-up to Spiritchaser in 1997. "We've always endeavoured to make every album sound unique in its own way," said Perry. "But the need to explore new territory put its own stresses and strains on it. After Spiritchaser, when we started to lose direction, and out of frustration we turned on each other. We drifted apart."
4AD's first stopgap release was a magnificent boxset, on which Perry worked with Graham Wood of the design agency Tomato, who came with an austere white box, and inside a booklet of photos and text bound by thick grey card, the antithesis of Spiritchaser's colour saturations. "Graham was an old friend, and a long-term supporter of Dead Can Dance, and diversify is always healthy," said Perry. "I loved the industrial quality of the package, like a carton, the inverse of an iconic cover. And I loved the concept, of Graham going back and creating a photographic journey of all the places that were backgrounds to our childhoods, in Melbourne and London, but never with people, so it had this haunted nostalgia."
Wake (compilation, 2003)
By 2003, Perry had released his debut album Eye Of The Hunter, and worked on the occasional soundtrack while Gerrard had embraced both mediums, with film soundtracks, among them Heat, Gladiator and Whale Rider, and 1998's Duality album, co-credited to (Australian composer and instrumentalist) Pieter Burke. No Dead Can Dance album was forthcoming and 4AD marked their absence again with the double compilation Wake. The landscape image, of a sun setting over water, was almost non-descript in its simplicity, but it had the requisite symbolism: "By that point," said Perry, "we thought we'd come to the end of the journey, so we called it Wake, for something deceased, with a setting sun."
Anastasis (album - 2012)
But in 2005, the pair decided to try again, but though there was an extensive tour, the incentive to record a new album was still lacking, so it was put on the backburner until calendars could again be synchronised - not so easy given their locations. But seven years further on, they released the album Anastasis, pointedly named after the Greek word for 'resurrection', their first album in 16 years. The cover image was a field of sunflowers, ripened, then blackened by the sun, standing with sad, slightly crowned heads; less dead than dormant, the heads and stems will one day be chopped, but then via the roots, will return. With a triumphant world tour through 2013, the duo rediscovered their muse on stage as well. Though Gerrard's health issues (non-life-threatening, but impacting on her voice), and time and distance have forced the duo to put their work on hold again, there is no reason why the journey won't continue again soon. After all, those sunflowers return season after season; their spirit rekindled and their soul regenerated, won't do exactly the same thing. The seemingly dead will dance again.