If I remember correctly, I first discovered Dead Can Dance through the Lonely Is An Eyesore 4AD compilation album. They had two tracks on the compilation. The first was a track called Frontier. What a eye opener that track was! Partly classical, but with a tribal percussion running all the way through. I was transfixed with the liner notes saying that the main percussive instrument that Lisa Gerrard bangs away on, was a water drum of some kind, and they struggled to get a full recording from it in one go as the water just kept leaking out of the drum due to the aggressive nature of being belted for three minutes by Lisa.
I had never heard anything like it before.
The second track and the compilations closing track, was called The Protagonist. This was a slow 9 minute droning piece that slowly built up a momentum from near nothing to a barrage of what sounded like brass instruments. This track I wasn’t so sure about. I had come across this kind of slow build up repetitive atmosphere style on a couple of albums from my earlier youth. There is a track on Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene and another on Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn that did a similar thing. They built up layers slowly on a repetitive loop. I also heard a similar thing in classical music, such as Saturn The Bringer of Old Age from Gustav Holst’s The Planet Suite. As a youngster I didn’t appreciate these kinds of pieces as much as I should have. I was always tempted to skip over them. Of course, this was the impatience of youth. I learned to appreciate them much more as I grew older.
So for a while Dead Can Dance took a slow burn with me. I bought a Clan of Xymox album called Medusa around 1988 and got heavily into that. I bought the first Dead Can Dance album in 1989. This was the debut album from 1985. This wasn’t an album that I just got straight into. I was discovering so much music at the time that the album got lost in the collection for a short while.
I was getting heavily into the Goth scene at the time, a scene which was becoming more transfixed with the rock element of itself than it’s punk foundations. I was more fascinated by it’s experimental punk origins than where the scene was by the early ‘90’s. To my amazement, in a high street newspaper and magazine shop in 1990, was a book called “Gothic Rock” by Mick Mercer. Goth was so underground at this time that to see an A4 size book on the high street was a shock. It was a fascinating book, full of interviews with Goths in the UK, fanzines and most of all a full ten year history of Goth bands.
Within these hallowed pages was a surprisingly small section for Cocteau Twins. If I remember correctly they were roughly described as pretenders of Dead Can Dance. This was a shock. I had picked up the Blue Bell Knoll album a little earlier and loved the sound, but was shocked at this opinion. Cocteau Twins had been releasing music from 1982 under 4AD and yet Dead Can Dance hadn’t released their debut EP until 1984. I assumed, if anything Dead Can Dance were the pretenders. The debut Dead Can Dance album was a little early 80’s obvious in it’s style on a quick listen, and without study seemed nothing groundbreaking at all.
Then in 1990 the Album Aion came out, which I bought not knowing what to expect. This time I was more determined to give it a bit more time and patience than the debut album I had only passively listened to. Aion was a world away from the debut album, so far away that I wondered if this was the same band at all. Medieval sounding, baroque with unusual instruments and powerful and yet what some at the time may have said, bordering on cheesy keyboard pad sounds. This album was going to take a bit of work to understand. But over the next year I really found the power it held, and realized it’s incredible beauty. During this time I also found out that Dead Can Dance had been together since 1980 writing music and preceded Cocteau Twins by a small margin. I also found out how unhappy Brendan Perry was with the production of the Dead Can Dance debut album and how it didn’t properly capture the band at the time.
So maybe Cocteau Twins were the young pretenders?
After “getting” what Dead Can Dance were all about, I started picking up every album they had done and were releasing. I went over the debut album again, afresh. Along with Aion, this is my favorite Dead Can Dance album now. It is quite different from the rest, but unique and powerful. I
find it a shame that the debut album seems to have become a work of slight embarrassment to them. They never play anything live from this album either as Dead Can Dance or separately. I think this album rings loudly with the Goth tag, which every band of this era has tried desperately to drop.
Dead Can Dance toured in 1990. I was right in the middle of personal crisis at the time and couldn’t go and see them, which I regret deeply. I never saw them live while the band were still together. It wasn’t until 2005 when they briefly got back together to do a tour that I got the rare opportunity to see them live. Seeing them live was an incredible experience, an experience you feel that you are deeply sharing with the rest of the audience. The atmosphere was one of awe, appreciation and respect.
However, a couple of years later, I had the privilege of seeing Lisa Gerrard live and that was an experience on an even greater level. From the very start, the atmosphere in the theatre was not like anything I had experienced before. A spiritual power came from stage that enveloped the whole audience. You could practically see an aura of light passing from person to person. By the end of the first song everyone in the audience was nearly in tears, and by the end of the performance, many were. I have been to hundreds of bands, ranging from Death metal to classical, yet I have never had an experience like that before or since. I’m not really a hippy dreamy tree hugger, but I know this description makes me sound like one. The whole performance and mutual love and respect from my fellow audience members made the evening an experience I will never forget.
The news from the Lisa Gerrard camp is that Dead Can Dance are reforming in 2012 to do an album together and tour. I would strongly advise anyone reading this post to keep an eye out for them and see them when they tour, otherwise get your hands on a copy of Aion or Dead Can Dance and open your senses to a world of beauty