First Impressions: Dead Can Dance Dionysus

As a veteran entertainment journalist, I know that one’s thoughts about art can mutate. Long after you write a review, you might love something more (or less) depending upon how it wears on you over time. With that in mind, I thought I’d try a different approach and serve up comments on a forthcoming release after a few listens. It will be interesting to re-read this a few months down the line!

Release date: November 2, 2018

1. I’ve been listening to Dead Can Dance for 30 years, and their music has certainly gone through an interesting evolution — from their post-punk beginnings to the goth and medieval flavors of their ’80s catalog followed later by the world music brew of 1996’s Spiritchaser — culminating in this latest release. Their first new album in six years, Dionysus combines different eras of their canon.

2. Dead Can Dance albums have often been split between songs featuring Lisa Gerrard’s soaring, otherworldly glossolalia (wordless singing) and Brendan Perry’s Sinatra-like crooning in English. Like Spiritchaser before it, Dionysus jettisons that approach, here favoring Gerrard’s style along with Perry singing in what sounds like an Arabic dialect in parts of Act II. I like the change.

3. Dionysus is an oratorio in two movements, with three sections in Act I and four in Act II. It should be fun to watch them perform it in concert with a full group, although I wonder if they will perform this during the first part of the show, then bring in the “hits” for the latter part?

4. The album’s strength lies in the moody atmospheres it creates throughout; some more ethereal, others more groove-driven. This is gorgeous sounding music.

5. It is interesting to note that Perry played all of the instruments on the album, while Gerrard sings on different parts of Act II. You would think this release would more likely be billed as a Perry solo effort with Gerrard guesting (but obviously it would not receive nearly as much attention). That said, this sounds like a Dead Can Dance album.

6. Perry has assembled an impressive collection of exotic instrumentation for Dionysus — stringed instruments including the Gadulka, Balalaika, and Saz; wind instruments like the Fujara, Pivana, and Aztec flutes; and percussion such as the Davul and Daf.

7. I assumed after my first decade of listening to DCD that Gerrard brought in the stronger rhythmic elements (in light of some of the tracks from her 1996 collaboration with Pieter Bourke entitled Duality) and that Perry was more of the folk-rock guy. But upon to delving into many of Gerrard’s subsequent works — everything from Whale Rider (2003) and The Silver Tree (2006) to this year’s The Trial Of Genghis Khan film soundtrack (2018), it is clear that she likes to sculpt haunting soundscapes over a lush bed of ambient sound. It turns out that Perry, whose second solo album Ark (2010) is driven by stronger rhythms, is the one that likes to rock out with the percussion. And when they collaborate, DCD is distinctly different than their solo works.

8. The one aspect that admittedly bugs me about Dead Can Dance is how they build some songs build on a basic rhythm or melodic idea and then stack other parts atop that — their use of rhythm on strings or synths tends to stick to steady 8th and sometimes 16th notes. The use of syncopation comes more through their use of hand percussion and wind instruments, with the vocals flowing over all of it. I’d prefer more syncopation overall on some tracks, especially given their influences.

9. If you really dig the vibe of Dionysus (and I do), it will fly by. At 36 minutes, it might seem short to people used to longer albums today, but when I was growing up you were happy to get a solid 35-40 minutes of great music, which was the length of many early DCD releases. Better than 50 or 60 minutes with less quality control, right?

10. That old cliché rings true: It’s better to leave them wanting more than to overstay your welcome. I’m glad we have Dionysus, even as I demand more music from this dynamic duo.

Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard in 2018.

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