The Tapes Your Mother Laid Out For You: Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance 1984 Self Titled Album Cover

Dead Can Dance is an avant-garde musical group formed in Melbourne, Australia in 1981. The band had two vocalists and primary contributors, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry. Together they combined a hodgepodge of musical styles and instruments to create a truly novel listening experience.

Listening to Dead Can Dance is honestly a unique experience and the band’s self-titled debut is no exception. Some reviewers have called it goth rock. Others post-punk. Even more bizarre terms like ethnic fusion, ethereal wave and dream pop have been used to describe it.

The first song, “The Fatal Impact,” carries the guise of a field recording with tribal chants and what you’d almost swear are some sort of tabla-like drums. However, hints of warping and chopping lead one to suspect masterful tape-loop work built around samples fished from the bottomless pond of human experience. The percussion and synth noises are steady and repeated but facilitated by tones, whirs and hums that make the experience nearly mesmerizing.

Tracks like “The Trial” certainly hold true to the goth rock standard. First of all, it’s guitar-driven. On some songs one would be hard pressed to tell whether or not there actually is guitar because it blends so seamlessly into the atmospheric quality of the tracks themselves. That’s particularly true for Gerrard’s tracks. On “The Trial,” you’ll remember the riffs. This could easily be a song written by The Cure or The Sisters of Mercy. It’s just as catchy, dark and moody as either of those groups’ work, with the same broad, sorrowful sort of vocals. The tracks with Perry singing seem to follow this pattern and resemble traditional rock songs more so than Gerrard’s. It provides an interesting balance for an album that might otherwise have been confined to a shelf with cacaphonic funny business one might expect from Yoko Ono.

Again, other tracks like “Frontier” sound like field recordings straight out of the sub-Saharan, with eerily ritualistic female vocals. There are spurts of clear, English thought, but much of it is apparently non-linguistic. The best song on the album is “Ocean,” and a body would be taxed to quote a single lyric from it even though there’s singing throughout. The good money is on “Isabella / Isabella / is dead / is dead,” but that’s purely conjecture.

At times the listener may notice a tinny sort-of echoing sound, particularly in some of the songs that use tribal-like percussive sounds. This is completely forgivable.

If one might disagree, the final song, “Musica Eternal,” features absolutely no percussion, choosing instead to highlight Gerrard’s vocals. Treat yourself to it. Her vocal tracks easily outshine Perry’s often-predictable delivery. It’s a shame for his sake. He’s actually a legitimately talented vocalist. A listen to “A Passange in Time” will show off his capability and range. It’s his best on the album.


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