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Dead Can Dance, "Anastasis"

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cover imageDead Can Dance released a string of unique and wonderful albums during their prime, but I absolutely loathed 1996's Spiritchaser, so their break-up in its wake seemed like a fine artistic decision to me.  I never expected them to ever record new material again, as Lisa Gerrard seemed to be doing quite well on her own as a soundtrack composer and lives on a completely different continent than the comparatively dormant Brendan Perry, and yet...here we are.  As I expected, the reunited duo do not quite recapture the magic of classics like The Serpent's Egg, but there are still some glimpses of it amidst this oft-perplexing effort.

[PIAS] America

Anastasis - Dead Can Dance

It is very easy to forget how radical, visionary, and impossibly cool Dead Can Dance were at their peak in the late '80s.  I thought I had pretty adventurous taste as a teenager (Sonic Youth, Skinny Puppy, extreme metal, etc.), but my first exposure to Gerrard and Perry's work left me utterly bewildered.  I simply could not process that two people could be so aggressively out of time and out of fashion, yet sound so captivating doing it.  They were certainly the only band that I had ever heard that embraced an ethno-medieval aesthetic, but their genius and idiosyncrasy went much deeper than that: Brendan Perry resembled an anachronistic goth Frank Sinatra and Lisa Gerrard sounded like the high priestess in some kind of ancient cult.  It was almost impossible for me to wrap my mind around the fact that Lisa and Brendan were actual people who were alive at the same time as me (and in roughly the same cultural environment).  And, of course, their songs were often great.  I was in love.

Many of the elements that I loved back then return for Anastasis, but something is definitely off in a fundamental way.  That is painfully apparent within the first few minutes of the opener, "Children of the Sun."  Not as far off as the self-parodying New Age/Native American dance party aesthetic of Spiritchaser, perhaps, yet off in a way that is much harder to understand.  I had envisioned myriad ways for a new Dead Can Dance album to disappoint me, but I never entertained the possibility that they would attempt to sound contemporary or artificial.  Unfortunately, that is exactly what they did, as "Children" is built upon a very "now" groove and is rife with obvious synth textures and faux-sounding strings and horns.  That seems completely counter to the band's entire raison d'être.  Also, it is unspeakably depressing to think of Perry and Gerrard composing an album with computers and synthesizers.

Without bizarre, organic instrumentation and an otherworldly, ritualistic atmosphere, there is not much about "Children of the Sun" that is distinctly "Dead Can Dance" other than Brendan's vocals, which sound as deep and soulful as ever.  Unfortunately, the words that he has chosen to soulfully sing are sometimes wince-inducingly bad ("We are children of the sun, our journey's just begun, sunflowers in our haaaaaaaaair").  That is pure drivel and he made it the goddamn chorus of the song (and it does not sound any more profound when sung).  I do not understand what happened, as he has clearly shown himself to be capable of writing wonderfully enigmatic and richly metaphoric lyrics in the past.  He knows better than to rhyme every line and be incredibly prosaic and literal.

I do not know why I kept listening past the first song, but things thankfully got quite a lot better with the Gerrard-sung "Anabasis," which is largely indistinguishable from Dead Can Dance at their best (the piano in the outro being one of the only divergences).  "Agape" follows a similar path with similar success, but augments its Middle Eastern strings with an attempt at a sexy groove which arguably works.  Unfortunately, it is followed by another egregious misfire: Perry's "Amnesia."  This time the lyrics and vocals mostly meet my approval, but the instrumentation is pretty much that of a rock band (piano, drum kit, bass) with some gloomy synth coloration added.  Instrumentally, it resembles a somewhat plodding Cure song.  That is unacceptable for Dead Can Dance.  Also, the piano riff at the beginning amusingly reminds me of Double's "The Captain of Her Heart."  That cannot be a good thing.

The remaining four songs continue the odd trajectory of the album's first half, alternating strong pieces with more dubious ones.  Mathematically, that is not bad: half of Anastasis is quite good and can be arguably celebrated as a return to form (somewhat).  The mystery and sheer otherness are gone, but that was probably inevitable (they are victims of their own influence, after all).  And they are no longer a vital creative force, opting to augment and enhance their previous stylistic ground rather than go somewhere bold.

There are also some significant (but neutral) changes that are apparent to people like me who cannot stop deconstructing things (tendency towards "epic" song structures, increased density, very professional and "cinematic" use of strings), but the key thing is that Lisa and Brendan demonstrate that they can still conjure up some great, distinctive melodies.  Unfortunately, the album's less successful moments are bad enough to derail the album...for me, anyway.  Regardless, I am very curious to see if Dead Can Dance's newly homogenized sound draws a new generation of fans (the NPR set?).  After all, Spiritchaser was a significant success.  If so, this could be the beginning of a fruitful second act (but one that is probably not for me).

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Last Updated on Sunday, 19 August 2012 22:40  


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