Dead Can Dance - Anastasis

My wife, just now: “Are you listening to monk music up there?” Close enough! Among the vampire-pop auteurs who first gave 4AD Records its signature sound, Dead Can Dance were the ones whose music sounded the most ancient and ritualistic, and that was certainly by design. The Australian duo pulled from different ancestral-music traditions from around the planet, spinning it all into a deep and heady sonic fog. Like a ton of other stuff in the ’80s and ’90s, the band often got tagged as “world music,” but that wasn’t really right at all, since it was practically impossible to trace any of their songs back to one specific culture. Instead, they brought Middle Eastern ragas and Gregorian chants and Celtic hymns and African drum-ripples into a spaced-out goth-pop sound that wasn’t ultimately too far removed from the Cure or the Cocteau Twins. Thanks to their formless swirl, the duo worked as the alternative nation’s equivalent to Enya or Clannad or something. But the songs underneath all their ancestral sound-layers had real hooks, and something like “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” sounded like a rare glimpse into the uncanny on early-’90s alt-rock radio. Now that the duo are back together and they’ve recorded their first album in 16 years, it’s remarkable how little time has done to alter their sound, and how well it still works.

After Dead Can Dance first split, Lisa Gerrard, the prettier-voiced half, did a ton of film-score work, and it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Much of the music on Anastasis sounds like it was built for one of those swooping mountain-range helicopter shots from the Lord Of The Rings movies — big, vague, immersive evocations of a Druidic pre-modern era that probably never existed. There’s no evident sense of humor or playfulness or even self-consciousness in this music; “Opium,” for instance, sure seems to be about opium, and it sounds like it was recorded specifically for somebody’s opium-den playlist. There’s nothing particularly cool about music as new-agey as this, but if you let yourself get swept up in the grandly dramatic “Kashmir”-style strings and soft-focus keyboard drones, the album does exactly what new age music is ideally supposed to do: It pulls you out of whatever you’re doing, surrounding you and mentally transporting you to some forgotten elemental moor where, say, it doesn’t matter that you’re getting to the office eight minutes late. It’s soothing.

But as grand and mystical as the entire thing may be, there’s something fun about picking out individual bits. Brendan Perry’s voice always sounded cool, and he’s aged into it admirably. Most of the time, he’s got a flatly leathery Ian Curtis baritone thing happening, but then he’ll jump an octave or two into some approximation of, like, Sufi devotional chanting, something it’s impossible to conceive of Ian Curtis ever doing. The excellently titled “Return Of The She-King” opens with a droning bagpipe refrain, and years of Pogues and Dropkick Murphys records conditioned me to expect a raucous guitar riff and a bleary gang-chant to erupt out of it. But, of course, this is a Dead Can Dance record, and Perry and Gerrard must’ve forced the drunken mob out of the studio so that they could record the zithers and wordless spectral choirs that come next. I think those are bagpipes and zithers, anyway; the group’s frequent use of synths and obscure old instruments makes it virtually impossible to guess what’s making any given noise with any real accuracy. But by the time I stop asking myself questions about these songs, they’re still there, churning away. Most of the tracks here last anywhere from six to eight minutes, which leaves you plenty of time to forget any snarky reservations and just get lost in them.

I don’t feel great about spending two straight weeks awarding Album Of The Week to long-dormant legacy acts dropping their first albums in more than a decade, but Anastasis really couldn’t have less in common with last week’s pick, Redd Kross’s snotty glam-punk throwdown Researching The Blues. And in both cases, we’re dealing with veteran groups who understand their own styles, who’ve spent decades building their own lane, and who can still tap back into that sound with levels of assurance that younger bands rarely achieve. In both cases, we’re lucky that they’re still around and that they’ve decided to dip back into the lab long enough to remind us of what they can do.

Anastasis is out now on PIAS. Stream it here.

Other albums of note out this week:
• 2 Chainz’ pretty good ascendant-rap-star victory lap Based On A T.R.U. Story.
• Nude Beach’s warmly scratchy heart-on-sleeve punk album II.
• The indie-heavy Fleetwood Mac tribute compilation Just Tell Me That You Want Me.
• The-Dream’s latest loverman-auteur R&B LP The Love, IV: Diary of a Mad Man.
• MNDR’s clubby initial offering Feed Me Diamonds.
• Dignan Porch’s ’90s-style indie LP Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen.
• Height With Friends’ homespun indie-rap LP Rock And Roll.
• Locrian’s ambient metal excursion The Clearing/The Final Epoch.
• The American digital release of Django Django’s self-titled debut.
• Kreayshawn’s probably-awaited-by-somebody debut Something ’Bout Kreay.

Comments (10)
  1. Something ‘Bout Kreay was pushed back – it isn’t coming out this week.

  2. Did The-Dream’s album actually come out? It isn’t on itunes and there is no mention of it on Dream’s website or Def Jam’s website.

  3. I don’t know much about Dead Can Dance, but here’s an excerpt from their interview on Pitchfork: speaking of her daughter and herself, Lisa Gerrard says, “I wish she had not been afflicted with this artistic soul– that she could have just been happy to meet a nice man and have kids or something. I see in her that almost innate responsibility to communicate to the deeper side of the human being.” She sounds like a poetry teacher I had as an undergrad. I dropped the class.

  4. I’ve spent quite a bit of time exploring and absorbing DCD’s vast offerings. As you mentioned, it’s not music that most consider “cool” as it occasionally verges on trite or cheesy, but when you let yourself go with them, they can take you worlds away. Great music to draw to.

    My favorite albums of theirs are probably Aion, Into the Labyrinth, and Spiritchaser, (their three most recent) all of which have a different cultural homage or flavor. Cantara, from Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, is easily my favorite song of theirs as it unleashes raw energy through the form of Gerard’s unrestrained vocals. I’m interested in spending time with this especially if they can capture some of the energy of their earlier offerings merged with steady songwriting of their latest.

  5. Irony isn’t cool — it’s the music of emotional cowards.

    I love DCD and this is a great album.

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