Dead Can Dance – Anastasis (Pias/Liberator) CD REVIEW

WHEN I TRIED (and failed) to get local media interested in carrying an interview with Dead Can Dance around the release of Anastasis – the duo’s first album in 16 years – one magazine professional replied: “A bit too too-too for us, I’m afraid.” Although I wasn’t totally clear what “a bit too too-too” meant, I could see his point.
Back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Dead Can Dance were so cool that they were playlisted on 95bFM, and that was when bFM was still too cool for school, too. But after their heady concoction of world and ancient musics was draped all over the film Baraka, and one half of the group, Lisa Gerrard, went on to create lush incidental music for movies like Gladiator, the group suddenly seemed overripe, almost Mumsy. Now, instead of global magic and the mystery of the middle ages, Dead Can Dance conjured up images of background music at introductory yoga courses for the distressed bodies of the middle-aged.
While DCD have clearly lost their allure in the eyes of the tastemakers and trendsetters of conventional media, their body of work still resonates. It’s true that with any artwork that sets out to cast a spell, a certain willingness to suspend disbelief is necessary in the audience, so the listener has to be willing to (WARNING: HOARY OLD CLICHÉ COMING UP] embark on the journey, and submit him or herself to the heady evocations.
Anastasis (a Greek word meaning ‘resurrection’) doesn’t quite live up to the promise made by their last album, Spiritchaser (1996), but with the long gap between the two, that was never going to be the case. Where that earlier album sounded genuinely integrated between the two, hugely different yet similarly talented artists, this reunion sounds like two people who have grown apart, and are now willing themselves to combine, but who can’t quite find the right balance. It’s not surprising: most of their work was made when Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard were lovers, while these days they live in different parts of the globe.
It may lack the sense of inner coherence of their best work, but Anastasis is still full of remarkable moments, and many of those belong to Perry, whose songs here are intrinsically mournful and apocalyptic (in a similar sense to those on the latest Killing Joke album) and often sound like they’re riffing on some of the saddest moments on Joy Division’s Closer. But where Ian Curtis was preparing for death, Perry is just as concerned with renewal, and when he starts banging on about how “We are the children of the sun/There’s room for everyone/Sunflowers in our hair”, his voice soaring, I’m caught, helpless in his pagan-hippy embrace. It’s an immense, dark, brooding, powerful sound, and a great way to open the album.
‘Anabasis’, on the other hand, boasts a Middle Eastern flavour, and Gerrard somehow combines her ‘medieval nun’ voice with that of a belly dancing diva, to great effect. The following song, ‘Agape’, heads to North Africa for a more tribal, rhythmically-oriented piece.
On ‘Amnesia’, Perry is back in Curtis lament mode in a song about humanity’s seeming need to continue to waste young lives in unnecessary wars, and on ‘Opium’, he lends his depressive croon to a piece about addiction.
There are a couple of variations to DCD’s usual style: ‘Kiko’ starts out with Greek flavours, but soon becomes a lumbering symphonic beast that is a little like ‘progressive’ without the ‘rock’. There’s even a (sort of) guitar solo. And ‘Return Of The She-King’ comes over all Gerrard-cinematic, but unusually, Perry shares some of the vocal duties.
The album bows out with a Perry piece, ‘All In Good Time’, that while packed with sadness, is also deliciously dreamy and introspective and tender, and even intimates a little hope for the world.
Anastasis is a pretty good reunion album, but there are flaws. There’s a sense that at times, buttons are pushed where back in the ‘90s organic things called “real musical instruments” would have been plucked, scraped or massaged. This “virtual” orchestration worked to Perry’s advantage on his last solo album, but DCD benefits from the duality between organic and synthetic, and here (as above) the balance isn’t always quite right.
It’s also not produced/engineered/mastered (take your pick) to quite the same impeccable standard as their later albums, or even that of Perry’s two solo works. Whether this is a direct result of the duo’s defection from 4AD – the label they released all their previous work on – to Pias is a question that may never get answered. It’s not that it sounds bad, just that it’s not quite as rich or as detailed as we’ve been led to expect, and is a little toppy in places. GARY STEEL
Music = 4/5
Sound = 4/5

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