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Class ?

Main Category: Mood Music
Also applicable: Art Rock, Mope Rock, Psychedelia
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



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Year Of Release: 1984
Overall rating =

Mucky production, boring guitars, and too little Lisa for my tastes.


Track listing: 1) The Fatal Impact; 2) The Trial; 3) Frontier; 4) Fortune; 5) Ocean; 6) East Of Eden; 7) Threshold; 8) A Passage In Time; 9) Wild In The Woods; 10) Musica Eternal; [BONUS TRACKS:] 11) Carnival Of Light; 12) In Power We Entrust The Love Advocated; 13) The Arcane; 14) Flowers Of The Sea.

Well, it looks like the dead's ability to dance ain't an inborn ability! Hah hah hah. As Igor of Quest for Glory's fame would say, "little graveyard humour there". No, forget that. Quoting PC games, even legendary ones, is in bad taste. What I really mean to say is that this album, for all its strengths and discoveries, is boring to the teeth - and these days I don't use the word "boring" too often, because occasional stray Rangers unfamiliar with the concept of freedom of speech tend to find it slanderous and bombard my E-mailbox with white powder. But no white powder is going to prevent me from speaking the truth when it comes to the debut album by 4AD Gods Dead Can Dance. It is boring.

It essentially looks as if with this kind of stuff, Lisa Gerrard and Brendon Perry were way too eager to kiss Ivo Watts-Russell's avantgardist ass or something, because Dead Can Dance sounds exactly like the Cocteau Twins' debut album, only worse. And since by 1984 the Twins themselves had already taken the "otherworldly atmosphere" music to its absolute peak, I just don't see any reason why anybody should be interested in this thing. You got the Twins, you got Joy Division, you got early Eighties' Cure - well, okay, if that's exactly your dime (noodle noodle noodle fuckin'-depressed noodle noodle dark creepy shadowy whatsoever noodle bdoing), I guess you'll be fascinated by this debut as well. Sorry if I sound harsh or rude or assholish, it's just that right now I happen to be reviewing a whole string of those depressed/evil/dark albums in a row and it's starting to piss me off. Didn't anybody really need some sunshine pop in the Eighties, goddammit? Or did Madonna and Cyndi Lauper fuck the sunshine pop market up that badly?

Okay, sorry for getting rather off topic. There's ten songs on this album, and only maybe one or two seem "salvageable" to me. Musically, it's all simple and probably effective. Like the Twins, they have no drummer, so the rhythm is punctuated with thin wimpy machines. This is a minus for both bands; but when I listen to an album like Treasure, I never really pay attention to whatever is happening on the drumming front because I'm too busy falling in love with the amazing guitar sound. The guitar sound here is anything but amazing, though. Perry's infatuation with all things medieval is still in its baby stage; most of the "upbeat" tunes are rather generic New Wave rockers based on flashy art-punkish drones which just don't happen to be interesting. Guitar tones range from substandard chainsaw buzz to even more substandard run-of-the-mill Eighties' metal guitar (think Trevor Rabin and the like), colourless and yawn-inducing. Occasionally, there may be some keyboard additions to beef up the sound, but mostly it's all guitar-driven, and the realization of this sad fact makes things even more morose.

What's even worse, Lisa has a surprisingly slight role on the record, singing lead on less than half the tunes; and while Perry's voice is nice and pleasant, it doesn't leave any memorable aftertaste. He tries to be stern and solemn, but all I hear is a ten times less convincing imitation of Ian Curtis - that kind of style, anyway. That said, as much as I respect Ms Gerrard, on this album she is - in general - way too hot about imitating Liz Fraser, so if we excuse the Fraser-isms, there's no moral right for us to condemn the Curtis-isms. If Sonic Youth were somewhere around, they would have told them to Kill Yr Idols, I suppose, but they were busy quartering music boundaries on the other side of the Atlantic, meaning the process of creative growth for the Dead would have to be natural.

And then the last drop - the production just flat out sucks, no ifs or buts about it. There are some potentially interesting melodies on here, but for some reason what you really always hear is the bass and the drum machine, and everything else is pushed so far away into the background it almost becomes harder to locate it than the Iraqis' chemical weapons. Obviously, this also reflects faithful imitation of the Cocteau Twins' recording techniques, but there's two crucial differences to deal with: a) the Twins never made the mistake of burying the vocals deep in the mix - here, it sounds like both Lisa and Perry spend most of their time trying to grope their way up from underneath all the instrument avalanches; b) Robin Guthrie is a much, much more inventive and emotional guitar player than Perry - so that even if you push his guitar real down and real deep, he'll still be able to reach your conscience somehow.

As your ears slowly adjust to the muck, stimulated by your ardent love for overcoming senseless difficulties and just a pinch of masochism, something in these compositions (melody, hooks, whatever) might come to light. So far, I've mostly been (moderately) wooed over only by a couple Gerrard-dominated numbers. On 'Ocean', for instance, she absolutely and totally goes nuts in some sort of pseudo-Catholic religious ecstasy, taking lessons from Liz Fraser, yes, but already sounding far more aggressive and psychotic than Liz would ever allow herself to be. On the contrary, during the album closer 'Musica Eternal', she is being calm and detached; the song is perhaps the closest in style to proper Dead Can Dance material... wait, did I explicitly tell you that this sounds very little like the "classic" DCD sound? No? Well, 'Musica Eternal' is one of the few hints at the duo's future on here, with absolutely none of that dinky annoying drum machine crap, instead of which you have a gentle, and very-much-audible repetitive mandolin strum (I'm assuming it's mandolin? or is it actually the first appearance of Lisa's patented qin?) accompanied by Lisa's pretty sorrowful medieval chanting.

However, when it comes to 'rocking' sounds, not even the Lisa-sung 'Threshold' and 'Frontier' can really rectify the situation. Who needs her isolated chanting snippets on the latter when the whole song is overshadowed by that stupid synthesized tribal beat? And there's nothing except for that beat that still sticks with you when the song is over? 'Threshold', at least, has some cool King Crimson-ish guitar picking going on, ruined by the production, but with a modicum of catchiness. Couldn't spell even that pair of kind words for much of the rest.

But in any case, the album is maybe worth more when you have the reissue, which appends their 1985 Garden Of The Arcane Delights four-song EP at the end; kind of a transitional thing which is already loads better. 'Carnival Of Light' might again blatantly imitate the Twins, but at least you get the live, fresh, resplendent qin sound on it, and Lisa's vocals finally start weaving some kind of memorable (if totally undecipherable, again in imitation of Liz) melody. The two Perry-sung songs are no great shakes, but they're finally produced with the cottonwads picked out of the ears (listen to that vocal and that guitar... I mean, you can actually listen to that vocal and that guitar!); and 'Flowers Of The Sea' is actually a delightful little folksy romp, once again, full of qin, ethnic percussion, and ethereal beauty. Okay, scrap that last word combination - I don't want to waste my utterly banal, but high-order compliments on something that I could actually live without.

In any case, the above rating is only applicable to the reissue - the original gets nothing more than the low dog-grade of eight. No hard feelings, mate. First, you can't really hold hard feelings towards the dead (unless they happen to be the Grateful Dead), and second, the dead do have to stink a little before they get to Heaven, don't they? Heh. Little gra... oh, never mind.



Year Of Release: 1985

Oooh, maturation. Coming into one's own style, isn't that a marvel? This is still seriously derivative of the Cocteau Twins in parts, but essentially the basics of Dead Can Dance's unique style are fully established here. For one thing, the Twins didn't really dabble around much in medieval influences. Here, the very first track is 'De Profundis', basically a modernistic technophilian take on Gregorian chant, and most of the following numbers follow the medieval pattern quite closely as well. The duo also draws on a whole lot of instruments, from Lisa's qin to solemn brass and stern cellos and whatever else there is. The band's lyrical style, I guess, can be dismissed - a little bit of religious imagery, a little bit of spiritual mystique, a little bit of theological discourse, none of that really interesting - but Dead Can Dance aren't about the lyrics, they're about the sea of atmosphere. Wanna take an underwater ride with me?

I was actually pretty amazed at how more and more impressive the album sounds on subsequent listenings. Not only does the atmosphere really work throughout, it is also rich in pure melodic strength; both Lisa's adorable "glossolalia" (obviously picked up from Liz Fraser, but perfectly adapted to Lisa's own vocal potential) and Brendan Perry's more 'conventional' vocal melodies are actually pre-written and usually catchy. Actually, there's a rather clear distinction on here - the "Gerrard" side is more atmospheric and soaked in medieval Catholicism, while the "Perry" side is somewhat more pop-oriented and structured, even if it's essentially 'dark pop' music. The two sides compensate each other very well; if one was to seriously dominate over the other, Spleen And Ideal would be much more boring and hard to take. As it is, you get a surrealistic sonic journey from Lisa followed by a melodic pop song from Brendan, and so on.

I guess everybody will normally have to choose between the two when it comes to favourites - I would definitely choose Lisa's side as the more interesting one, but it's not like I'm going to piss on Perry's efforts or anything. His four "real songs" on here are all very similar, and the deep bass and deeper, even more echoey vocals give them something like a weird "Goth meets sci-fi" twist. The hooks aren't very obvious because of the same-sounding, monotonous production, but when you got 'em, you got 'em - 'it's an illuuuuuusion of life' in 'The Cardinal Sin' can easily compare with anything you're ever willing to deify on any given Robert Smith record; 'Enigma Of The Absolute' is almost impossible to describe, like a Celtic folk song that suddenly went mad and decided to become a religious hymn - its slow steady pace is so enthralling it makes you want to sway along to the song and dreamily chant 'in her saviour's arms, in her saviour's arms...' along with Brendan; 'Advent' is one hell of a Cure number never written by the Cure - gotta love that mysterious guitar riff (if it's a guitar riff) that drives the song forward, and if you really want to know, 'Advent' is Dead Can Dance at their "rockiest" on here, which means it's not gonna kick your ass but it's gonna swoop over you and subdue you if you turn it up loud enough. Listen to that bass! It grinds!

Still, no matter how prof Brendan managed to turn in less than a year's time, it's the Lisa-dominated stuff that really stands out. She now fully comes into her image - the crooning medieval siren, and if I'm allowed to make a comparison, the dark antipode to the much lighter Liz Fraser (which possibly explains why Dead Can Dance never reached the level of Cocteau Twins' popularity - they were scary! The Twins were just... goofy, I guess). Listen to her screamings and wailings on 'Avatar', for instance; by all means, this is not the kind of music you'll be listening to on a bright July morning to lighten up your day. This is late night stuff for the melancholics and dark brooding romantics, preferrably with a paranoid streak to them.

Actually, Lisa might be beating Liz Fraser in the technical department; I sure know the deep production from the depths of the underworld will be obscuring this for you, but at some point, try to see through her vocal technique in the senseless blabbering of 'Mesmerism', where she bleats, croons, drops and raises octaves as if they were gloves. Even easier it is to appreciate the spiritual chanting on 'Circumradiant Dawn'. I tell you, it's definitely not enough to sing in your local church choir if you wanna get something like those effects. Yeah, you could ask, 'that's all very well, but what about the sincerity department?', and I'd certainly answer, 'where the hell have you ever detected sincerity in Gregorian chanting?'. That's not even being debated. If you accept that kind of paradigm, you'll be able to see the beauty in Lisa's unparalleled exercises. If you don't, better steer clear of the band in the first place.

But don't you really worry - there are all those rumours that Dead Can Dance are a special esoteric kind of band that can only be appreciated by those with a background in ancient Chinese music or Palestrina, or preferrably both. This is rubbish. This is a melody-based album. Full of short, melodic songs. Yeah, so most of them should be classified as "drones", I guess, but as long as the "drone" doesn't "drone" on for eternity, it doesn't constitute an unbreakable obstacle for pop oriented people to enjoy it, not in my book, at least.


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