Back in the day, Dead Can Dance straddled a nether world, twixt the glum faced, bristle-barnetted Goths of the day, and the arty, world music aficionados. They were a kind of stygian, dervishing Cocteau Twins, Ali Farka Toure for 18 hole doc wearers. It helped that they were on darkly hip record label 4AD, home to, at various times, Bauhaus, This Mortal Coil and fellow antipodeans The Birthday Party. Always marked out by the ying-yang quality of the two vocalists, Brendan Perry and the incomparable Lisa Gerrard, they released eight records and called it day in 1996. Now they’re back, with their first new material in 16 years. It’s happened almost without fanfare, and in many ways it’s as if they’ve never been away. They’ve picked up the reins as if they were never put down in the first place.
We are ancient, Brendan Perry intones, perhaps as a little sniggering aside, on the opening track ‘Children Of The Sun’, which starts with swells of strings that are instantly recognisable. Booming bass and drums kick in, augmented by a sparking trumpet section that’s something akin to an ancient Assyrian Stax section. It’s an assured, almost laidback reintroduction. ‘Anabasis’, the second tune, is a Gerrard number, and sets the tone. They swap leads from one song to another, only really crossing paths once, on ‘Return of the She King’, where they syncopate around each other like a days gone by. Perry’s marvellously soulful voice is as straight as an arrow, holding the notes with immense confidence, Lisa Gerrard is the golden thread woven throughout. One of the beauties of her voice is that we never know what she’s saying.
The middle-eastern inflections of ‘Agape’ and ‘Amnesia’ sound like a familiar taxi ride around a desert locked city somewhere, down treacherous, tiny streets, avoiding donkeys and toothless merchants, Nazis making off with the Arc of the Covenant in the background. It could almost lapse into parody, where it not so beautifully rendered. Throughout, it sounds magnificent, less claustrophobic than back in their early days, but everything else is more or less as you would expect; the array of instruments that I cannot name (a parrouk, a nimblet, a concichube?) and swells of strings, Gerrard’s soaring voice.
That Anastasis fits effortlessly into their canon could be the greatest compliment I can pay them, or the faintest praise. It’s immediately a DCD album, not least because they’ve created a genre of their own, one that they’ve now apparently honed into a fine, sweeping art. However, this isn’t the pinnacle of their work, that was achieved many years ago (personally, it has to be The Serpent and The Egg), more the supremely produced apex of the craft. It’s as if Dead Can Dance are using Dead Can Dance as a reference point, rather than the ancient melodies that they used to plunder, and the melodies they have, they’ve placed within gilded casings, ornate, but unsurprising, gritless. The trademark hypnotic beats and tribal rhythms have been slowed down. Percussion is not as it used to be, an equal, but rather a supporting character.
‘Opium’ sounds like Insides-era Orbital, dance music for the ancients, slowed down a tad, and it ends with the mournful lullaby of ‘All In Good Time’, a kind of Perry-standard. The Perry numbers have a huge solemn architecture to them. They are expansive landscapes, the camera swooping over them like an eagle or like a montage in the (yet to made, but certainly must) Lord of The Rings Christmas Special. The Gerrard numbers by contrast are darker, more elemental, they’re aphotic hallways and flicking bonfires, dodgy fakirs with ill advice, snakes in baskets, the wailing conscience to the Perry bluster. Pretty much as you would have expected from a DCD album twenty years ago. Clearly this is more than mere chance, if, after a decade and a half, they can reconvene and spin their own particular yarn again with such consummate ease. There’s nothing new here, that is to say nothing that’s happened in the last couple of millennia, never mind the previous 16 years, and that will no doubt be a pleasing, comforting boon to all who mourned the passing of DCD. They’re back, and they’re the same, unweathered by age or bothered by innovation. Whether or not that’s entirely marvellous depends on where you stood in the first place. A comfortable return.