It would be cheap to make resurrection puns about the return of Dead Can Dance so we’ll give them a miss. It’s safe to say though that the Australian duo’s first album since 1996 is eagerly awaited. Fans of the portentous won’t be disappointed by the melange of melancholy vocals and grand sound clashes that make up Anastasis.
While most Dead Can Dance followers will be eager to hear Lisa Gerrard’s mesmerising voice on new songs, the record finds vocal duties more evenly split between her and musical partner, Brendan Perry, than on most of the pair’s earlier recordings. They have very different sounds; Gerrard’s voice flits around the octaves, a flexible, beguiling beast while Perry’s baritone is brooding and intense.
Another execrable cliche in the critic’s arsenal is that damn phrase “acquired taste” but in the case of Dead Can Dance, it’s rather appropriate. Listening to Anastasis it’s hard not to oscillate between feeling that it’s utterly pretentious and revelling in the band’s willingness to create wondrous soundscapes that are only tangentially related to even the mainstream of the alternative to the mainstream. Listening to Dead Can Dance for too long does that too you, knotting your brain up like a rubber-band ball.
On the opening track, Children Of The Sun, Perry sounds like an old-fashioned crooner turned cult leader amping up for the blood sacrifices with an strings and quietly marshall drums keeping time behind him. The lyrics heighten that feeling – “We are ancient/as ancient as the sun/we came from the ocean, once our ancestral home…” – sounding like incantations.
Anabasis features burbles in the background that almost recall the sound of a rainforest, with plucked strings and processed claps swirling over them before what sounds like an electronic harp begins to pick out the melody. There is a distinctly Eastern flavour to the track which intensifies as Gerrard begins to warble and moan, half call to prayer, half ghostly opera singer on a sunken cruise ship.
The next track Agape finds cellos and violins swelling up and then falling back before metronomic drums come in and are joined by more Eastern sounds and Gerrard’s haunting vocal, unsettling as footsteps on a grave. While the lyrics are not discernible and may even simply be wails and sighs, the song feels dragged from a different time, an overheard echo tumbling from the past.
Amnesia continues the pattern established by the previous two songs but with a foreboding piano part plodding through the centre of the track. Perry almost recalls Nick Cave or Tindersticks at their glummest with his vocal, a heavy melancholy dragging it heels through the six-and-a-half minute long song. Again it is the strings that are so arresting, almost magisterial in their quiet dominance.
Let the record run on to Kiko and Opium and that feeling of suppressed sadness continues. The pace remains slow and steady, the sure-footed trudge of a pall bearer. The only levity possible is in noting that, at times, Perry can sound like Bane, turned from dispensing terror, to singing his grievances to Gotham.
The Return Of The She-King has a ghostly but oddly epic quality that fits with the grandiosity of the title, more sweeping strings and deliberate, stoic drums. It’s followed by the album’s concluding track, the appropriately-titled All In Good Time which brings the record to a slow conclusion, Perry half-talking, half-singing to what sounds like a love one who has moved on.
Anastasis is certainly an accomplished record and one that fits well within Dead Can Dance’s output, but it is a hard listen. That’s not because it is at any point sonically abrasive but more because, despite moments of beauty, it’s a little monotonous. There’s clearly a palette of sounds and textures being put to work very deliberately, but that makes for quite a soporific and self-indulgent experience. The voices and the playing are wonderful but the record stumbles too frequently into pretentiousness.