It was 1990, and I was 16 years old and discovering more strange and delightful sounds than I could ever have dreamt existed. Despite growing up in a small English village, I could just about tune into an intriguing radio show from France, if I tilted my stereo the right angle under my bedcovers (it was broadcast after I was supposed to be asleep...) Then a new boy dressed in black joined my small sixth form class, at last! someone with the same arcane tastes. An intensive exchange of C90 cassette tapes ensued, and in amongst the gothic rock and 4AD back catalogue was the holy grail - 'Dead Can Dance', the eponymous first album by a band that went onto encompass world, mediaeval, soundtrack, and neoclassical sounds to name but few in a seemingly unending quest for beauty.
From the first moment, this (still) sounds like nothing I have ever heard. A sound like a tidal wave fills your ears; then there is some kind of otherworldly howl before the music kicks in - drums/percussion, bass, guitar, and some kind of unidentifiable voice. Yes somehow not a single one of these standard elements sounds like anything that is familiar...the rhythm sounds almost off-kilter (although it is not), the wordless indescribable voices send a shiver up your spine, and there are no reference points. It is unusual to hear an album begin with an instrumental - and 'The Fatal Impact' is as foreboding as the name implies.
But there is no time to absorb this impression, as 'The Trial' begins immediately afterwards - a faster pace, another unusual yet mesmerising rhythm, another yearning wordless voice, but at last the familiar anchor of vocals and lyrics, albeit low and distant: 'All my senses rebel...' Brendan Perry's narrative (which due to the low vocal mixing, I am still partially deciphering 25 years later) is married with a claustrophobic and insistent bass-driven melody - and that is the key word here, because there is nothing in this album that is not melodic. Even the drums/percussion and the reverb transcend their traditional boundaries to add to this whirlpool of melody that makes repeated listenings of this album still a voyage of discovery. The lyrics appear to be inspired by the eponymous Kafka novel: 'Deliver me from these feverish eyes / That threaten to unbalance my state of mind / For I must confess only to the smallest of crimes / A sense of guilt...' The last line is repeated as a ghostly choir subtlely adds to the song's anxious climax, ominously hinting at the fate of the protagonist.
I hesitate to use the same adjectives, but if these two songs weren't otherwordly enough, 'Frontier' takes the word to a whole new level. We are introduced to Lisa Gerrard's haunting and mostly wordless vocals, weaving in and out of percussion sounds and rhythms that I've never heard before or since, with only a stark and haunting cello/vocal merging as accompaniment (at least that's what it sounds like; it is quite magical for me as a musician used to analysing each sound to still not be sure exactly what I am listening to...) We can eventually decipher some of Gerrard's words, but they bring us no relief from the building dread that the music climaxes towards: 'I stare at the bloodstains on the floor...'
'Fortune' brings some relief from the intensity built so far, as we return to Perry's words and vocals - 'how easily we seem to forgive and forget...' But the intricacy of the percussive and melodic interplay makes this no less an intriguing prospect - and the refrain of 'fortune smiles upon our heads' is somehow not a superficial respite.
'Ocean' maintains some calm, or at least a more ethereal prospect, as Gerrard's submerged yet anxious vocals return with an almost uplifting guitar/bass counterpoint throughout. As with all the songs on this album but perhaps more apparent on this one, the instrumental elements themselves are so simple - but ingenious interweaving makes jewels of them all.
'East of Eden' is also one of the gentler tracks on the album, at least musically. The instruments find an almost playful way to coil around each other, driven as ever by the inventive percussion - but lyrically, darker stories continue to unfurl: 'I was told this in a distant land where tortured souls have to fight together in anguish / And the scenes of the show are of a cruel and violent nature / Scenes of pain and cruelty are there to be seen / The arena, the town, the place was set / For all to watch and see'. It sometimes sounds like this is an allegory for a painful relationship - 'Scenes of pain and cruelty are there to be seen / All the while I should have known / It was you killing me.' But since learning of Perry's interest in Middle East affairs, now I hear this track in a new sad and prophetic light: 'Somewhere east of Eden / The designs will never change.' This was written in the late 70s/early 80s.
'Threshold' is the only track that sounds like anyone else, to my ears - the influence of Joy Division (which is also apparent on other tracks, although less obviously) is inescapable. But Gerrard's yearning vocals and the oceanic sounds swelling throughout the song make what initially seems a post-punk workout so much more complex - to the extent that it haunts you, and you have to go back and work out why - again and again...
To my ears, everything that has gone before builds up to 'A Passage in Time' - my favourite track to this day. Perry seems to be evoking some kind of Odyssean quest: 'Until we return, paradise interred / Spread your golden wings, let the sails unfurl'. Another allegorical adventure, soundtracked by musicians transcending boundaries with their instruments once again - but the almost ecstatic sense of optimism is ripped away halfway through the song as reality kicks in, musically and lyrically: 'Opportunity's doors did not open wide / The answers remain locked away inside'. But time and faith prevail, and again the revelation unfurls in an exquisite marriage of music and words, but not one without warning: 'In truth we had found the key / But its application would unravel this mystery.'
'Wild in the Woods' with its whimsical waltz is like a musical balm on the soul, and lyrically less mystical - although typically of Perry, certainly not about to compromise reality: 'Wild in the woods of love / We harm those whom we adore / And contrary to all good intentions / We suffocate them in an alarming embrace.' Who does not recognise themselves in this harsh assessment of the nature of need? But musically, this is one of the most expansive and languid tracks on the album - a resignation rather than a judgement, with a message of hope: 'All is hidden in hidden meanings / All can be learned from within / We're all brothers and sisters in spirit.' The hammer dulcimer which subtlely comes to the fore at the end of this track is the only instrument in the swooningly haunting closer, 'Musica Eternal', as Gerrard brings down the curtain, simply and beautifully.
The quality of the cassette recording I first heard was dreadful, possibly a 4th or 5th generation copy, completely speeded up - but even that couldn't disguise how incredible these songs were. I was also reading the 'Gormenghast' trilogy for the first time which became my favourite book, and discovering the two together ranks without doubt as one of the most exquisite and formative experiences of my life.
This is a very detailed way to expand upon an influence, but it is truly the only way to honour an album that has remained a treasure throughout my life - somehow (and unlike any other), free of nostalgia. It is of its time, but still sounds unique and timeless. It has indirectly influenced much of what I have done musically throughout the years - whether as a drummer, bassist, guitarist, keyboardist, composer, producer, or lyricist - and if I am capable of creating anything a fraction as evocative and meaningful as any of these tracks, I will consider my life a success!
~ Caroline Jago, Seventh Harmonic / Shadow Biosphere / Sol Invictus
Categories: DUSK MEMORIES