Dead Can Dance - Biography
Vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry formed Dead Can Dance in Australia in 1981, before relocating to England. There, they signed with iconic indie label 4AD. Melding the gothic tones of post-punk to classical and world music, the duo recorded seven studio albums before parting ways in 1998. Although their albums never led to great commercial success, Dead Can Dance's artistry won them critical praise and a loyal fan base.
Brendan Perry was born on June 30, 1959 in Whitechapel, London, England. By 1977, his family had moved to Auckland, New Zealand. Using the name Ronnie Recent, he played bass in the punk band The Scavengers. The group relocated to Melbourne, Australia in 1979, changed their name to The Marching Girls, and promoted Perry to lead singer. He left in 1980, took up guitar, and began experimenting with tape loops and synthesizers.
Melbourne native Lisa Gerrard was born on April 12, 1961, the daughter of Irish immigrants. She grew up in the Prahran suburb, where she was exposed to the area's ethnically diverse population. Having seen Brendan Perry perform, she teamed up with him, as well as ex-Marching Girls drummer Simon Monroe and bassist Paul Erickson, to form Dead Can Dance in 1981. Gerrard and Perry worked in a Lebanese restaurant together, saving money to escape from the limiting Australian music scene. The two also became romantically involved. In 1982, the band (minus Monroe) moved to London.
Once they'd reached their new home base, they enlisted drummer Peter Ulrich for early gigs and demo recordings. These resulted in the group signing with 4AD in 1983. Three years prior, Ivo Watts-Russell had formed the indie label, which had become known for albums by goth kings Bauhaus, Nick Cave-led post-punkers The Birthday Party, and dreampop group Cocteau Twins. Also in 1983, Erickson returned to Australia and was replaced by Scott Roger, who played with the band during their appearance on John Peel's radio show in November.
The following year, they issued their debut LP, Dead Can Dance (1984 4AD). The New Guinean ritual mask on the album cover symbolized the group's interest in ethnic music, but the majority of the music leaned much more heavily toward the standard trappings of goth rock and post-punk: thin drums, wiry electric guitars, and heaps of reverb. Although their debut album didn't display a great distinction from the rest of the crowd, it announced the arrival of Perry's haunted croon and Gerrard's Middle Eastern-sounding glossolalia (like Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Frasier, Gerrard's vocals generally bore no literal meaning). That same year, Dead Can Dance also issued their Garden of the Arcane Delights EP (1984 4AD) and contributed to It'll End in Tears (1984 4AD), the wondrous debut by This Mortal Coil, a 4AD collective.
Dead Can Dance released their sophomore album the following year. The group's identity was fully formed by the time of Spleen and Ideal (1985 4AD), which marked a quantum leap forward. No longer sounding like a rock group of any kind, Dead Can Dance celebrated the Middle Ages with foreboding horns, intonations of Gregorian chant, and strings, evoking classical music more so than pop. Like its predecessor, the album was released only in the UK, and no single was released to promote the album. This would remain the trend for the next three LPs.
Two years later, Dead Can Dance released their third full-length, Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (1987 4AD). Considered one of their best albums, Brendan Perry's songwriting skills had sharpened considerably by this point, as exemplified on standout tracks such as "Anywhere Out of the World" and "Xavier." The sound of the album is even more steeped in a medieval tonal palette than Spleen and Ideal, and the the band (which featured trombone, trumpet, timpani, and a string quartet) created deeper, more authentic sounds. On "Cantara," for instance, harpsichord arpeggios meet Gerrard's wordless chanting.
Dead Can Dance's fourth album, The Serpent's Egg (1988 4AD), arrived a year later. The group mostly de-emphasized the dramatic tendencies of their earlier work in favor of a dreamy, ambient, corpuscular vibe. Only the Perry-sung "In the Kingdom of the Blind the One-Eyed Are Kings" builds to any kind of emotional crescendo. On "Echolalia," Lisa Gerrard's vocals are more akin to the Bulgarian singing style made popular at the time thanks to the reissue of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (1987 Nonesuch). The strongest tracks are those that bookend The Serpent's Egg: Gerrard's expansive "The Host of Seraphim" and Perry's closer, the undulating (and misspelled) "Ullyses." The LP marked the completion of the group's medieval period, as well as the end of Perry and Gerrard's romantic coupling. Fortunately, they would remain together professionally for a while still.
Dead Can Dance's fifth album, Aion (1990 4AD), found the duo turning toward the music of the Renaissance. Not only did the sounds of that era inspire their original material, but the band also adapted two period pieces, "Saltarello" from the 14th century and "The Song of the Sibyl" from the 16th. Guest musicians added strings to "The Promised Womb," bagpipes to "As the Bell Rings the Maypole Spins," and spots of vocals and keyboards to a few others. Mostly, though, Gerrard and Perry revived the spirit of the Renaissance on their own, creating their warmest most lively album to date.
The following year, Dead Can Dance finally arrived on American shores. Having built a good-sized following in the US, despite their music being available only on import, the newly arrived alternative music scene was ready for a compilation of Dead Can Dance's best music to date, which is exactly what they got with, A Passage in Time (1991 Rykodisc). The disc's assemblers cherry-picked the group's finest, eschewing a balanced representation of all their albums in favor of offering the very best of Dead Can Dance. Despite ignoring the band's 1984 output, A Passage in Time represents the duo's range, from the relatively sunny "Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book" to the turbulent and rousing "Cantara." Also present were two new tracks, Brendan Perry's pop-structured "Spirit" and the lost-in-the-Amazon cut, "Bird" (which features samples of what sounds like a plurality of birds). During this time, Lisa Gerrard moved back to Australia with a new husband and child, while Brendan Perry moved to Ireland and set up a recording studio at Quivvy Church, where their next two records would be set to tape.
Having primed the pump with A Passage in Time, American audiences were more than ready for Dead Can Dance's sixth full-length, which arrived two years later. Into the Labyrinth (1993 4AD) received widespread US distribution, thanks to a deal 4AD had made with Warner Brothers. The new record lived up to its anticipation, too. Despite the vast geographic separation between Perry and Gerrard, they managed to create an album that is simultaneously cohesive and varied. They brought forth the feel of all their earlier works, while still moving forward. Opening track "Yulunga" features the duo's most authentic-sounding ethnic percussion to date, while Gerrard's vocals are more otherworldly than ever. The second track, Perry's "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove," brought them considerable airtime on US alternative radio.
If not exactly ubiquitous, Dead Can Dance had built a name for themselves in America. This led to a tour of theatres across the country. Though Gerrard and Perry had recorded Into the Labyrinth without any guest musicians, they toured with a full band. This exciting road show was captured to tape and resulted in the group's sole live album, Toward the Within (1994 4AD). Shrewdly, the release was more than a "greatest hits live" experience, offering mostly new tunes, including "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," a 17th century poem, which Sinead O'Connor had also recently set to music.
Dead Can Dance's leanings toward ethnic sounds came to the forefront on their seventh and final studio album, Spiritchaser (1996 4AD). With an emphasis on syncopated rhythms played on hand drums, Perry and Gerard shifted the central focus of their sound from classical to world music. "Song of the Stars," for instance, is built predominantly on an insistent tribal backbeat, a shaker, a Hawaiian sounding guitar line, and the commingling vocals of Perry and Gerrard. With its melancholic melody and Spanish guitar figure, "Song of the Dispossesed" resembles a Cuban son, but with a middle section straight out of the Middle Ages. One track, "Indus," resembled "Within You Without You," George Harrison's sitar song from The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967 Capitol). Though unintentional, Harrison was granted a co-writing credit.
Lisa Gerrard had begun her solo career a year earlier, with the lovely and haunting Mirror Pool (1995 4AD). In 1997, she teamed up with composer and percussionist Pieter Bourke to record more new material. By the time their album, The Duality (1998 4AD), was released, Dead Can Dance had decided to disband. One year later, Brendan Perry released his first and, thus far, only solo album, the more song-oriented and nearly percussion-free Eye of the Hunter (1999 4AD). As of summer 2008, he was rumored to be working on a follow-up. Lisa Gerrard has issued a steady stream of releases, including a second teaming with Bourke, collaborations with composer Patrick Cassidy, and the soundtrack to the 2003 film Whale Rider (2003 4AD).
Dead Can Dance's legacy has, if anything, been heightened since they broke up. This century has seen three compilations of their work. Dead Can Dance: 1981-1998 (2001 4AD) consolidated the best of their output onto three CDs, plus a DVD of videos. In addition to older rarities such as demos and Peel Show takes, the set included their final recording, 1998's "The Lotus Eaters," recorded just before they called it quits. A mere two years later, Wake (2003 4AD) refined Dead Can Dance's greatest down to two CDs and a total of 26 tracks. Another two years after that, American audiences were offered the single-disc Memento (2005 Rhino), a 15-cut career sampler that was less than satisfying and failed to replace 1991's A Passage in Time, despite including songs from the group's '90s albums. Of greater importance in 2005, Perry and Gerrard reunited for a series of 31 Dead Can Dance shows in Europe and the US, each of which was recorded and released just after show's completion, serving as double-disc souvenirs for the fans in attendance. Whether these shows were one last hurrah or the beginning of new endeavors for Dead Can Dance, the duo's body of work is among the most enigmatic and compelling in all of music.