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The undersold import of Dead Can Dance 

Out of the dark: Dead Can Dance

Photo courtesy of Sacks and Co.

Out of the dark: Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance formed in Melbourne, Australia in 1981, though the band's defining couple—Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard—subsequently made an early move to the United Kingdom. As heard on their self-titled 1984 debut, they were at first a pretty standard goth band—grim and romantic in the contemporary Western fashion. Its follow-up, Garden of the Arcane Delights, was a more refined if similar effort, but their second album of 1985, Spleen and Ideal, signaled a turning point toward a much grander vision.

Squaring the relatively new gothic rock culture with its old-world antecedents, that album evoked the solemn mysticism and dead-tongue flourishes of some ancient mass. The string of records that followed into the early '90s spanned both centuries and continents, pulling in packs of influences then totally foreign to rock music. Arabic phrasing, Spanish poetry, arcane Italian song structures and African drums were all given space and respect. When the records finally reached the United States thanks to an early-'90s distribution deal, they became one of the biggest factors in this country's wider acceptance of so-called world music.

The band's always distributed vocals between Perry and Gerrard. He has a dour, handsome croon, sort of like an even more serious Scott Walker. In the presence of tribal beats, he sounds like a doomed colonial, still making a point of getting up early to put on a three-piece suit before stepping out into the jungle heat. Gerrard is the more formidable vocal talent, her range and scope fully inhabiting the pair's diverse styles. She's operatic in Gaelic, convincingly hypnotized inside Eastern chants. With several octaves at her easy disposal, she can turn a wordless run of syllables into a universally understood expression of ineffable feeling.

Though Dead Can Dance aren't often name-dropped as a guiding influence for young bands, their consciously ancient sounds have recently gained an ironically contemporary feel. Acclaimed Brooklyn act Gang Gang Dance employs extended polyrhythms and Eastern flair, painting them as Dead Can Dance's most direct descendant. Lizzie Bougastos' singing is more often compared, like every other modern female singer with regal phrasing and a bit of presence, to Kate Bush. That's likely only because Gerrard has slipped multiple minds. Gang Gang Dance's exotic touches have recently trended toward lighter, more contemporary sources, like Korean pop singles, but even that restless assimilation is very much in keeping with Dead Can Dance's curatorial impulse.

More often, young bands stumble near the ground broken by Dead Can Dance without realizing they have. Filtering the ideas of multiple eras and cultures through a personal pop sensibility has become the norm in a less walled-off underground where any music ever made can be easy accessed with just a couple of correct clicks. After a seven-year hiatus that ended in 2005, Dead Can Dance returned to touring and recording. The group's 10th album, Anastasis, was released earlier this month. The timing seems right: The tribal beats that seemed so novel in the mid-'80s have become a nearly ubiquitous feature in the recent rock and electronic underground, with post-Animal Collective bands like Yeasayer and Prince Rama using the sound as casually and reverentially as Jesus and Mary Chain did Phil Spector's girl-group production.

While the specific combination of world beats and goth seriousness hasn't yet resurfaced, it seems but a matter of time before someone breaks big by splicing those two ascendant vibes. There's nothing more symptomatic of Dead Can Dance, after all, than recombinant influences.

This article appeared in print with the headline "New breeds."


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