Music Reviews

Dead Can Dance Dionysus

(PIAS Recordings) Rating - 8/10

And now for something completely different. Dead Can Dance is another group new to this writer but one familiar across the decades to scores of listeners, with a strong body of truly unique work to their name. I'm not sure what I was expecting on putting the record on this week but it's fair to say it wasn't Dionysus. Immediately it becomes obvious I have to re-imagine any preconceived structure to building a review. Dead Can Dance are not a group that works to verse/ chorus structures, nor one that uses words as their strong suit. This is world-building: creating huge evocative spaces of sound that, to these ears, speak of a world thousands of years before us.

There are two movements of music here – each bring different moods and character to bear that create a three-dimensional listening experience. The first pieces in Act I, Sea Borne and Liberator of Minds, set out with patterns that recur throughout; propulsive, churning percussion set to weaving, top line stringed melodies with the cascading vocals of Lisa Gerrard framing the mood. In each, the repetitious melodies gradually dim to sound effect-laden outros, an effect used to full effect throughout the music – the junction here is the sound of a shoreline and creaking timbers.

Dance of the Bacchantes, the closing segment of Act I, takes the listener away immediately to Ancient Greece, as deep bowed sounds, hand-claps, tremolo plucked instruments and hollering, tribal vocals build this imagined landscape effectively. As is often the case, I plunge into the music scarcely looking at so much as the title of an album, and it seems that conjured atmosphere was very efficiently portrayed here - Dionysus being the Ancient Greek god of wine, and the image in the album booklet of an emaciated coliseum from the region further confirmation they've captured the mood of the music.

Act II contains much the same almost mythological musical husk, the first piece of which, The Mountain, reeks of atmosphere, with a long, low synth heralding a mournful, wind melody line that sounds as if it's being played on the edge of a dusty outcrop of rock overlooking the Aegean. As to those recurring sound effect outros, this piece has the glorious prospect of thirty seconds of bleating goats and wind chimes. You might not unreasonably doubt that the dulcet tones of a goat would work set to music, but they do here. Conversely, the last piece of this unwinding narrative, Psychopomp, is a beautifully quiet coda, with the effect of rustling leaves book-ending a lilting percussive loop and the most subdued two-note melody underpinning it, male and female vocals in a lost language creating melodic layers back and forth. The atmosphere created is comparable to contemplative reflection in a temple of worship.

Dionysus is hypnotic, involving and skillful narration, and particularly refreshing to hear when so much music now is inseparable in its basic components to the next track in the playlist. For existing fans of the group, it should come as a rewarding and affirming release; for those of us new to the group, it should act as a little reminder that there are plenty of ways to tell a story through music.