Time for the Irish musical diaspora to bring out the Dead
WE KNOW too much about the Irish musical diaspora. We could all write PhD theses on the Irish heritage of Oasis, The Smiths, Dexys, John Lydon, Bananarama (everyone always forgets them), Culture Club and hundreds of others. British music just wouldn’t be the same without all those Mahers and O’Dowds – not forgetting Mary Bernadette O’Brien (aka Dusty Springfield).
The one band which has mysteriously, and somewhat irritatingly, never make it onto the list are perhaps one of the finest ever. Dead Can Dance may be an Australian/New Zealand duo, but Brendan Perry is the son of a Cavan woman and Lisa Gerrard the daughter of a Meath man.
Granted, Dead Can Dance are the least Irish-sounding band of the diaspora, but dig down deep enough and you’ll hear straight-up Irish trad arrangements and inflections (however skewed and distorted) in their work.
Possessors of one of the most ineffable sounds in music today, Dead Can Dance do big and beautiful music. Perry and Gerrard came of musical age during the white heat of the punk/new wave era, but they have travelled further than almost anyone in the development and sophistication of their sound.
Medieval plainsong, traditional Persian rhythms, post-rock and neo-classical are just some of the readily identifiable nodes in their work. They make Sigur Rós (who are indebted to them) sound like Westlife.
In much the same way as an act such as The Blue Nile can release some of the most subtly sublime music and yet still – for the most part – fly in under the mainstream radar, Dead Can Dance are, for many, a private passion. They are one of those rare bands you would go the full box-set nine yards with.
Claimed, at various times in their almost 30-year recording career, by both the Goth community and world music aficionados, the band have
always retained a noble idealism about their work – which has allowed them to jauntily shrug off the reductiveness of being described as “a soundtrack band”.
When I spoke to Perry the other week, he mentioned how, while “as a punk musician I had learned the necessary three chords”, he later went on to considerably expand his musical palette. “Magazine, Wire and PiL were influences before we tuned into what Can and all those seminal Kraut-rock bands were doing,” he said.
The Goths weren’t letting go of Dead Can Dance, though. “It was a tag we had from the first few albums,” said Perry. “I distinctly remember doing this gig in Vienna in the 1980s which was held in a converted abattoir. The audience seemed to be a cult of what looked like Satanists, all standing there in these black cowl capes. And they were chanting!”
The next great leap in their sound was inspired by what Perry calls a “fascination with church music”. “It was the solemnity and the ceremonial of the music. Baroque and Bach were also important for us”.
With a new album just out ( Anastasis), the duo will soon set out on a mini-world tour that doesn’t just stop off in the usual places (New York, London, Paris, Berlin) but also takes in, as a testament to the span of their appeal, Beirut and Istanbul. And in a nod to their Irish background – and the fact Perry has been a long-time resident of Cavan – the tour finishes up in Dublin with a date at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on October 28th.
If you’ve yet to be initiated, start your journey at Anastasis and work backwards. It really doesn’t get much better than Dead Can Dance.
Dead good: Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry