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Dead Can Dance - Dionysus Music Album Reviews

Pairing a world’s worth of traditional instruments with widescreen gestures, the legendary duo explore the myth of a Greek god in an unknown tongue.

Is music now too small for the long-running duo of Dead Can Dance? Are we really meant to enjoy their grandiose statements via tinny white earbuds rather than earth-quaking sound systems? And how will their forthcoming tour fare its medium-sized concert halls, rather than the Roman amphitheaters such enormous music deserves? At least Dionysus—the band’s ninth album and first since 2012—is the rare record that took two years of research and recording to make and actually sounds like it needed every one of those 730 days. Its epic proportions suggest a work chipped out of marble.

Since forming in Melbourne, Australia, in 1981, Dead Can Dance have shown the kind of towering ambition that has given them purchase in goth-rock circles and among filmmakers looking for windswept gravitas. By 1993, their reputation was so strong they could put out Into the Labyrinth, an album of classical legend and global folk, and sell half-a-million copies. Even by Dead Can Dance’s own outsized standards, though, Dionysus is an album of radical ambition, a work of scholarly pursuit and musical depth that explores European folk traditions, the boundaries of language, and Latin American bird calls. A two-act record representing “different facets of the Dionysus myth and his cult,” it is divided across seven tracks, each meant to share a new phase of the god’s saga. During the first piece alone, “Sea Borne,” Brendan Perry turns his hand to instruments including the shrill zourna, the haunting gadulka, and the creeping sustain of the bowed psaltery; he eventually employs everything from the gong to the gaida (a bagpipe from Southeastern Europe) to weave together this rich sound.

Perry and singer Lisa Gerrard have long been uninhibited in the search for musical inspiration, borrowing everything from Gregorian chant to Middle Eastern progressions. But whereas their last album, 2012’s Anastasis, was at least tethered by Perry’s cavernous rock vocal to some sense of pop, Dionysus has no such space. During Act 1, scattered voices provide texture rather than melodic leads, while the vocals on Act 2 tracks “The Mountain” and “Psychopomp,” where Perry and Gerrard duet, are rendered in an invented tongue that she once called “the language of the Heart.” The effect is one of primal emotion unencumbered by the baggage of words, so feeling eclipses thought.

For a band blessed with one of the most exquisite singers in rock, rivaled in dramatic range and enigmatic tone only by the likes of Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, this might feel like a waste. But Dionysus compensates with its widescreen sound, a towering musical synthesis that is unafraid to pair the Brazilian berimbau with the Russian balalaika on “Dance of the Bacchantes” or the Bulgarian gadulka with Aztec flutes on “Liberator of Minds.” Likewise, the sampled voices form a patchwork quilt of global influence, ranging from a North African souq to an Andean ritual, all supported by field recordings of a Swiss goatherd and Mexican bird calls. “World music” is a rightly pilloried term that broadly ghettoizes non-Western musicians. But Dionysus aims to reclaim it, defying simple geographical origin in search of a pan-national synthesis that has its roots everywhere and its home nowhere.

You could live off these magnificent textures alone, though Dionysus webs them around rousing melodies. The tempestuous string line on “Sea Borne” plays against a pattering zither, like blustery wind against a storm’s first tentative drops of rain. The gorgeous vocal interplay on “The Mountain” hinges on eternally rousing harmonies that linger somewhere between benevolence and threat; the sound wordlessly scores the fear of god. Best of all, though, is “The Invocation,” where a heartbreaking choral lament meets a strutting beat from the Iranian daf and the Turkish davul drums, emphasizing the “Dance” of Dead Can Dance.

Moments like these lift Dionysus way above the dusty academic exercise that a two-act reflection on the cult of a Greek god could be. That the album addresses such lofty concepts is admirable. That it does so in a work of visceral, accessible music that rewards surface listening and prolonged exploration is doubly so. This is music of grandeur and grand humanity.

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