Dead Can Dance
Perth Concert Hall
When your music draws from inspirations as diverse as Gaelic folk, classical Arabic song and Gregorian chant, it's not easy to be placed into one neat category.
Put the name Dead Can Dance into Google, for example, and you'll get everything from "neoclassical gothic" and "apocalyptic folk" to "New Age world fusion" and "ambient darkwave". None of which adequately describes this remarkable band, fronted by a woman - Lisa Gerrard - now regarded as one of the world's finest vocalists.
Over the decades since its inception, Dead Can Dance - principally comprising of Gerrard and fellow vocalist and instrumentalist Brendan Perry - has ranged over numerous styles and influences, very few of which can be said to be related to conventional pop.
Their music is by turns sombre and uplifting, majestic, otherworldly, and haunting; music journalist Ned Raggett has described the feel of their albums as "a consciously medieval European sound . . . like it was recorded in an immense cathedral".
Forming in Melbourne in 1981, Gerrard and Perry moved to London the following year. Their earliest albums, Dead Can Dance (1984), Spleen and Ideal (1985), and Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (1987), were loved by the same gothic enthusiasts who listened to fellow 4AD record label-mates This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins and the Wolfgang Press.
Throughout the 1990s, the band released a series of critically acclaimed albums (Aion, 1990; Into the Labyrinth, 1993; Toward the Within, 1994) which eventually shook off the restrictive "gothic" tag and moved into the area of ambient and world music, drawing on African percussive rhythms, the elaborate ornamentation and half-tones of classical Arabic singing, and various other global musical traditions.
Like Cocteau Twins singer Liz Fraser, Gerrard also drew on her own unique idioglossia, a constructed language that was intended to convey mood rather than specific meaning.
Live concerts were, by all accounts, transcendental experiences. But after releasing Spiritchaser (1996), the group disbanded, and Gerrard moved on to recording solo albums and scoring music for films.
She won a Golden Globe award for the soundtrack to Ridley Scott's Gladiator; other notable credits include the New Zealand film Whale Rider, Mission: Impossible II, Balibo and Oranges and Sunshine. Gerrard's music also appears in director and cinematographer Ron Fricke's companion-piece films Baraka (1992), and Samsara (which opened on Boxing Day), two dialogue-free panoramic travelogues ranging from the Buddhist temples of Laos to the factory floors of Japan.
Now, Gerrard and Perry are back together as Dead Can Dance, touring to sell-out audiences around the world in support of a new album, Anastasis, after a 16-year recording hiatus. Not that time appears to have wearied them. PopMatters music editor Arnold Pan wrote recently: "Sixteen years may have elapsed between Anastasis and Dead Can Dance's last full-length (album), but there's an eternal and elemental quality to the Aussie duo's music that feels like it transcends time . . . it's hard to believe Gerrard and Perry haven't collaborated in such a long time, especially in the light of how easily they settle back into their give-and-take arrangements."
For PIAF director Jonathan Holloway, having this legendary group perform at the 2013 Festival is a real coup and, as a self-professed fan of the 4AD oeuvre, something of a dream come true. It's Dead Can Dance's first Australian tour in two decades, and Holloway is expecting a magical night.
"For me, Lisa Gerrard and Liz Fraser from Cocteau Twins are really the two defining voices of their time," Holloway says. "Gerrard's voice is just extraordinary. The much-vaunted phrase to describe them is as a kind of 'cathedral of noise'. It's ethereal and uplifting; there's a symphonic scale to it, but at the same time it's got a real kind of edge to it. I think the fact that their influences are so broad makes them really interesting. They're a difficult band to describe, but what I can say with certainty is that we're thrilled to be putting them into the Perth Concert Hall - the venue suits the scale of what they do."
Holloway insists Dead Can Dance is worth seeing even if you're not familiar with the music. Festivals, he says, are the perfect time to take a "leap of faith" and discover something new.
"There's a generational awareness of Dead Can Dance, and the people who know them love their work," he says. "But even if you don't know them, go on the grounds that they'll be here and then they'll be gone, and you might kick yourself later for not having seen it. I think Dead Can Dance is going to be one of those events."