The return of Dead Can Dance has proved to be one of the years most exciting comeback stories. The duo of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard have been known for their exotic, otherworldly explorations of music from earlier times. With their alignment to the esteemed 4AD Records, they’re often lazily cropped together with the goth–rock scene, but their style transcends the categorization, being a hybrid of rock, medieval tradition, and world music, and their sound is lush and enticing thanks to the use of archaic––if not otherwise completely unknown—instruments of the period. Yet as renowned as their discography may be, their last two albums were middling affairs; 1996’s Spiritchaser was shockingly anodyne, sounding like generic New Age made on home computers (the band would split after its release), while 2012’s Anastasis was something of an improvement but still felt lacking. When news came out about Dionysus, uninspiring cover art and misinformation about Gerrard not having a role on the album, an unfair spectre of skepticism was raised amongst the hardcore, one that seemed likely to doom the album from the start.
Few would’ve guessed it would be their best album in 25 years.
Dionysus not only marks Dead Can Dance’s creative come back, it also finds them returning in an innovative way. Unlike every other album in their discography, Dionysus is presented as a seven part, two-act oratorio. Combining the seven pieces in this way gives Dionysus a firm and undeniable strength previous albums never had. It forces the listener to take it all in over the course of one sitting, but in so doing it draws the listener in and removes distractions. Perry has asked much from his listeners; thankfully, in return he gives them some of the most exciting and thrilling music of his career.
What makes Dionysus such an improvement over its two predecessors is that it sounds real. The drums that open the album are deep, heavy, and ominous; they instantly thrill and paint a vivid picture in the listener’s mind in such a way not seen since 1993’s Into The Labyrinth. Act I is a slow burning, 16 minute journey through an ancient landscape, replete with the sound of livestock, a chilling breeze, and the sound of villagers interacting with each other. It is ambient music in its most literal sense; it’s as if Perry has gone back in time to make field recordings of Ancient Europe.
Gerrard is largely absent from the first half, but she makes a dramatic appearance in Act II, portraying Dionysus. Her voice is at full power, and the dramatic interaction between her and Perry has never sounded better. Although divided into four parts, the second act winds itself in such a way that makes it feel much shorter than its twenty minutes would lead you to believe. Much like a Lars von Trier production, Dionysus builds up with a first half that is slow, almost glacial in pace, and then hits you with a wallop in the final half. That they are so able to cram so much into a twenty-minute suite is a testament to their brilliance and gives hope for their future.
If there’s one criticism to be had, it’s that one; you’re left breathless and wanting more. Yet in keeping things brief and to the point, Dead Can Dance deftly and effortlessly have restored the mystery and allure dimmed by their previous shortcomings. Dionysus is a welcome return to form for one of the most unique bands of our time, and it is not only one of their best albums, it’s easily one of the best albums of 2018.