by Alissa Ordabai
– Senior Columnist —
October 26, 2012 The Royal Albert Hall, London, United Kingdom —
Six years between tours and sixteen years between albums is enough for a whole generation of fans to start forgetting that peculiar scent of bombast mixed with frailty Dead Can Dance have been wearing throughout their career. But this show at the Albert Hall brought all of it back – the ostentatious, but at the same time pitilessly cold vocal gestures of Lisa Gerrard, which make your heart freeze and your mind lift up, the nonchalance with which they engage in cultural appropriation – from Arabic vocal mannerisms, to their use of ethnic instruments – and the easy-to-digest interpretations they give to traditional music. DCD may be a dubious pleasure for connoisseurs of Eastern cultures, but for a wider audience they remain a stunning, bewildering mixture of things that are as remote as possible from everyday realities, and the immediately accessible presentation.
The main focus throughout the evening stayed on Gerrard’s rich contralto – the main draw of this act, which would still have been the case even if the band’s songwriting or instrumental chops where more advanced. DCD’s layered sound and lavish arrangements make up for their somewhat limited instrumental technique, but it’s precisely this combination of carefully constructed soundscapes and Gerrard’s voice which cuts right through them that brings it all in focus.
On the one hand it is quite staggering how cold and impersonal Gerrard sounds even during the most dynamic songs, but you soon realise that what she conveys isn’t about her own triumphs or tragedies, but transmission of things that are eternal and archetypal. Her purpose is to tap into the collective consciousness instead of conveying her personal realities. And maybe it’s this refusal to operate on the ordinary human plane that leads to the band’s inability to write truly great melodies. But songwriting is not their main goal, and at times their communication with the primeval is so convincing (as it was during “Nierika” this evening) that you begin to realise how inappropriate it is to apply average pop band requirements to Dead Can Dance.
But as if to add even more variety to the proceedings, high points tonight where interlaced with low points. One of the latter was “Opium” from the new record Anastasis. Sung by Brendan Perry, it carried a whiff of boredom, failing to arrive at the depths or subtleties of the melancholy it aimed to portray. Maybe it’s because Perry can be a casual vocalist at times, or simply because the weak melody didn’t carry out the initial promise of a soundtrack to self-obsession. But you have to be a true obsessive to convey obsession, or a true narcissist to find beauty in it, and Perry isn’t quite either of those things.
An hour-and-a-half of the main set, and then three (that’s right, three) encores, however, spoke volumes if not of narcissism, then of how the band structures its shows these days for maximum PR effect. But perhaps they needed to hear the sold-out Albert Hall go nuts in between their re-appearances on stage to get pumped and hit their highest point. “Dreams Made Flesh” during the first encore became the apex of the show. Going beyond her usual emotional range Gerrard – without any rollbacks – assumed what in ancient times has been the role of a priestess, tapping right into the depth of the twilight world between the conscious and the unconscious.
A revelatory moment, it showed that Dead Can Dance deserve all the kudos on today’s popular music scene simply for not faltering in the face of the shadow. And at this point their songwriting, their various – and often superficial – cultural appropriations, and their striving for accessibility cease to matter. What matters is their courage in the face of the unknown.
1. Children of the Sun
5. Lamma Bada
11. The Host of Seraphim
12. Ime Prezakias
13. Now We Are Free
14. All in Good Time
15. The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove
16. Dreams Made Flesh
17. Song to the Siren (Tim Buckley cover)
18. Return of the She-King
19. Rising of the Moon